I recently had the opportunity to chat with Richard Brown AIA, founder of RBA, about a newly completed project in Portland, Oregon. The modern, yet traditionally inspired design has a reclaimed timber frame core combined with stick built spaces. Nestled along the hillside with views of Mt. Hood, Richard explained that this will be the main home for a creative couple—a modern house with traditional queues. We conversed about this project and the broader driving forces behind his architectural creativity:
What can you tell us about this project’s build site?
It’s a really beautiful site in Portland, which are getting to be rare in major cities as our population grows. This site had a home removed a few years back in anticipation of a development which never happened. There are great views to Mt. Hood and good access to sunlight. The homeowner is an avid gardener, so we intentionally sat the home into the shade away from where sun falls to leave space for gardens and a meadow area.
What struck you as unique about this project?
First thing were the clients. They are both intelligent, thoughtful people that generously contribute their time and resources to our community. For not being a contractor or architect she has a profound understanding of the physical world and of construction, of how things are put together, how to keep water out, for example. We could talk through our reasons for a design or specific products and sometimes she would offer suggestions for doing it better—it wasn’t uncommon at all for us to incorporate her suggestions. With both homeowners, there was a strong influence on the design due to their appreciation for materials, color, warmth, function. They made it clear from the beginning they wanted a high quality, thoughtful home and came to refer to it as a work of art.
How did timber framing come to be part of this project?
Through the clients first. Before they engaged us they had found out about a railroad roundhouse in Portland that was being deconstructed. They saved the timbers and had them stored. The contractor, Don Tankersley, brought the wood and New Energy Works Timberframers to our attention and our discussion began on how we would integrate them into the home.
What purpose does the frame serve in this space?
It gives a structural logic to the main hall and sets the tone for the use of wood throughout the house. It was important to us and the owners to express the structure of the house, to leave that structure exposed, to allow it to be revealed. The timber frame does all of this.
While the roof is pitched with gable end windows, about 1/3 of the main space has a flat 9’ ceiling. This allows for a calm entry sequence prior to entering the main living space and provides a home for the piano. Above the timber frame is ridge skylight that illuminates the whole space and intentionally directs the eyes up.
Were you able to incorporate all of the timbers the client had reclaimed?
Yes, and more. When we contacted New Energy Works they were able to direct us to their sister company, Pioneer Millworks, who supplied us with additional reclaimed Douglas fir timbers to round out the needs of the frame.
Line and light seem significant in this project. Can you speak to that?
Enormous attention was paid to the proportion and arrangement of spaces, including the fenestration and built-ins. We combined small windows to ventilate spaces with larger open glass to bring in light.
We worked with Dynamic Windows in Vancouver BC on the windows and exterior doors. They provided the 12” deep Douglas fir mullions off the main space near the entry. The deep mullions with their varied spacing offer a sort of privacy veil between interior activities and visitors approaching the front door. Throughout the home the thickness of the wood surrounds at stone, windows and built-ins are a consistent 1.5”. This provides design continuity in all the rooms.
How did you arrive at this project, with these clients?
It started as competition amongst three architects–we’re all friends– with a stipend to spend 4-6 weeks with the clients and develop a scheme. In the end there were three interesting and varied themes generated, but we were fortunate to be awarded the project. Of course because we’re friends, we had an arrangement that whoever won the project would take the other two out to dinner. They got to pick the restaurant, and they picked a VERY nice restaurant.
Have you received feedback from owners since the project’s completion?
I recall the timber frame raising…one day to put whole thing up! It was amazing, quite the ballet. Our team enjoyed it as did the clients. This has been a four-year project so it’s quite a culmination and they seem thrilled. They’re particularly keen on the wood structure, mentioning it often.
Most designers have a preference for style and materials. What’s yours?
I’d say I’m aiming to carry on a tradition of northwest architecture which is grounded in the materials of the area: stone, wood, concrete. Elemental materials, that because of our climate, are often viewed in soft over-cast light. During the mid-last century there was a movement in the northwest to incorporate modern architecture into residential design. It was influenced by Japanese/Asian sensibilities. I liken our work to a continuation of that.
What place do you think timber framing has in current architecture for residential or commercial spaces?
I think timber framing marries well with modern aesthetics. In this case it hinged on detailing, with clean hidden connections, fewer timber braces, and open volumes. In this light, this project is a success. The frame is complemented using full dimension Douglas fir at the ceilings and fir veneer on the walls. The scale of the timbers complement the stone that’s used throughout the house.
Tell me a bit of your history.
I started in larger firms directly from college. In 1989 I started my own office thinking to focus on residential work, but other enjoyable and larger projects came to us and we were open to them. Today there are six of us and our work varies between residential and winery projects with occasional religious work. These days I also serve on the board of the Portland AIA chapter.
Where do you get your inspiration? What influences you?
My early career was interspersed with construction and cabinetmaking work. This exposure influences my thinking and grounds my understanding of how things go together. I want our designs and our spaces to make sense on both a visual and visceral level. I’ve been influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and without copying their designs I hope their celebration and honoring of craft and craftspeople comes through in our work.
We’ve been fortunate in our practice to team with excellent builders. We are inspired by the craftsmen we work with; we listen to them and learn from the collaboration. I try not to come off the mountain with the answer, and once the design direction is set we work as a team with owner, builder, and craftsmen. The people at New Energy Works and our contractor’s crew, at Don Tankersley & Co are the most skilled I’ve worked with. They were dedicated to doing the very best and it shows in the results.
I take inspiration from other architects; my colleagues here in Portland and in Europe, and I watch the work that comes out of Arizona and Texas. Divisiare.com is a European architecture blog I follow. It’s modern with a range of work that I connect with, and if not, will at times open my mind to what’s possible.
How do you fill your creative bucket?
I draw from history. I enjoy books close to that. I’ll also read architecture blogs and I remain close with the community of architects in Portland. We all study and learn from each other’s work.
We also talked about home design. I really liked how Richard described his thoughts on architecture:
The home is a backdrop for people’s lives and should support their sense of belonging and of feeling connected. Besides our focus on design and aesthetics, we want people feel they belong in the spaces they inhabit; that their life belongs in the spaces we create.
Fitting for their company signature of “thoughtful responsive architecture”.
Thanks again to Richard for his time and insights. It was a true pleasure speaking with him and I hope we have the opportunity to collaborate on more projects in the future.
If you’re interested in more modern timber frames, check out our Contemporary Gallery.