August 30, 2016

Portland Zoning Code Limits Affordability, Diversity and Design freedom

Conventional zoning is downright sinister in the ways that it forms a barrier against good urbanism. 
-Anthony Flint 

 Despite the best intentions and goals of zoning codes for cities in general and Portland in particular, it is clear that our current code is grossly complex, beneficial only for a few at the expense of the many, bogging down the permitting process, and vastly increasing the cost of new construction (making it impossible to build affordable homes without government subsidies, in a time of an affordable housing crisis). The purpose of codes should be to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Our current zoning code goes so far beyond those simple straightforward goals that it is a burdensome rule book without much benefit to the city or it’s residents. It often has racist roots, implemented to prevent certain people from living in certain neighborhoods, or creating land values that keeps the wealthy and low-income residents separated. Our zoning code is broken and not enough people are talking about ways to fix it.

 To address some of these issues, I believe we need to review our existing zoning code and streamline it significantly. It has to be easy to read and easy to understand for everyone - not just trained architects and the code reviewers in the Bureau of Development services. Even these “experts” are often wrong when interpreting the code or have different interpretations, further muddying the permitting process and giving people wrong or misleading information. When multiple people in the city permitting office interpret the rules differently something is terribly wrong.

Our zoning needs to be simple, clear, concise and be based on common sense, not layers of rules that have changed over time, adding more and more restrictions on what people can build. The majority of our existing building stock wouldn’t even meet our current zoning requirements. Most importantly, it needs to be universally applied in all neighborhoods and districts across the city. We don’t need any special neighborhoods and confusing overlays, rather we need one rule book for the entire city.

An example of the absurdity of our current rules is the small part of the zoning code that guides the design and construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These code requirements don’t focus on health and safety of the building, but rather dictates what the building should look like - forcing designers to match the style of the existing house (regardless of the design quality of that house). This has absolutely nothing to do with protecting the health, safety or welfare of the public, and it actively prohibits property owners from designing and building a project that meets their stylistic preferences. It puts the desire of NIMBYism and the status quo over that of individual choice and innovation. This not only stifles creativity but also lengthens the review process and thus cost of projects for no beneficial reason. There is absolutely no legitimate reason that the zoning code should dictate the size or shape of a window, the siding material, the slope of a roof, trim size, etc. I could somewhat understand limitations on size, height and building within a property setback, but dictating style is just plane wrong.

Even property setbacks have questionable value. Yes, you could argue that they might prevent the spread of fire, or solar access for each property, or views. However, they also waste the usability of a vast area of land within our city. And by dictating minimum and maximum front setbacks the city limits the ability to create innovative new property layouts. Why does the house have to be in the middle of the property with both front and back yards? What if a property owner wanted to build a house against the rear setback (perhaps along an alley) and have a larger front yard for gardening or creating a green break in the street front? Would this be bad for their neighbors? Or conversely, why can’t we build right up to the front property line, where the spread of fire isn’t an issue? This would allow for larger contiguous backyards. It would also limit the distance we need to run plumbing pipes, electrical wires, driveways and other infrastructure. Even a savings of 10 feet, when multiplied by the thousands of houses built in the city would be a huge savings of cost and resources. This would also create a more European street feel where the sidewalks and building edges create an urban street that tends to be focused on pedestrians, rather than setback houses with driveways and garage doors more typically reminiscent of suburban developments. I would argue that Portland has too much of the latter and not enough of the former within the Urban Growth Boundary.

Further complicating the zoning code impact on our city is the ability for each neighborhood or some developments to impose further regulations as an overlay above and beyond regulations imposed by the city. Again, this limits an individual's right to use their property as they like. I had a client who wanted to build an ADU only to find out that the neighborhood where her parent’s property was and where the ADU was going to be built, had a rule against detached ADUs. This unnecessary regulation prevented her from building an affordable home for herself near her aging parents. Who does this benefit? Why does the city allow or support these sorts of cumbersome rules? It is clearly a case of wealthy individuals trying to prevent change and limit who and what can be built in their neighborhood. It is a restrictive rule that limits affordability, equity and freedom.

In a city with an urban growth boundary and a growing population it is ethically questionable to enforce single family residential zones, particularly R7, R10 and even R5 within the UGB. You can’t have a sustainable and affordable city without vastly increasing the density of our city. Density also creates a more vibrant and diverse place to live and helps small businesses and commercial streets thrive. At the very least, allowing for multiple units within existing houses, multiple ADUs (attached or detached) within a property, or tiny houses on wheels on residential lots should be allowed and even incentivized within Portland. We can’t give in to the loud voices of NIMBYism and wealthy people trying to protect their property values at the expense of everyone else. We need to think progressively and open up our zoning to allow for a wide range of buildings in all neighborhoods.
If we don’t just get rid of the zoning code altogether, I think we could simplify our city’s zoning code to have 2 zones: Industrial - meant for uses that are hazardous to human health, and mixed use - for everything else. At the same time this new zoning should be performance based rather than use based. Within the mixed use zone for instance there could be simple overlays that dictate performance aspects of a project that would impact the safety of the public. For instance, height limits for safety within the airport approach lanes, limits to how far shadows are allowed to encroach on adjacent properties, limits on the decibel level of noise at a given property line, or limit the measure of light overreaching the property line at night. By moving to a performance metrics, rather than a restrictive use metric, we can allow for more variety of uses within our city without drastically impacting the quality of life.

Even a form-based zoning, which is more concerned with building size and how they relate to each other to form a streetscape, rather than the use within the buildings, would be a huge improvement over the mess we currently have. For more information on Performance based Zoning check out this fantastic article: It is also worth becoming familiar with the Form-Based Code Institute:

Further, many people have to understand and accept that just because a single family residential neighborhood gets rezoned to allow for more uses doesn’t mean that all of the existing building stock will all of a sudden transform. Our single family residential neighborhoods will stay intact for generations. However, over time these neighborhoods will evolve into higher density neighborhoods, giving more people choice in where to live and making our city more affordable and equitable in the process. A city, like any organism, transforms over time and adapts to new needs, stresses, and influences. Residents have to accept and help guide change rather than fight it to preserve what is theirs at the expense of future generations.

These sorts of dense mixed-use neighborhoods are often the most desirable places to live in cities around the world. The alphabet district in NW Portland is a perfect example. There are small apartment buildings and condos interspersed with single family houses. There are small restaurants and cafes dotting the urban fabric. There are primary commercial streets and corner stores. This makes the streets vibrant, safe and the neighborhood more diverse. This same ambiance is seen in cities across America and around the world, and it usually representative of the neighborhoods that people want to visit and live in. However, our current laws prevent this sort of neighborhood from developing in any other part of the city. Why do we accept that as the best solution to our city? I know that I would much rather have my neighborhood in NE Portland off Alberta become a more more dense and diverse place to live.

I haven’t even gotten into the issues regarding parking requirements which further stifles affordability and forces people to spend money on building parking whether they want it or not. Again, this has nothing to do with the safety and health of the pubic and a rule that needs to be struck from books despite the complaints of our car centric neighbors. Parking should never be a requirement as it is a luxury, not a need. It can be suggested but if someone wants to build a house or development  without a garage or driveway why should the city say that it isn’t allowed? Not everyone owns a car or needs a parking space and we are forcing people to pay for them. (more arguments against parking requirements:, and this one about how “poor people pay for parking even when they can’t afford a car”:

Currently our zoning codes prohibit developments of neighborhoods that offer a range of housing types. They also increase the cost and time needed to build new developments. This does everyone a disservice and is indicative of over regulation to the detriment of urban quality. I think the Bureau of Development Services and our city council is failing our city by enforcing an overly complex zoning code that doesn’t benefit the majority of people. We need performance based regulations and a much simpler streamlined code that gives people choice and allows for creative developments and innovation within the city.

Here is an interesting white paper on issues caused by zoning:

Here is an article on “How Zoning Laws Exacerbate Inequality”:

Here is a great article focusing on the “Problems with Parking Requirements in Zoning Ordinances”:

“After about 1970, though, zoning’s negative economic effects began to grow. Before then, housing prices were more or less the same across the country. Since then, prices in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast have risen much faster than in most of the rest of the nation -- in the process increasing inequality, thwarting residential mobility and slowing economic growth. Ever-tougher zoning rules and restrictions on growth appear to be a major cause. Fischel has a long list of explanations for this intensification of zoning that I won’t go into here, other than to mention the one that drives me the craziest -- the dressing-up of self-interested economic arguments in the language of environmentalism and morality.” 

July 13, 2016

Emerging Professional Exhibit 2016

Bamboo Sushi Street Seat - Designed by Propel Studio an emerging firm in Portland, Oregon

AIA spotlights young designers for their solutions to issues facing communities around the world
Projects showcased at AIA National Headquarters and online exhibit

The AIA’s new emerging professionals exhibit honors the most creative new projects from architecture’s rising generation. The exhibit theme, “It Takes a Community,” highlights how collaboration and community engagement improve the design process for greater positive public impact. The selected projects provide design solutions for affordable housing, shelters for homeless, schools for special needs children, reducing energy and water consumption, earthquake mitigation, along with many other issues facing communities around the world. Selections were chosen by a jury based on the quality of their graphical and written elements, as well as their relationship to this year’s theme. To preview this exhibit and get more information click here.

The exhibit will be on display at AIA National Headquarters:

AIA National Headquarters, Second Floor Gallery
1735 New York Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20006

The exhibit is open to the public 9:00am to 5:00pmMonday-Friday until September 2, 2016.

July 9, 2016

Architectural Trends: How Asia Is Designing Their Modern Homes

Asian architecture and design is a fusion of styles, cultures, and civilizations. They are intricate but also minimalist, and everything else in between. There’s the elaborate Chinese architecture and Japanese minimalism. In between, you have the romantic Balinese designs.
Over the centuries, Asian architectural designs have been influenced by Western and European elements. The contemporary, fast-paced living in the Western societies are mixed with the dreamy, often laidback nature of European cultures. New designs have also heeded the call to build more green and sustainable homes. But in the face of the global trends in architectural designs, Asians have successfully weaved their culture into their modern homes and structures. Given the rich history of Asia, one could easily spot the culture and tradition embedded in every design.
Harmony of tradition and modernity
While the Japanese are among the world leaders in innovation, they see to it that while the materials, color, and furniture are contemporary, the form remains traditional. The schemes remain familiar such as a steep gable roof with deep overhangs and vertical timber-clad walls. A blending of traditional and modern elements is also rife among the Chinese. Ancient Chinese architecture, an important component of world architecture, is often characterized by the use of timber framework, stone carving, arch buildings, and courtyards. Today, cities and villages still implement some of these ancient features amid rapid development. Structural principles have remained largely the same. These two major forces in architecture are proof that accepting the new without rejecting the old is just the way to go.
Obsession with minimalism
The Japanese are obsessed with minimalism, a trend that has gone global. Sometimes, all they need is a mattress in a room. The lines are always clean and the form is always kept simple. The desire for functionality and minimalism are among the reasons why the Japanese are the modern heroes of the philosophy “less is more.”

All about balance
In modern Chinese architecture, bilateral symmetry is found everywhere from palace complexes to farmhouses. The concept of open space through a “sky well,” or a small opening through the roof, is what replaced the ancient and expansive courtyards.
Asymmetry and balance are two important elements in Asian architectural design. From the lines and the color to the furniture, everything feels just about right. These complement the traditional way of life and the modern elements of design.
Going green and sustainable
In Osaka, narrow residential building sites are rather common. But empowering living spaces by providing good insulation and generous openness for natural light and air to pass through are very much preferred.
Singapore, a small, highly-urbanized country, is also taking the lead in building green structures in the region. Innovative architectural designs and energy-saving technologies are what modern buildings are all about. The sustainable building designs feature skylights, solar panels, energy-saving elevators, efficient ventilation systems and carbon dioxide monitoring systems.
Residential designs in developing countries like the Philippines, where condo living is on top of the real estate game, also seek to be more eco-friendly. Vertical developments invest in more open spaces and energy-saving technologies. DMCI’s Lumiventt Design Technology allows natural air and light to flow through. This proprietary design features large openings into the building fa├žade and sky patios or three-storey openings at the back and front of the building.
These examples show just how Asia is becoming more architecturally responsible, and green structures are seen as worthwhile investments.
Constructing with natural materials
Hanok, the traditional Korean house, is a testament to the architectural design trends in East Asia. In accordance with strict Confucian techniques, prefabricated wooden frame structures are assembled on location. These homes are 100% natural, biodegradable, and recyclable.
Balinese architecture, one of the most popular Asian tropical architectural styles, is also distinct for having this unique harmony with nature. Local materials are used to design homes and buildings. Thatch roofing, coconut wood, bamboo poles, stone, and bricks are among the natural materials used in modern Balinese architecture. The tropical atmosphere that Balinese architecture is famous for is something that has wowed the world, giving a new name to romance and poetry in architecture.
“Green Steel” of Asia
All over the continent, architects are building green spaces by using sustainable materials, most especially bamboo. It is known as the “green steal” of the 21st century Asian architectural design. They are cheap but strong, flexible, and sustainable. From modular homes and design pieces, this local material surely has rocked the architectural scene. You can find bamboo structures in Vietnam, Japan, China, and Malaysia. The Philippines, one of the world’s top producers of bamboo, exports furniture and design pieces made of bamboo.
Like a holiday
Tropical is a favorite theme in condo building designs in Asia. The idea is to build homes that can double as a getaway after a long day at work. It’s like having your holiday at the beach every day. DMCI Homes’ resort-style living features landscaped lush gardens and koi ponds. Balinese designs also give that tropical feel. In Singapore, where everything seems to be made of concrete, the sky habitat is on the rise, with hotels investing on sky gardens and greenery. This gives tourists the tropical vibe in a highly-urbanized country. A place to escape seems like something that Asians will always want especially at a time of unparalleled modernity.
The gift of Zen
The words peace, serenity, and zen naturally come to mind when talking about Asian architectural design. You come in and you suddenly feel calm. Is it the sound of a waterfall? Is it the smell of burning incense? Zen has never really left the building, so to speak.
Altar-like alcoves, oriental pieces, natural fiber, and organic colors are not longer just unique to Asian design, but have also come to influence Western architecture. In a fast-paced world, the peace and tranquility that zen designs offer is something that the world truly craves for. Architectural trends in the region have always incorporated zen elements in homes and even in the airports. Notice the frequent use of stone, wood, and clean lines. Tones are subdued and geometric accents are fairly simple and organic.

The architectural design trends in Asia surely have a lot to do with culture and tradition. This shows just how Asians are still greatly influenced by their rich history. But that doesn’t mean they can’t move forward. They have, in fact, in such an innovative fashion. Asian architecture has adopted modern technologies and blended them well with natural elements. They are world leaders in green living architecture and eco-friendly construction, a trend that will likely make waves for years and generations to come. All these while never letting go of the uniqueness of their culture.

I Look Up Film Challenge: Architecture As A Solution

It’s our pleasure to announce the 2nd annual Look Up Film Challenge, calling on filmmakers and architects around the country to collaborate to tell important stories of architecture changing lives and meeting challenges.

This year’s theme is Architecture As A Solution. Filmmakers will explore the way architects work with communities to find innovative solutions for problems of all sizes.

Your vote counts too – we invite our audience to choose the film that moves and inspires them most for the Public Choice Award. Winning entries can earn cash prizes and screenings at influential,forward-looking festivals including SXSW Eco and the Architecture and Design Film Festival. Registration is now open and ends July 10, with an entry deadline of August 14. Winners will be announced in September. Learn more and register for the challenge at

June 2, 2016

VIDEO: Rural Studio: A Story of Solutions

 The AIA presents a short documentary film on Rural Studio, Auburn University’s community-oriented, design-build program dedicated to improving the western Alabama region with good design. The Rural Studio film launches the 2016 Film Challenge, inviting filmmakers and architects to team up and tell stories of how architecture is solving a problem facing us today in communities, big or small, across the country. Together, we can tell these important stories that need to be told. Register at

What: I Look Up Film Challenge, a short film competition that challenges participants to make a short film about ‘Architecture as a Solution’.
When: Registration: May 19th - July 10th, 2016
Challenge: July 18 - August 14
Final Submission: August 14th, 2016
  1. Opportunity for distribution of winning film at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York, September 28 – October 2, 2016,
  2. Opportunity for distribution of winning film at the SXSW Eco Conference, October 10 – October 12, 2016,
  3. Opportunity for distribution of winning film at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in Los Angeles, November 16 – November 20, 2016, and the following cash prizes:
  4. A total sum of two thousand and five hundred dollars ($2,500) for the Grand Prize Winner,
  5. A total sum of two thousand and five hundred dollars ($2,500) for the Public Choice Award winner.
All submitted films, in addition to the winning films, will have the opportunity to be distributed via AIA and CSG channels.

AIA: Based in Washington, D.C., and with nearly 300 U.S. chapters, the AIA has been the leading voice and association for licensed architects, emerging professionals, and allied partners since 1857.
CSpence: CSpence Group is a creative and film agency that works with purpose-based organizations to create collaborative, high-impact experiences, productions and content from a Millennial perspective.
Students of the World: Students of the World is a nonprofit entity supporting creators of all kinds for over 15 years in their quest to use their talent as a force for good, telling stories with real impact—stories that matter.

Full Official Rules for the AIA I Look Up Film Challenge can be found here.

January 1, 2016

Ethics and Architectural Copyright

LEFT: Photography of Sokol Blosser winery by Allied Works Architecture (completed July 2013). RIGHT: Rendering by Anonymous Firm A (published November 2014)
The two projects shown above are for different clients, have different programs and are of vastly different scales. However, I can't help but see the concepts, carving out a dark gray box to reveal naturally colored. angled wood to be intricately related. The project on the left was completed in 2013, received an AIA Portland Honor Award last year, and has been praised for it's beautiful execution throughout the Portland design community. It is a building that most architects in the city know about and have probably visited. The image on the right is a rendering for a proposed development in NW Portland, published on a blog in Nov. 2014.

Can you copyright the design of a building? According to this article on, yes you can ( Recently there have been some relatively high profile news stories about architecture being copied. It happened to a Zaha Hadid project in China, and also a high rise project in Miami. Over the past few days I've surprisingly come across a series of designs that make me think something similar is happening in Portland, Oregon. The images below compare projects in Portland that have been designed by some of the leading firms in town on the left, juxtaposed on the right by renderings of proposed projects all by the same firm.*

*I have decided to leave their name off this post so as not to draw attention to the specific actions of this one firm, but rather have this be a conversation about the larger theme of design ethics and architectural copyright. For the captions I have replaced the firm's name with Anonymous Firm A.

LEFT + CENTER: Photography of The Tower House by Ben Waechter (completed October 2013). RIGHT: Rendering by Anonymous Firm A (taken from their website in Nov. 2014)
Architects, often look to other prominent work for inspiration. Part of the design process is doing precedent studies, looking at how creative people solved design challenges in the past, and how they might be relevant to a current situation. I can understand looking to one of the most respected design firms in town to inform your own design decision. However, there is a fine line between inspiration and copying and there is an ethical line that should not be crossed.

You could give the benefit of the doubt to a firm if one of their designs resembles that of another project. It happens. No one designs in a vacuum and often many people could distill down their ideas into similar results. However, when a single act becomes a pattern, benefit of the doubt fades into disrespect.
LEFT + CENTER: Photography of The Skyline Residence by Skylab Architecture (completed 2011). RIGHT: Rendering by Anonymous Firm A (taken from their website in Nov. 2014)
My question is why a firm would risk their reputation emulating other people's work so closely, and more importantly who is commissioning them to do so? Shouldn't a client want a unique project that specifically responds to their needs and the context of their building?  Shouldn't the Code of Ethics that comes with Architectural Licensure and AIA membership hold people accountable for the quality of their own designs and respecting the work of others? Finally, if you are going to closely replicate the styles of other architects, why do it in your own backyard where the design community can easily identify what is happening?

LEFT: Rendering of The Radiator by Path Architecture (Under Construction 2014).  RIGHT: Rendering by Anonymous Firm A (published November 2014).
Copying can be thought of as a form of flattery. It can also reveal a lack of creativity. When repeated over and over by the same firm, I tend to lean towards the latter. What do you think? Do you have other examples of copyright infringement in Architecture? What should our profession do to combat this issue? Should the AIA enforce ethical design issues like this, perhaps revoking membership? Should our state licensure boards?

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