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Five Questions for: Propel Studio’s Lucas Gray, Assoc. AIA

PORTLAND DESIGNER AND PROPEL STUDIO COFOUNDER LUCAS GRAY, ASSOC. AIA, SEES ARCHITECTURE AS ONE OF THE KEYS TO ADDRESSING THE NEED FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN CITIES SUCH AS PORTLAND, WHERE HIGH HOUSING COSTS ARE CAUSING DISPLACEMENT AND HOMELESSNESS AMONG ITS RESIDENTS. “Architects need to not only serve their clients but also engage with the political process to help advocate for ways we can make our city more affordable for people of all income levels,” he says. For Propel, that means a design portfolio that includes creating everything from ADUs, custom homes, and duplexes to multi-family mixed-use projects and affordable housing developments.

GRAY reached out to Gray to chat about some of Propel’s upcoming projects, architecture misconceptions, and what he’d do on his perfect day off.

What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on in the past year?

For me, a project is exciting when you have a site to work with and great clients who are interested in the design process. These came together on a recent custom home project that we’ve been working on over the past year. The Sheltered Nook House is located in the hills northwest of Portland. The site is forested with a small clearing on the top of the hill. It is surrounded by trees, with a gently sloping site, and the clients were interested in a sustainable home that opened up to the surroundings, so we were really able to explore design ideas and ultimately came up with a really wonderful design. Although the project has a modest budget— only around $550,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home—the clients were interested in quality and thus we really dialed in the layout to be compact and efficient, which allowed us to invest more in floor-to-ceiling windows that open views out over the landscape. The house plan is an L-shape with the master suite on one wing, two bedrooms on the other wing, and the living areas nestled into the crux of the plan. Cradled by the house is a courtyard that’s carved out of the hillside, creating a protected outdoor room that extends the living spaces into the landscape. It’s a very simple form and simple materials, but the design really makes use of the landscape and the beautiful surroundings to accentuate the architecture.

What’s one of the biggest misconceptions people have about your job?

That architects add cost to a project. I don’t think most people understand the complexity and the sheer amount of decisions that are needed to design a structure, even a relatively small project like a custom home or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). There are thousands of decisions that must be made and as designers, we are constantly balancing the design intent, the client’s needs, the budget, the local codes and regulations, sustainable strategies, and hundreds of other influences, all while trying to make a beautiful building. Throughout the design process, we search for ways to give our clients what they request while delivering the project within the stated budget. We also look for efficiencies and ways we can make the project better while potentially saving money. I would even argue that the earlier you engage an architect or designer in a project, the more value they bring. Our work helps identify and avoid costly mistakes and reduces the stress that a complex process can bring.

What’s important to architecture in Portland right now?

Our housing crisis. Population growth is far outpacing the speed at which we are building new housing and as a result, the cost of housing is skyrocketing. This puts pressure on many families and directly causes displacement, homelessness, and other strains on our city. Architecture plays a big role in addressing this issue and offers part of the solution. Historically our politicians implemented restrictive zoning laws that give an advantage to some populations, and exclude others. In Portland, and in many other cities, we are in the midst of creating important changes to our zoning code that is hoping to correct some of the mistakes made, by opening up the ability to build a wider range of housing types in all neighborhoods. I look forward to these changes, to working with clients to start designing for increased density and making thriving neighborhoods that are more inclusive and affordable than what we are seeing today. We have already started this work through our dedication to accessory dwelling units. Propel Studio is in the midst of permitting a seven-unit row house project as well as an urban infill duplex. We also have a handful of ADUs and custom homes currently on the boards and are collaborating on the renovation and modernization of a 25-unit affordable housing development with Rose CDC. We work hard to be part of the solution to making Portland, and any community we work in, a better place for everyone to live.

For you, what’s a perfect day off?

Most of the time I take off from work is due to traveling outside of Portland. I love exploring new cities, cultures, landscapes, and food. Experiencing new places offers new perspectives and inspiration to draw from in my design work. A perfect day would be wandering the narrow streets of Tokyo, ducking into little shops and restaurants, starting conversations with the locals over late-night beers, and taking photographs of the textures and vibrancy of the urban environment. Regardless of the location, I love learning how different cities work, how the to use the transit networks, what the real estate market is like, and of course, experiencing the local architecture—both the iconic buildings as well as the vernacular architecture.

If you could inhabit a space by any architect present or past, whose would it be and why?

I always want to spend more time at the Therme Vals in Vals, Switzerland, designed by Peter Zumthor. It is such a beautiful weaving of the natural and built environments. The architecture flows out from the landscape and appears to be an integral part to the mountainside. Each space is specifically designed to evoke an emotional or sensory response through the use of color, temperature, smells, light, acoustics, and texture. It’s the only place I’ve been where the architecture is more of an occupied sculpture–the building, the spaces, the way the light comes in are all redesign drivers rather than a specific program it is responding to. It frames views of the landscape, it is built from the material of the place, and the building compliments the beauty of the region perfectly.


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