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Featured Customer: Design Research Office (DRO)

"At the end of the day DRO is focused on delivering high quality buildings but recognizes that architects today increasingly need to step outside of their conventional roles in order to deliver." - Jonah Gamblin, AIA

Jonah Gamblin, AIA

In this continuation of a multi-part series, we are showcasing customers and users of UrbanForm — innovative people and practices who are making a difference in their environments. This feature is about Design Research Office (DRO), a multi-disciplinary practice based in Portland, Oregon. UrbanForm co-founder and CEO Quang Truong had a conversation with co-founder and Principal Jonah Gamblin, AIA.


Jonah started out as a philosophy major before going to Yale, worked in Europe for a large multi-national developer, and then spent time in one of the most important architectural offices of the past generation, OMA/Rem Koolhaas, in Rotterdam. This combination of design, development, theory, and research certainly distinguishes DRO as one of the most exciting young practices in Portland, Oregon. UrbanForm is excited to be supporting a practice with such an expansive vision for architecture.


Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our interview.


Quang Truong

First of all, tell us about DRO. You have a really distinguished and interesting background, so I'd be interested in hearing you us tell a bit about it, as well.


Jonah Gamblin

Design Research Office was established in mid-2021 as a platform to bring together a series of related businesses including a full-service architectural design practice, real estate development and more speculative research projects into building technology.


Nicholas [DRO co-founder Nicholas Papaefthimiou, AIA] has a background in architecture and also a degree in structural engineering, experience as a developer with in-fill projects in Portland and quite a bit of academic experience.


I started as a philosophy major at the University of Chicago. And there it was often combined with social sciences, so it wasn't pure philosophy, but it was the kind of practice where you take the theory and the application.


And then at Yale I did the developer studio my first year. That was the first year that there was that Developer Studio; Stefan Behnisch was the architect and Gerald Hines was the developer. Afterwards, I spent close to 10 years in Europe with Hines in London, then moved to OMA in Rotterdam before returning to Portland and developing our more local practice.


The combination of those two, first coming from the critical theory and looking at things from a theoretical point of view, then wanting to peel back the layer and work with the practical bit, the more hands-on development experience: I think both of those, at least for me, created an interest in wanting to expand the purview of what we end up considering to be design.


Diamond Foods

Quang Truong

What do you think distinguishes DRO as an architecture firm?


Jonah Gamblin

I think so often, even on these projects where the architects come in really early in feasibility or concept design, there were still so many decisions that have been made prior to the architect coming to the table: market positioning, typology, location for the project, zoning, financing structure, etc. And those were all very strongly delivering the box that you were working within.


I started to think about what's the longer-term relationship that one could have to this kind of work. And thinking about just how do you participate in the value that you're creating and where do you want to be in the process? What are the sorts of things that you want to have access to from a design point of view?


Quang Truong

I would say those things are very similar to the things that drove us to start UrbanForm.


Jonah Gamblin

So the thing that I think Nicholas and I found interesting about working together and what we're trying to pursue with these affordable housing projects, is that both of these two affordable housing projects we're doing, he's also working as the developer. And I think we're both coming at it from a point of view that architectural design is one part of it. But then we've both had experiences in the surrounding disciplines, whether it's project management or general construction, structural engineering, and also finance and development.


At the end of the day DRO is focused on delivering high quality buildings but recognizes that architects today increasingly need to step outside of their conventional roles in order to deliver. As a result, we are as interested in designing the financial, legal aspects and management of a project as we are focused on material and assembly and formal resolution.


Quang Truong

What is the project you're most proud of so far, and tell us why.


Kafoury Court

Jonah Gamblin

We are in the process of completing a 40-unit supportive housing project for Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives in NE Portland which has been remarkably rewarding. The project requires aligning the mission of our client, and the higher density development that realizes this mission, to an established, low-density residential neighborhood.


Our Neighborhood Contact meeting was one of the most fascinating conversations I have been witness to about development, equity, design and the future of urban living in Portland.


Quang Truong

Speaking of which, how would you like to see Portland develop as a city, and what is your dream project within Portland?


Jonah Gamblin

We think the next wave of development in Portland will add density that will make the last wave look quaint and the challenge will be how we preserve the values of human-centric urban design, inclusiveness, connection to nature in buildings that will have much in common with the level of development in other major Pacific Rim cities. I think it will be increasingly difficult to separate urban design and planning from architecture.


As for a dream project, how about a demolition plan for I-5?


Quang Truong

Yeah, I-5. I think the new transportation modalities are just so fascinating to think about. My daughter zooms around on this electric hoverboard nowadays and I think back to how magical that would have seemed to me as a kid. It's not just magical, but it makes you rethink your spatial relationship to your immediate environs. Which is, of course, the basis of urban thinking.


Ok, how did you find out about UrbanForm?



Eastern Oregon House

Jonah Gamblin

We’ve been friends since graduate school and we have been talking about this for years. I've been listening to this idea of yours for years, and I'm glad it's finally taking off. Relieved, really.


Quang Truong

Thanks. Can you describe how UrbanForm helps DRO better achieve its firm-wide goals?


Jonah Gamblin

Ideally, I think where I would be able to go is not just another fee for service architectural design firm, but one that can kind of expand the menu of what is being designed either in partnership with developers, nonprofits, or also doing our own projects, from a development and equity-raising point of view. I think that's the goal and the reason for the goal.


From a development perspective, we have set-up financial models which are able to import data from UrbanForm directly to accelerate due diligence of sites. The ease by which we are able to integrate zoning, spatial planning and financial analysis is definitely helped by UrbanForm.


Quang Truong

Can you tell us about a specific project or situation where the information provided by UrbanForm made a difference?



B290

Jonah Gamblin

Yeah, we did use it on Kafouri Court project where there was definitely some questions regarding the difference between the setback and the step back height requirements. And we used UrbanForm to help us confirm those issues. Identifying the relevant code sections, saving us time in going through the code.


Quang Truong

How much time do you typically spend looking at the zoning code for a project? How much does UrbanForm cut that down?


Jonah Gamblin

I would say zoning research can typically take half a day. UrbanForm can reduce that to 15 or 30 minutes.

Quang Truong

Is there anything you would like to see UrbanForm provide in the future?


Jonah Gamblin

I would like a subscription-based API to be able to import data dynamically from multiple sites.


Quang Truong

You're now talking about one of the most powerful features of UrbanForm, which comes as a natural product of the digitization of information. It's the ability to search, sort, and filter. I think that it's such a leap from the way things have previously been done, that many people haven't yet conceptualized what to do with this ability. It's a bit like me staring at my daughter's hoverboard.


Ok, well, tell us what the future holds in store for DRO?


Tesoro

Jonah Gamblin

We are starting to look at affordable and workforce housing opportunities outside of Portland. We have recently been looking at sites within the Cascade Head Biosphere reserve to provide workforce housing for people involved in ecological maintenance and habitat restoration. Who knew housing affordability is also a climate issue?

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