The ‘Whys’ Behind Housing Design at SERA
In recent years, SERA’s Housing studio added many new faces to our team, including a new Oakland studio to serve clients in The Bay Area. With new talent and expanded geography, the time felt right to revisit some of the goals our studio set a few years back. I saw a unique opportunity for a series of internal exercises to explore our history, refine our studio’s vision with the input of all Housing studio staff, and establish goals for the future to track our progress in the years to come.
We started our visioning series with a presentation from Housing Director and Principal Kurt Schultz on the studio’s history. Although I’ve been at SERA for nearly five years, Kurt presented a number of projects that I hadn’t heard much about previously. I learned about our deep roots in Portland’s central city partnering with many social service agencies to provide much-needed housing for our most vulnerable neighbors. I learned about the warehouse buildings we converted to housing, and the positive evolution over time of the projects we designed and the spaces around them. As Kurt told the stories of our past work, I could see the physical manifestation of SERA’s values expressed through the buildings we’ve created: our passion for improving people’s daily lives; rooting our work within local context and in our own backyard; a focus on creating great urban places; and the integration of sustainability in everything we do.
Once all of our new staff were up to speed with where we’ve been, we shifted our focus to where we’re going next.
Using author Simon Sinek’s framework called, “Start with Why,” our staff broke into small groups to answer questions like: Why do we do what we do? How do we do it? What do we do? Personally, I was most interested in tackling Why because it sets the course for our vision of the future based on what we believe are the most important impacts of our work. It’s also the toughest question to answer of the three. Through this exercise we discovered that all of our Housing staff had similar responses, even though the answer to Why hadn’t been clearly defined across the entire studio before.
So, what did we come up with? Why do we do what we do?
♦ We believe housing is a basic human right.
♦ We believe that everyone deserves access to beautiful, healthy and safe places to live.
♦ We believe housing is foundational for resilient, thriving communities.
♦ We believe the built environment must support equitable communities.
♦ We care about the urban environment and its impact on the natural environment.
All of these points boil down to our deep passion for how design affects people.
As a group of talented architects, interior designers, and sustainability experts, SERA’s Housing studio is highly skilled at solving complex problems creatively, navigating technical issues and jurisdictional hurdles with ease, and delivering projects within budget and on schedule. But our Why is much deeper than practicing “good” architecture and delivering quality products to our clients.
The common thread of our work since even before SERA’s first housing project in the 1980’s is that we care deeply about creating strong communities and spaces for people to call home. We know that design is powerful, and we’re focused on impacting people in positive ways through our work. How does this manifest? At our recently-completed Orchards of 82nd affordable housing project, several community open-houses informed the goals and priorities of the project. We integrated homework spaces for kids in the communal laundry rooms and an open playground in the courtyard to connect residents with their neighborhood. We’ve also recently completed new projects in Tigard, Canby and Milwaukie, each demonstrating the success of increasing density and walkability with urban housing. These projects are strong examples of housing as one component of revitalizing downtown cores of smaller cities into resilient, diverse communities.
On many projects, our architects, interior designers and landscape architects collaborate to create roof terraces, community lounges, and shared kitchens for opportunities for residents to interact and build relationships. Each of these examples show our Why in action.
So, what’s next?
We’ve set new short- and long-term goals to make sure we’re always on track towards achieving our Why, and are continuing these discussions with our partners and clients. We’re also excited to see our process inspiring similar exercises in the other market sector studios across SERA. We’ll share more on that soon!
What is your Why? How can we work together to achieve each other’s goals and dreams for the world we envision? Let us know in the comments below!