A Conversation with Architect/Developer Lloyd Russell

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We recently profiled Lloyd Russel’s project Creston Lofts, located in the Creston-Kennilworth neighborhood in Southeast Portland. We were intrigued by this unique design, so we reached out to Lloyd for a conversation about Creston Lofts, Zoning, and creating community-oriented urbanism.

Plan Design Xplore: We came across Creston Lofts on one of our walks around Portland neighborhoods, and we think that it’s a really excellent project for a number of reasons and we wanted to ask you about how the project came about. Can you talk about the history?

I could never figure out why Los Angeles existed if my teachers at Cal Poly were telling me that architecture was the highest art and calling for anyone in life, and I could never answer that.

I couldn’t answer that question until I figured out that I had to ask the question of why buildings got built.


 

Lloyd Russell: Okay, so I'm an architect living in San Diego, from San Diego, I went to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo and spent my last year abroad in Copenhagen. When I was in college I was always questioning the role of the architect. How the architects could do more, because I was always driving back and forth from San Diego through LA to get to San Luis Obispo, and LA was like this bane on my distance, and I could never figure out why Los Angeles existed if my teachers at Cal Poly were telling me that architecture was the highest art and calling for anyone in life, and I could never answer that.

I couldn't answer that question until I figured out that I had to ask the question of why buildings got built and that got me into the economics of building. And then I also got into building buildings, not just being an architect; I liked to go out and work with contractors to build stuff. So long story short, when I graduated I found an architect that would do design-build, and built his own stuff, and develop his own stuff and develop his own stuff and so I started working with him as an owner. So I acted as an owner, acted as a builder, an architect-developer-contractor on a handful of projects so I got to see that sort of stuff so I get to have the role of an owner the role of a contractor the local architect and then live in the building to get the role of a user.


Before I had kids, when I had all this spare time I also sat on some boards; in San Diego for the Community Redevelopment Authority, and they were talking about the zoning policies and stuff like that and so I got to see it from a legislative standpoint as well. So I turned this little equation on all sorts of different angles…


PDX: We're interested in the architect/developer combo…

LR: [Teaching] has been consistent throughout my career, and we were always trying to teach housing. And we can never teach housing without a budget, because there's always constraints to housing, unless it’s a custom home and it’s pie in the sky, but it was always hard to convey to the students, like, some reality, and so we started to teach them a pro-forma, which is a little hard in an architecture housing studio.

Eventually evolved into starting a program that we called a masters in real estate development. That was like ten or twelve years ago and it was how to be an architect developer, and it became a master's program for students at Woodbury University. I think it was one of the first ones in the nation to offer the whole thing. At first when we were doing this we thought, oh my God, we're just gonna create competition for ourselves in San Diego, and this is gonna be terrible! But it ends up that through the sharing of information we're not really competing against each other. It's more of a synergy, so there's a whole bunch of people doing like-minded buildings that are not the standard a developer building because they always have a little twist ‘cause there's an architect in there somehow and the sharing of information helps. But down here our big battle is this building department, and zoning that is just ridiculous.

I read the zoning document from Portland, and I was like Oh my god, you guys in San Diego are so myopic. You have this Byzantine zoning document that contradicts itself and nobody knows what it means and as a result nobody can build any housing and up in Portland you have this very concise, form-based zoning which is so clear to everyone that it makes it really easy to plan and develop projects.

When I was on the redevelopment board for the Center City, which was the Planning Department for downtown. That's when I started to work on Creston, and I read the zoning document from Portland, and I was like Oh my god, you guys in San Diego are so myopic. You have this Byzantine zoning document that contradicts itself and nobody knows what it means and as a result nobody can build any housing and up in Portland you have this very concise, form-based zoning which is so clear to everyone that it makes it really easy to plan and develop projects, and I was trying to get [San Diego] to incorporate some of the form based on it.


PDX: Your answer anticipates one of our next questions, which is why Portland, since you're based in San Diego.

LR: My friend Andy [Lair] was a general contractor, and we bought a piece of property together, but it was on a fault line and we had to sell it. He moved back up to Portland but we kept the conversation going and he bought a property up in Northwest [Portland]. It's kind of an industrial property, and he asked me to check out the zoning to see if he could do anything on it. When I read the zoning I was like oh my god, you don't want to do it there, but there's so many great areas in the city that you know came up, and you know I visited a handful of times and I just said you find a property that sounds like XYZ, and you know we'll do something. He had gotten his general contractor's license at that point, and then he found something and we started to work together on it

So that's probably what brought me up to Portland. I found it very similar to Copenhagen in the weather and in the urbanism; never really raining just, drizzly kind of thing. Everyone bought into the urbanism - here in San Diego, everyone's complaining about how, oh my god, there's no parking!

PDX: So to bring it back more specifically to Creston lofts. Help us understand its partí a little more…

LR: First zoning, where there was no limitation on the floor area or the density to set the form based zoning and it was near to where Andy lives so there's kind of a close connection to Reed College. If we have a 10,000 square foot parcel this will be a really interesting project and In that time Andy was showing me new projects around Portland because he was very concerned that we were going to do something very modernist and at that time. I think this was 2008, 2009, 2010 kind of time period. There was a big discussion about modernist versus historical stuff happening in Portland.

The design of Creston was actually kind of a critique of some of the projects that I saw at the time, where a lot of projects would just max out what they could do just because they could, and what I didn’t like was when you have the form base zoning and then it transitions into a neighborhood, and there was no transition!

The design of Creston was actually kind of a critique of some of the projects that I saw at the time, where a lot of projects would just max out what they could do just because they could, and what I didn't like was when you have the form base zoning and then it transitions into a neighborhood, and there was no transition!

It was oftentimes a big blank wall, or you know the scale wouldn't fit. And since this was going be the first project in that intersection, I was trying to figure out a way to kind of mitigate it into the neighborhood. A campus of three buildings seemed like a more appropriate way to kind of soften the transition into the neighborhood. It also allowed me to develop deeper into the block because a full-coverage building with double-loaded corridors would not allow for cross ventilation and a lot of light, stuff like that. So I was trying to figure out a bunch of what I call single-loaded buildings where there's not a hallway.

PDX: That's one of the things that struck me the most about housing in Copenhagen; I don't think you're allowed to do double loaded corridor buildings, so all the perimeter blocks, while they look fairly massive, aren’t very deep; they’re made up of through-units with at least two window walls.

LR: Yes, there's a lot of projects we didn't have the scale for but this also goes back to the developer portion where you know when you're when you're the developer you don't want to build anything wasteful, I guess so what I was trying to avoid was you don't want to build infrastructure that you can't rent, so no elevators no, hallways or corridors, no lobbies, and when you take that out of the equation and everything you build is rentable, you might be building less density, but it's a more efficient building.
 

Ideally you want everyone to not have an elevator and walk around the property because again, as a developer, I’m not paying for the maintenance of the cost elevator. But and the other hand, from an urbanist standpoint, if people are walking around the property, those are the eyes and ears on the street that make it more secure and that’s how you get to know your neighbors.

So that was kind of the attitude; I build with lobbies, elevators, corridors, that might take up 20% of the building, and even though I have a bigger building, I have to borrow more money and It's not as efficient so it's not as feasible.

PDX: We’ve seen a handful of projects in Portland like Holst’s Meranti Lofts, with no elevator were you have townhome units on the upper floors so you enter on the third floor and you take an internal stair to the fourth floor your bedrooms. Is that similar to Creston?

LR: Yes. Ideally you want everyone to not have an elevator and walk around the property because again, as a developer, I'm not paying for the maintenance of the cost elevator. But and the other hand, from an urbanist standpoint, if people are walking around the property, those are the eyes and ears on the street that make it more secure and that's how you get to know your neighbors, and the property becomes more safe and more vibrant and you build more of a community.

I've done buildings where there are elevators and the tenants don't know each other from one end to the other or one floor to the other and there’s a totally different vibe of the building. I guess this gets to building types. It’s like, if you're gonna get to the elevators and corridors it to achieve your economies of scale, then you have to really pay attention to how you break down the scale and make it more of a community.

For Creston we had a 30-foot height limit, so we're telling pressing up against if it's either two or three stories. You're kind of against that limitation.

I wanted to make sure that we could develop into the into the interior of the lot as well, and there's a transition to the east where there was a building to cut it to the south where it was going back into a two-story and one-story houses, stuff like that.

PDX: I noticed you have a really large Japanese maple mid block. I'm assuming that’s a holdover from what was on the site before.


LR: Exactly - The house had a big tree in the back and we decided to preserve it. We could we develop the property around it or we could always plant a tree, but that was such a nice tree. That's the kind of thing you can do when you're the designer and the owner - you can make decisions like that and then work around it. Usually the architect gets the mantra from the developer that I need X number units no matter what and then you're kind of screwed, so part of the architect developer thing is the person that decides the program is the one with the power.

PDX: We've walked around this property and taken a lot of photos, but obviously it's a very complex division of space. How do all the units Tetris together in there?
 

I like very site-specific building projects. Each orientation of a building, of the units, is unique unto itself and also from owning these buildings… There’s kind of a housing experiment going on

LR: I like very site-specific building projects. Each orientation of a building, of the units, is unique unto itself and also from owning these buildings… There's kind of a housing experiment going on, so this is definitely for rent. I'm not doing condos because when you get condos It's got to be the lowest common denominator. That's very comparable to something else ‘cause someone doesn't want to buy something that's unique. But when you're making rental properties, you can make a very unique floor plan and sometimes that's what makes it rent - because it's a one-of-a-kind unit in a city and someone's gonna say. Oh my god I'm the only person that has this window this giant window that pivots, or I'm the only person that has this really cool layout or something like that. So I try to imbue the units with this kind of drama. Or taking advantage of whatever orientation is and so each of the buildings is addressing that condition. The building on the east is economical town houses, but they’re walk-up. See you walk up to three three-story building and there's a little juice bar on the ground floor and then two studios on the ground floor, but the second and third floor you walk up, and I put the bedrooms on the second floor, so I called it upside down master - the bedrooms are on the second floor, and then you go all the way upstairs and the living room is on the top floor because that's where the view is. So that has a certain efficiency.


PDX: So there's an attitude toward affordability in what you want to build.

LR: My attitude towards affordability is sort of like this: you want to build it as small as you can, but you want it to appear as large as possible, and in order to appear as large as possible you want to connect it to outdoor spaces. There's myriad health benefits that come along with that as well.

Renters want bigger spaces, they want closets, they want this that or the other and it's like well yeah, but then your rents gonna be so high… so you're trying to… I want to give them a lot, but I want it not to cost too much, so I try to get them dramatic spaces, so that usually comes into things like tall ceilings, big windows, a connection to the outdoors, stuff like that. In the corner building, we have a restaurant on the ground floor, and that was a friend from San Diego that married a friend of ours in Portland and moved. That worked out.

It has a semi-public space on the second floor, so it's this giant deck, which has four studios off of that. It's extra wide - it's over 15 feet. I can't give you private outdoor space but I'm going to give you semi-private space, where you share it with maybe two neighbors or something like that. Also, it was taking the ground plane and saying here's the here's your patio, but it's on the second floor, and then from the second floor you can go and walk up to the third floor unit which has a big deck.


And the other building on 28th, that was that was this other fun thing that we were trying to do part of the experiment. There was an existing house, and I wanted to save the house and raise it, raise the structure and built concrete walls underneath it. We went down the road of doing that but the house was in such bad condition we had to tear it down. But the idea was always to have something that was kind of like a house up above and have live-work below.

PDX: So I'd like to understand how those spaces work… I understand that those are live work and the owners of those spaces have residential space behind them facing the courtyard with the tree, is that right?
 

LR: Yes, then there are two more on top - penthouse units. Yeah, sot here’s two units up above, and two units down below. I think the manager has a barbershop down there.


So before we get too far down the road, my friend that’s the other owner of the main partners are myself and who Andy Lair is the founder of Deform which is a general contractor company in Portland. Andy was a key component of it, I mean finding the property, giving me the latitude to do what I want, and then building it. That's what managing it and making sure that or inspiring me to take care of all the edges so it would fit well and was a good project.

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Part two of our conversation with Lloyd continues here.