A Conversation with the Portland Chapter: Part one

A Conversation with the Portland Chapter: Part one

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Jun 08, 2013
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Nick Robertson, one of the directors of Architecture for Humanity Portland Chapter, has been involved with Architecture for Humanity for about ten years – and has worked with AFH_pdx (as they're known on Twitter) almost as long as it’s been around. During that time, he’s seen his chapter grow and evolve from a grassroots operation into a fully-fledged chapter. AFH Portland tackles a number of projects relevant to their community, often pairing up with other local residents and organizations to do so. But beyond just managing a wide range of projects, Robertson and his co-directors are working to create a stable future for their chapter.

Robertson recently took the time out of his schedule to speak with us:

Headquarters: Thanks for talking with us today! So how did you find and get involved with Architecture for Humanity, and specifically with AFH Portland?

Nick Robertson: I’ve been with this organization for a long time. I heard Cameron speak in 2002 when I was still in undergrad. So I’ve been aware of the organization for a while, but I didn’t have much contact with it until I moved to Portland. I was actually unemployed for a year and a half so I was definitely looking for ways to stay or get involved - and just stumbled across the Portland chapter.

I had no idea it had only been around for only about six months at the time I found it, and I kind of showed up at one of the meetings assuming that it was already this well-oiled machine, not knowing that everyone was still figuring out how to run an organization. It was interesting, stepping in at that point.

I was just a volunteer for a while and sort of stumbled into a leadership position – on one of the forms, they needed a licensed architect to sign it, and I was the only one anyone was aware of in the Portland organization, so I did that. Later, someone in a leadership position left and they were like, “well, you’re already kind of signed up for this, do you want to get a little more involved?” and I said sure.

A poster of the Bed Project, one of AFH Portland's collaboration with local non-profit Central City Concern.

HQ: You’ve been around since (almost) the inception of the chapter - what kind of evolution have you seen?

NR: It really was one person, Brianne Johnson, who got it all going. It was very grassroots, just a couple of people - almost all University of Oregon students, I sort of felt like the weird old guy who wasn’t going to college. Now we’re finding less and less students and more and more young professional types.

It’s grown a lot, and now that the four of us (the directors on our board) have gotten settled in our positions we’ve been focusing on making the chapter sustainable. That is, coming up with standards: how do we do things, what our priorities are, etc. It’s been kind of a ‘feel-it-out’ scenario; we just did things the way we did them and it seemed to be working. But now we’ve started to think about what happens when the four of us are gone. We want this chapter to be able to keep going, so that’s been a lot of the focus lately.

You can donate directly to the Portland Chapter to help them make a larger local impact.

HQ: It seems like, just looking at the range of your work, you guys have good working relationships with other local organizations – you’ve done work with Central City Concern and Habitat for Humanity Portland. Can you tell us a bit about your work with them?

NR: Those are kind of two of the disparate ways that we’ve gotten work. One of the board members, Rachel Bailey, actually works for CCC so she’s been a great connection, and that’s how we’ve gotten involved with them. It was definitely the reason we got the Rosewood Project, which is ongoing right now.

…Actually, we were involved with them prior to her getting a job there, way back with our first project (which was actually before me). They helped with a bed bug resistant furniture line, so that I guess was sort of the beginning of our relationship.

The other way we’ve gotten work, in general, is that it’s fallen into our lap. Habitat showed up at one of our meetings once and said, ‘hey, we could use your help’. They’d been finding all these lots that had been pre-developed for townhouses in the Portland suburbs, and though they had experience doing single-family stuff, they were having trouble squeezing all the requirements into these skinny little lots. So we started working and came up with these prototypes, and they actually went out and bought one of the properties.

Habitat has unique requirements – their work is volunteer built, so they feel comfortable sending volunteers only so high in the air. We had to work with not having a three-story building, which all of these lots had been built out assuming. We were trying to cram everything into two stories as well as not building garages. (One of Habitat for Humanity Portland’s self-imposed requirements is that they don’t build garages – they want to spend their money building shelter that people can live in.)

So that was a struggle. We had to do some gymnastics with car layouts and dealing with what happens when you’re parking your car out front – the driveway becomes the width of the front property, so how do you make lawn space? The funny thing is, we came up with these solutions based on a list of assumptions, and the more they went back to the city, the more they realized they had to go for a three story project with garages. So it was also an interesting project trying to figure out and manage expectations between the client and us.

Traditionally we’ve either known somebody in another organization or work has just sort of fallen into our lap - which is another reason why we’ve been focusing on making the chapter sustainable. We need to figure out how to be a little more proactive about getting work so that we don’t expect things to just show up at our door.

HQ: You also did another project with Habitat for Humanity – a Green Living Guide, for the Habitat homeowners. Could you talk about that for a bit? – That was a really interesting project.

NR: That was actually one of our first self-initiated projects. After working with the Habitat guys and understanding how their process works (their sweat equity system, how they work with the homeowner, the types of people living in the Habitat houses) we thought it would be helpful to put together a guide for their homeowners on how to live sustainably and efficiently.

Habitat gives them a book now that’s basically just spec sheets in case something breaks down, and we were thinking; ‘if I were one of those people I would glance at that and immediately just put it in a drawer.’

Our challenge was, ‘how can we go about making this graphically pleasing so they might actually look at this book more?’ It includes the basic things for how to maintain your house, but then has a layer of how your decisions affect the neighborhood, the region, etc. ‘Why do I not want to leave my sprinklers on, why do I want to make sure that I’m leaving room for recycling’ – and how those decisions have a ripple effect.

I think the concerns of the people they’re getting are typically much more pressing - making ends meet - so a guide could show them simply some things they can do to make a big difference in their home. We thought it was an interesting project, and we took it to Habitat and said ‘hey, do you guys think this would be something you would want to hand out to your new homeowners?’ and they said sure, so we’re going forward with it.

Be sure to check out part two of this interview - including a look at a project at a local elementary school and some excellent advice for chapters!

Donate to the Portland Chapter

An example page from the Green Living Guide, a collaboration with Habitat for Humanity.

An elevation study from the Skinny House prototype project.

Images courtesy of Nick Robertson. For more info on the Portland Chapter, check them out on the Chapter Network.

Donate directly to the Portland Chapter here.