Custom Residential

5 Principles For A Sustainable Custom Home

Continuing our blog series on Custom homes, here we discuss our approach to designing sustainable custom homes.

Our team focuses on designing high-performance homes, from small ADUs and Urban Infill Houses, to mountain cabins and luxurious vacation homes. Regardless of the location or size of the project, we feel that incorporating sustainable design features is imperative to address climate change, reduce waste, and create healthy, comfortable, and inspiring spaces. Here are some of the principles that we abide by throughout the design process in order to create the best sustainable architecture for our clients:

  1. Site Orientation
    The first step is to look for passive design strategies to reduce energy use and respond to the natural surroundings. Finding the ideal location for the building on each site can have a dramatic impact on the performance of the future home, and doesn’t add any cost to the project. We look to maintain trees and other significant features on the site, orient our designs in a way to easily control sunlight and heat penetration into our homes, and mold the form of each house to take advantage of views and indoor-outdoor connections. We also consider access to utilities, driveways, and accessibility as we site the house on the property.

  2. Mechanical Systems
    Each home is serviced by a range of building systems to keep the home comfortable and functional. This includes plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, ventilation, security, and even smart home systems to name a few. As we move from schematic design into design development we have conversations with our clients about these technical aspects of a home and what each family’s needs and priorities are. We then look to specify the most efficient systems possible within a client’s budget. Experience has led us to understand which technologies and products can lead to a High Performance home, cutting down on energy and water use, while creating comfortable indoor environments. Incorporating efficient active systems works hand in hand with the site orientation and other passive strategies that can reduce the need for some mechanical systems, and make those that are needed as optimally designed as we can. We often engage consultants to help us work through the technical aspect of each system, and recommend products that can compliment the design intent and work seamlessly with the architectural expression of each project.

  3. Materiality
    In our opinion, materiality is what makes great architecture. The selection of what a building is made from, and the expression of these materials and finishes (both interior and exterior) has a dramatic impact on the enjoyment of space as well as the sustainability of the project as a whole. To achieve our sustainability goals, we look to the lifecycle costs of materials and aim to make decisions that lead to long-lasting durability, low embodied energy, and local sourcing. This includes focusing on natural materials that age gracefully, have low or no toxic ingredients, low VOC emissions, and are or can be recycled or reused. This often leads to tough conversations and decisions where we are balancing up-front costs to hit project budgets with long-term thinking about future maintenance and replacement costs. By balancing current decisions with a long-term viewpoint we are able to guide our clients to find the right balance and ultimately create a more sustainable building.

  4. Healthy Design
    When people think of sustainability often it is in the context of the environment and the impact buildings have on climate change. Although that is vitally important and something we do consider with each project, we try to take it one step further, and consider how our buildings can impact the health and well being of those living in and using our buildings on a day-to-day basis. Natural light and views into nature have been shown to improve health and productivity and support our natural circadian rhythms. Toxicity in indoor materials can have direct impact on health and agitate conditions such as asthma. Spaces that have too much humidity or are too dry can lead to mold growth or skin irritation which also impacts the health of those who inhabit the spaces. It is important to consider how the design decisions and material selections can positively or negatively impact the people who live in our buildings.

  5. Energy Production
    This is another stereotypical image when people think about sustainability - solar panels, wind turbines, and other active renewable energy systems. On many of our projects we discuss with our clients whether these are a good fit for their project location and whether those systems will fit within the budget. If so, we design the form accordingly to make the systems as effective as possible. Orienting the roofs to the right direction and angling them to the appropriate slope can increase the efficiency of solar panel production. Understanding solar angles, potential shade from nearby buildings or trees, and other factors will impact the design and efficiency of active systems, so it is important to carefully analyze and consider this early on in the design process.

These five principles are just the beginning of designing a sustainable project. With each client we discuss these and a range of other decisions that are made throughout the design process that can affect sustainability. We also believe that it isn’t as simple as just a checklist of items. Taking a holistic approach to each project is how we are able to make the biggest impact.

If you are looking for more information on designing and building a custom home, check out this page with additional resources:

Custom House Construction Update!

We just wanted to share a few photos of our Courtyard House design which is progressing well through construction. The Courtyard House is a single story, 2,200 sf, 3 bedroom & 3 bath custom designed home. The house includes a guest suite and also has a 525 sf detached carport.

Just recently the floor to ceiling windows were installed which is wonderful to see after all of the planning and details. Thanks to iBuildPDX who is building our design. #letsdothis

More on this project here.

Two upcoming Portland Modern Home and ADU Tours in June!

There are two upcoming Portland Home Tours during the month of June with our Wedge ADU featured.

  • 2019 Portland Modern Home Tour

The first tour is the 2019 Portland Modern Home Tour on Saturday, June 1st from 11:00 AM - 05:00 PM. There is a total of 8 homes to see on this day!! More details here:

Meet the architects, see the homes, get great ideas, GET INSPIRED!

Come meet Propel designer Nick Mira who will be on site during this time to share some project background and inspiration for this design. Use the link below to purchase a $5 discounted ticket:

  • June 2019 ADU Tour

The second tour is the 6th Annual ADU Tour on Saturday, June 22nd from 11:00 AM - 04:00 PM. There is a total of 17 ADUs on this tour!!! More details here:

Tickets can be purchased here:

The Wedge ADU

The Wedge ADU

Why We Build Luxury Custom Homes in Portland, Oregon

Propel Studio’s goal is to deliver inspiring and beautiful homes for our clients. As local custom home architects, we are inspired by the beauty of the context in which we design, respond to the unique lifestyles and needs of our clients, and pride ourselves on creating luxurious spaces to live in that are timeless in their beauty and enhance the experience of their inhabitants.


For us, the beauty of each of our projects lives in the materials and the details. We always strive to celebrate the inherent beauty in high quality materials. Quality, durability, and high-performance is what we consider when designing and selecting finishes, fixtures and other materials for each project. We look to the life-cycle costs as we design, balancing the upfront budget with the ongoing cost of energy, water use and maintenance. This is how we define a true luxury home.

Propel Studio starts each design by understanding the context in which the house will be built. Our goal is to make each project unique to the landscape and the environment it lives in. Being in the Pacific Northwest means we are constantly designing to address the unique aspects of our climate and weather patterns.


This includes addressing the winter rains, the moderate springs and falls, the beautiful (although sometimes hot) summers, and of course the beautiful light that changes with each season. We design the envelope (exterior walls and roof) of each project to be high-performance, addressing the need for insulation, shedding water, shading the summer sun, and standing up to the elements all while creating a comfortable and efficient indoor environment.

We also look for ways to connect home interiors to their surroundings through window placement, outdoor living areas like balconies, outdoor kitchens, decks and patios, and operable door systems that can make interior rooms transform into feeling like extensions of the outdoors.

The importance of this indoor/outdoor connection mirrors our belief that true luxury is sustainable. We are committed to making architecture that has a minimal impact on our environment through our holistic approach to sustainability.


A luxury custom home in Portland doesn’t have a set design style and neither do we. Instead of imposing a particular style on a project, we start by understanding the site, the landscape, and the unique needs of our clients. This forms the foundation of our design work and we then develop a project that responds specifically to those influences.

This approach sets Propel Studio apart from other custom home architects. Each of our projects are unique. We experiment with forms, materials, and technology to ensure each project responds to the client’s needs while creating inspiring and beautiful architecture.

Are you ready to start your luxury custom home design? Contact us or schedule a consultation.

What you need to know when beginning a custom home project in the Portland Area


Through our work on custom residential design projects, we have realized that there are some common misconceptions that people have about the custom home design process. Choosing to realize your dream of building your family a custom home is a huge decision in your life and we want to make sure you’re starting off on the right foot. To help you understand the process and all the things you don’t know you need to know, we’re kicking off a blog series on custom home design in Portland and the surrounding areas.

Over the articles in this blog series, we will cover topics such as:

  • What is Pre-Design and why it’s the most important step in designing your custom home?

  • How does the design progress from schematic ideas to a thoroughly developed design?

  • What happens once your construction documents are finalized and your permit is approved?

  • When do you engage a general contractor, and how will you, the contractor, and architect work together to realize your design and stay on budget?

  • How long will your project take to complete, and what are the steps along the way?

  • Questions your architect wishes you’d ask?

  • How to select an architect for project? (And why it shouldn’t be based on fees)

  • Principles for creating a sustainable custom home.

In this article, we’ll discuss the first step in the custom home design process: the Pre-Design phase and explain why its essential to a successful project.


When engaging with Propel Studio on a custom home project, the first step of our process is to undertake an in-depth analysis of the project and goals. The Pre-Design phase outlines the project schedule and identifies all of the milestones, it includes a site evaluation, outline of the project program (all the things you want and need us to include in the design), and documents the project budget. This information gathering process begin with the client interview.


Client Interview

The client interview is where we find out the basics of what is important to you – what you are looking for in a custom home, what your lifestyle needs are, what your future plans are for your new home, what styles appeal to you, and what you think your budget target is. Even if you don’t know all of the answers, this starts the conversation and we can help you develop the needed information as we do more research and assign some homework assignments. Our goal is learn more about you, your family, how you live, and how you want to live. This is where we get to know you better and build a strong foundation for future phases.

Site Evaluation

This is incredibly valuable and absolutely necessary because each property is unique and different localities have different requirements and regulations that can affect the design of the project (and these can change from year to year). If your site has specific characteristics such as a steep slope or a stream running through it, there will be local requirements that your custom home design must meet to get approval for construction.

Our side evaluation starts with us visiting the site with you. We walk the grounds and discuss things you like about the property, ideas you have on project location, identify any key features or aspects of the property you want to preserve, or special views you want to take advantage of. We document this with meeting notes and lots and lots of photos. We also take general measurements, and locate any existing structures or specific features that would affect the design - like large trees, retaining walls, landscape features, etc.

Once we have an understanding of the property itself we research what the local jurisdiction may require for the project. In some areas, you will be required to connect to the city utility system and in other more rural areas you may be able to connect to a well or septic system. It’s a good to know what this and other requirements from the start, as this will influence your home design and your budget. As part of the site evaluation part of the process, we’ll research the local zoning laws and building code restrictions, and help explain to you how they will impact the project.  

Tip: before you decide on a property for your new home, meet with the town development office to ask questions on rules they expect you to follow. At this point, you’re just getting a general picture of possible restrictions there are for your site. Typically, larger cities like Portland have a longer list of requirements than smaller towns. It is good to know what is needed before you put in an offer on the property or get too far into the design process. If you are unsure of where to start or what questions to ask, this would be a perfect time to engage an architect for your project.

Programming and Feasibility

Programming is the process of documenting a list of spaces, sizes, and your needs for your custom home. This is realized from our interviews with you. Think of it as a wish list of all the things you’d want in your new home, including the must-haves and the would-be-nice-to-haves. We try to list everything to start, and then go through the document to set priorities on what is most important and what might be nice to have only if the budget allows it. We take this list and develop it in relation to the unique qualities of your site, identifying any overlooked opportunities and any possible challenges. It’s common for your program to change over our various conversations with you. We work with you to figure out what program is best for your dream home.

Budgeting and Scheduling

By doing all of this initial work with site evaluation and programming, we can develop a realistic preliminary budget and also the project schedule. We discuss both the soft costs (design, permitting, and other fees) and hard costs (construction costs) involved in a project, so you can have a full understanding of what the custom home may cost and develop a budget accordingly.

The information from the Pre-Design phase sets the parameters from which we design your new home. The next phase is Schematic Design and this is where the fun begins! Our next article will delve into what happens and how we keep your project on budget through Schematic Design, Design Development, and the Construction Document phases.

If you are ready to start the process please contact us or schedule a consultation.