BY TAZ LOOMANS
The latest installment in our continuing series on local architects, their inspirations and favorite works brings us to a rising star in Portland architecture, Emily Refi. Refi has worked at SRG Partnership, owned her own firm and now is a project architect and designer with Waterleaf Architecture, Interiors and Planning. She's worked on projects of many scales, including small residential renovations to huge commercial projects. Her love of both the conceptual design phase and the nuts and bolts of the architecture process makes Refi versatile, a great designer and a great implementor.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Emily Refi: I grew up in Utah in a Mormon household and in an aptitude test in high school architecture came up as the number one career for me. But in the culture I was brought up in, becoming an architect didn't even seem like a real option. So I started college in interior design. But I felt as if something was missing for me so I switched over to business. While interning at an accounting firm, I had my big revelation about architecture. My office at the time moved from a beautiful sixth-floor, all-glass space to a room with no view and I noticed that even though I was doing the same exact work, things felt really different. My physical environment had so much impact on the way I felt, my mood and my whole outlook. After thinking about it, I realized that it's a very important thing that architects do: they provide spaces that make people's life experiences better. So I became curious about space planning and architecture and I enrolled in the historic preservation program at the University of Utah. But after a few classes, I quickly realized I wanted to go into the full fledged architecture program.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied undergraduate architecture at the University of Utah and I went to the University of Oregon for graduate school. University of Utah was a very rigorous and very traditional Beaux Arts-style school where you're presenting to your professors and everyone's watching and they're brutal! This jury approach made me try a lot harder and expect more from myself. It gave me a good work ethic. University of Oregon was a lot more conventional and collaborative and less judgmental. It was great to study a street corner and the way the urban armature can impact a building you're placing. I'm glad to have had both experiences: the intense jury and a more collaborative environment.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
I would say my favorite project so far was the boat house I did when I had my own firm. It was located on the Columbia River. The project was to add a second story of living quarters on top of an existing gable-roof boat house. The boat house was very industrial, nothing fancy. The dynamics of working on the water and the engineering logistics of something that's floating and moving were fascinating and challenging. And I loved all of the natural elements that were available to respond to, the views of being on the water, working with the birds, and it was wonderful to incorporate the architectural vernacular that already existed in the area of some converted boats and old tug boats. Another thing that made the project very interesting and challenging was that it was difficult to get materials in and out of the site. Out of sheer necessity, so much was salvaged and so much was recycled or acquired from other people in the marina that were working on other projects. The way the marina community used resources went beyond what we normally think of as sustainability. Natural materials made a lot of sense out there - we used wood framing with wood trusses. We brought in some steel elements as well with a steel moment frame that supported the addition up above. We added corrugated steel cladding and cedar siding and a cable rail on the second floor so that we didn't obstruct the view out onto the water.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
John Schleuning, one of the main design principals at the SRG Partnership. His mantra is, "Schematic design forever." I worked really closely with him and was his right hand when I worked there. He took me to a lot of client meetings and interviews, which was a pretty great learning experience at such a young age. He is very friendly, he smiles a lot, and he's complimentary. He still expects good work out of everyone but his demeanor makes everyone feel on board and feel engaged. I learned from him that you don't have to be a difficult person to be a great architect.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
The part of the job that I like best is seeing it all come together, seeing the ideas materialize and working on a job site where the contractor is truly proud of what he's doing. I like it when things get finished. What I excel at is taking a big convoluted mess, ideas, budgets and adjacencies and translating it into a sketch. I'm good at the big picture thinking.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I really admire the Wieden + Kennedy building by Allied Works. That was a project I had a small role in when I was an intern construction administrator with Allied Works. I love that the architects treated the existing cold storage warehouse as its own entity and created a new building inside it that's aesthetically beautiful and handles all of the seismic requirements of retrofitting a sixth floor onto the building. Others I like are Skylab Architecture's Camp Victory at Nike, Bside 6 by Works Partnership, Bud Clark Commons (and most anything else) by Holst, and 12 West by ZGF.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
I am obsessed with Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower. The energy of it, the inherent motion, really captivated me. Not to mention the program of proving (or disproving) Einstein's theory of relativity. I spent the better part of an afternoon at the site in Potsdam, Germany sketching it, creating watercolor paintings, and taking in the light and form.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I think the architecture in Portland is still a little bit conservative. There are some nice modern buildings going in that the community has accepted. But a lot of developer-driven housing is still trying to grasp at the traditional because they think that people respond to it better. Housing is big. There's going to be a lot of housing coming into Portland in the coming decades. There's a high demand for it, but it's also one of the most frugal market sectors. We need new housing typologies for urban housing. A successful example is EcoFlats by Works Partnership on Williams with retail on the ground and residential up above. It takes away the idea that everyone needs their own little balcony and the building envelope needs to jut in and out to create interest. It's a very modern gesture to use metal screening and to play with the facade of the building in a more affordable way. We need to explore different ways of providing private outdoor spaces without having all these individual balconies. Ways that can be affordable for developers and that fit within our city.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
These agencies have very good intentions but they can be cumbersome to work with. I'm glad they exist; they keep developers in check. They keep everyone to a baseline decent building standard in urban situations. You can get caught up in little issues that cost the developer a lot of money and it's a really lengthy and slow process. I think the PDC's Storefront Improvement Program is great at giving small-scale businesses a little money to work with. But the amount of documentation that's required really burns up your fee quickly. At the end of the day, these agencies prevent bad development but they also make it challenging if you want to do something innovative or you want to push the envelope a little. It can be a big risk to go through design review with something innovative when you don't know if it's going to get approved or not in six months. Sometimes I wish architects were given less restrictions.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I love the design of film. It has a lot of similarities with architecture: the cadence, the timing and the controlled experience. The spatial and environmental aspects of the two are similar too.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Xanadu." It's a childhood favorite. I'm obsessed with roller skating and it was this magical place they made from a warehouse. It is sort of architectural in a way. My friends and I would set up "Xanadu" scenes in the basement. Other favorites are a lot of the Tim Burton movies like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Edward Scissorhands." And I like Wes Anderson movies, the costumes, the sets and the attitude. "The Royal Tennenbaums" is a favorite.
What has it been like to be a woman in architecture?
I like to think that as a woman I see the world differently, that I can be empathetic to the way a user would experience a space and that I can rally people and cultivate relationships. Like I mentioned before, growing up I never had any sort of an architect role model, let alone a female architect role model. It didn't even seem like an option in the culture I was raised in. When I changed my major from business to architecture, I knew absolutely nothing about construction but put a ton of energy into getting up to speed. Most of my male counterparts had some background or understanding of construction, or at least portrayed that; even out of school and working in firms I felt that as a woman I always had to go the extra mile to feel valid in my own standing. I learned to take harsh criticism and grow from it. I realized early on that as a woman it's important to be confident in what you're saying, even if you don't always know what the answer is. Whether it comes from living out unconscious gender roles or avoiding being perceived as bossy, women tend to be less direct in communication apologize more. I've been feeling it out and finding my way and the experience I've gained in 13 years of practice has given me confidence. Let's face it: most of our clients, engineers and contractors are men so it's important for women to be self assured to play on equal levels.
How would you describe your life-work balance, especially being a woman with two kids?
I think work-life balance is really a myth. The topic always seems to come up for professional women but rarely for men. As architects I think we would all benefit if our male counterparts were encouraged to seek balance between work and family life, and more women were encouraged to find paths to leadership.
That said, the quest for this illusive balance definitely keeps me on my toes, especially as a single mom of two young children. There are tremendous pressures on working families. Don't get me started on the cost of childcare. I am by no means a super mom - I work hard but I have lots of help. When it all boils down I love the work I do and that keeps me motivated to put energy there. For me there are three components to a semblance of balance: meaningful work, meaningful time with my family and personal time for growth and recreation. I currently have a great schedule with every other Friday off, which affords a little more family/personal time than the typical 40-hour week. Sure work occasionally bleeds into family time and vice versa, but a little overlap is healthy. I like that my children have been exposed to construction sites, to the design process and working drawings. In previous generations, the recipe to being a successful architect with a family involved having a wife taking on most household and family responsibilities, but there are so many other paths to get there.
Taz Loomans is a Portland architect and writer who publishes the Blooming Rock blog.