"We’re doing anything we can to try to help the housing crisis and really move the needle on that by adding density to the city of Portland without changing the character of the city. It’s something I'm passionate about and I love." —Eli Green
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 SQFT Studios, based in Portland, Oregon. UrbanForm co-founder and CEO Quang Truong had a conversation with Architect and Founder Eli Green.
Eli started his long journey in architecture working in both sustainability consulting as well as traditional architecture practice before starting an ADU-focused design-build company. ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) are the hottest acronym in the housing market right now, sort of like NFTs for the real world. And hearing Eli's perspective and insights shows why.
Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our interview.
Let's jump into it. I love to start off by just asking, what's your background and how did you start SQFT Studios?
I got interested in architecture when I was young. At 16, I go to visit my family in Pennsylvania, and we went to go see Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. It clicked in that moment. I was like, this is something I could do. This is such an amazing thing to be a part of. I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program back in Pittsburgh, which is where my family lives. And there was a strong sustainability element to that program, and it just felt really right.
And so I graduated and worked in architecture. I got into sustainability consulting with Brightworks. After several years consulting, I ended up working at Bora Architects and did some wonderful work there with Heinz Rudolph, who was one of the original namesakes of the firm, working on schools with them with a lot of sustainability focus.
And then 2008 hit and I started working for myself. At the same time I met my now wife and I passed all my [licensure] tests and picked up my life and moved to New York City. But in moving to New York, I met with Scott Lewis, who is the owner of Brightworks, and had this conversation. I founded the New York office for them and built up a portfolio of work and relationships with Related Companies and some other big developers.
Then my friend came to me, and he said, hey, I want to start this business. I need your help. Let's do this together. So we started this idea of building accessory structures. There was this niche for this kind of work, for people that aren't building houses from scratch. It’s not Street of Dreams; it's not people with millions of dollars to spend. It's people who are homeowners, who have invested in their house, who want to keep investing in it. And Portland being sort of the leader in this field of accessory structures and ADUs in particular. All of this within the context of the housing crisis.
We built one structure, built it together with hammers and everything. And it was an eye-opening experience. We thought we knew everything, and we knew nothing. We got one client, we got another. We built our first guest suite, and it was amazing how the market pushed us in the right direction. Because the need is there, the desire is there. Home studios are great. But a vastly larger segment of the population can truly benefit from an ADU in terms of rental income.
And there's multigenerational living, bringing a parent on site to care for them. It's a huge cost savings. Spending a lot of money to build an ADU is a huge cost savings versus putting a parent into a home where somebody else is caring for them. The benefits of that are so myriad. It's really wonderful. Whenever somebody contacts me for a multi-generational project, it's my favorite kind of work. I jump on it right away.
And once we made that pivot to ADU, people keep contacting us nonstop for that. And we’re doing anything we can to try to help the housing crisis and really move the needle on that by adding density to the city of Portland without changing the character of the city. It’s something I'm passionate about and I love.
That's where we find ourselves today. And I'm growing the business more and more. That's a lot of background for you.
I really love all of that, starting from the moment when you saw Fallingwater. I always feel that a lot of architects have this moment where they're in front of a building that triggers something that opens them up to this world of architecture. That's something that I love about architects: everybody has this desire to be touch in with the landscape, with people, with their environment, to create something better.
And that's something that we’re trying to do is to help the people who are working in our built environment do better work. So that we can kind of key into that thing that initially brought us into architecture, which is to make beautiful places for people that can positively affect our lives and the environment.
What do you think distinguishes you as a firm?
Well, we're a design build firm, which is really important to me. I noticed in architecture that there was divergence between the architects and the builders, and there's people trying to bring it back together in some way.
But I remember looking at the plan drawings when I was in Bora. And there was this point on the drawings where they showed like a note to a craftsperson where their work is going to go, but not telling them what to build. And that to me, that partnership, that idea of like, I'm just showing you the building and I trust your knowledge and your experience and our relationship.
The carpenters that work for SQFT Studios are ultimately our brand ambassador on site. What they build and their work is much more theirs than it is mine. And that trust, that relationship where they know what to do, and they know how valuable they are to me is really important. I mean, I love the role I have is, like the owner of the company and that I'm hiring people and working with them, and that I'm not just, like, taking their product and benefiting from their labor. I'm facilitating their career, and I'm celebrating that we're working together, and they're teaching me as much as I'm telling them anything. So that relationship to me is really special, and that's something I truly value. It's very hard to communicate, but I think our buildings ultimately speak to that more than anything else. So that's one thing that really distinguishes SQFT Studios. We're a small firm, so it's very personal.
"The carpenters that work for SQFT Studios are ultimately our brand ambassador on site. What they build and their work is much more theirs than it is mine. And that trust, that relationship where they know what to do, and they know how valuable they are to me is really important." — Eli Green
It's a great response. I teach at PSU, and I see that architecture did start to move away from a relationship to building knowledge. Architectural process is taught as kind of top down, where the architect is the hero, sketching into the night, and then magically a building materializes. It ignores all the other stakeholders who have a place in the process, from the contractor to the engineer to the financing to the jurisdiction and community. We lost a little bit of that connection to building knowledge.
So I love hearing that distinction for SQFT Studios because it's something that became crucial to me, too. I think that when we start to think about all these other issues that architecture can start to address, thinking about architecture as a process as opposed to sort of an edict from an architect is a much more meaningful way to engage with all the people that are responsible for our built environment. When you start to engage in this process of building with a community, you tie into so much knowledge.
We've already kind of talked about it a little bit, but we talked about how much time you spend looking at the zoning code and how UrbanForm helps with that. So I'm not going to repeat that, but maybe I would like to ask something specific. Is there a particular story or situation that you can tell us about how the information provided by UrbanForm made a difference?
Yeah. Actually, I had a project I needed to respond to today, the property down in Sellwood on a narrow lot townhouse where they have a garage in the back. They were looking at adding a home office above it. I said, before we get into a whole design build contract with a 5 or 10 thousand dollar retainer, let's do a feasibility study, a $500 level engagement. And it just so happened that that's right when we started talking and you gave me access and I downloaded the first report for that property.
And I thought I was going to have to do this sort of laborious analysis and comb through the code, and I plugged in their address to UrbanForm and I realized they can't build anything. They're already way over the FAR because it was built on previous zoning. So what was like this potential 5 hours of work or whatever just to prove it ended up being a 30 minute investigation. I downloaded the report, I sent it to them, and I didn't have to spend an additional half an hour crafting an email or reviewing it with them. I said, yeah, this is a really powerful tool.
Not the result they wanted, but the quickest way to get to that knowledge.
Well, I think that's right. It communicates the rules efficiently so that everybody can know the rules that govern what they're allowed to do with their property. It's just communicating that information as efficiently as possible. And sometimes, of course, it doesn't work out to what you wanted initially, but at least you know the rules. We can get to that point where you know the rules faster. And previously, like you said, it took hours to just know the rules and just to double check them.
I just had a crazy vision of UrbanForm and the 3D view of the MaxBuild volume or something. And just like, you know how when you look at Google Earth, I was imagining a view of Portland with the MaxBuild volume and these like bubbles over the properties, just saying how much build volume they have. And you could do this very graphical experience of looking at the city and identify the properties that really are the best candidates for development in that way or something. And then I was just imagining I would pluck them and call them on the phone or something like, hey, you've got a huge potential to build here.
Well, you're actually talking about a feature that I don't typically share with architects, but it is something that is available in UrbanForm where you can actually find all of those properties that have, for instance, a delta between the allowable building and the existing. And this is something, of course, that before UrbanForm wasn't possible at all because it took a three-to-four-hour analysis for one single site. And of course, doing that work over the entire city is impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive, labor wise.
But UrbanForm has, within the Enterprise level of subscription, what we call the Filter function. All these factors, lot size, whether or not it's on a corner, maximum footprint, and the difference between the maximum allowable and the existing, even what year the building was built: you can filter all of those things. It is a power that was never before possible. And there are certain developers who have already kind of keyed into that ability as a new kind of ability to prospect for development.
But it is possible, exactly what you're talking about. Really.
Should I end up going down that path of expansion I would become an Enterprise subscriber immediately.
Yeah it's something that I can be happy to work with you on. We've seen that within 30 seconds, we've identified all the lots that have a certain amount of potential within somebody’s knowledge of what circumstances are advantageous to build. Houses built between a certain year on a corner, lot size, or any other certain thing. And it just is really, really, powerful. You've identified a few hundred or a few dozen potential best fit lots in seconds.
When we take that step, we'll work together for sure.
Yes. I'd be happy to work with you on it. Okay, I want to dig in. I have a couple more specific questions I would really love to just kind of understand a little bit more fully. How much time do you spend using UrbanForm?
Well, I would say for every call I make. Let's say I get five inquiries a week, and maybe two of them are really qualified. I'll often spend half an hour or more on the phone with that person, ideally. So I pull up my CRM, I copy the address, I go to UrbanForm. I load it in as I'm calling, so while I'm talking to them, I'm using it during that call, and I'll reference it multiple times. So I would say it should be that I'm at least an hour a week using Urban Form. And it's definitely for me on the sales front element, because if I haven't qualified it for the zoning before we sign a proposal, then I'm not doing my job.
And then I schedule a site visit and I go out and have a site visit. And if the site visit confirms my suspicion and we want to work together, I go home and I write the proposal. And I use UrbanForm then as well. I'll include, this is your site of this many square feet and you have this many square feet available. And I have downloaded a couple of reports and shared them with clients for that proposal purpose as well. I think that should be my SOP now: send the proposal and include the report.
Yeah, it's great. I think it's fantastic to hear that kind of standard operating procedure that you talked about, because I would say the idea was to give people like you the freedom to operate outside of doing rote zoning research as much as possible. It's something that I had to do when I was a project manager in architecture. I suppose you get better and better at it, but I just feel at this point, there's no need to be diving through arcane text documents to be doing the same zoning work that multiple people are doing over and over again for each particular property.
I love firms like yours, I have to say, because I feel like you're doing real architectural work, real design work for the community you're working with, the jurisdiction you're contributing to, the way that development is supposed to happen here in Portland. I mean, I think you're keying into something that a lot of people are talking about, which is kind of creating great places for people to live that are middle density. Not sprawl, obviously, but not at inhumane levels of density, either. I think that's something that's really important, and I think that's something that everybody fundamentally understands.
Well, first of all, thank you for your time. We spent a lot of time now, but it's been really great to hear everything.
Beautiful. Thank you.
Okay. Well, thank you so much, Eli.