BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
Next in our ongoing Architect Questionnaire series is Corey Omey, managing partner at EMA Architecture & Urban Planning. An avid outdoorsman, Corey moved to Portland in 1998 to take advantage of outdoor opportunities like snowboarding and windsurfing while starting his career in architecture. Growing up in Michigan, he always had an interest in art, craft and design fostered by a family who over the years constructed seven additions to their rural home! Those resourceful skills have served him well in his two decades of practice, as someone who is passionate about sustainability and the connection between buildings and quality of life. Omey has an infectious energy, fueled by adventurous stories growing up in the Happy Farmer Food Co-op community, tales of crisscrossing the country on memorable road trips and more recently, renovating their 1925 home utilizing almost entirely recycled and reclaimed materials. It’s no wonder that he is a person for whom success is measured in experiences, lasting relationships and community engagement.
Portland Architecture: Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
Corey Omey: I continually study architecture every day, but my formal degrees were at the University of Michigan for my bachelor of architecture degree, and the University of Oregon's Portland program for my masters. I strongly believe that the experience of architecture school, and any formal training for that matter, is a lot about what the student makes of it and how we apply ourselves. Each part of my university studies was at very different type of school, somewhat intentionally. The U of M architecture program is very competitive, well-funded, and a very well rounded education with strong design and theory in the studios, and a fair amount of practical building construction and structural courses. The U of O Portland program was just starting when I studied there, with an urban design focus; it was inexpensive but not very well funded. Reviews were relaxed and congratulatory.
When I started at the University of Michigan I was seeking an education in architecture, an experience of being in college, a place to learn about history and the future of architecture and design, and to figure out if this career was really the path that I wanted to follow. Michigan was the right school for me to get exactly that. It prepared me well for the education that I received after I moved to Portland and began working with Ernie Munch, where I learned a lot in a short amount of time. My plan was to work for a small firm for a few years, then go to graduate school, work for a larger firm to get large project experience for a few more years, then get my architectural license and start my own small firm or design partnership. I ended up going to University of Oregon Portland program, with one studio in Eugene for the Belluschi Fellowship, and one studio in Copenhagen Denmark at DIS. The U of O is a great school that is in Portland and fit all of my needs for a graduate school. My plan for working with a small firm, then grad school, then a large firm, followed by opening my own practice transitioned into continuing to work with and learn from Ernie Munch, and I am now the managing partner of EMA.
When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Our family home, and really our whole community growing up, developed organically over time. Experiencing that at a formative time early in life gave me a fascination with materials and their role in construction. The largest part of that is, even today, my father. He was a woodsman, gardener, carpenter, salvage specialist, timber framer, and farmer. My mother had a career running a construction company, and later was an estimator for a local lumber yard. Building was normal for us. Over the years we personally renovated the old hunting shack we lived in on 35 acres in West Michigan. The process of removing previous additions, building a few barns, adding spaces that better fit our needs: that was amazing. I was able to see how a sustainable choice or a practical material would fit into the existing structure, with old barns becoming the wall finishes, and a gymnasium floor that was re-purposed for our kitchen and dining room; we retained the random bits of colored stripes for years before they were sanded off in a re-finish. One of my favorite stories from growing up amid all this is that I learned R-value and the alphabet at the same time, by reading the writing on the exposed-vapor retarder in the loft of our home. I also learned about exterior insulation from my Mom, as she incorporated continuous rigid exterior insulation into the design of one of the additions to our family home. She apparently had not yet learned about the rain-screen concept.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
That is a difficult question to answer, as there are many favorites, all with Ernie Munch, but each for different reasons.
Working on renovations for Powell's Books over the years, the Column of Books provided the first detail that I ever worked on: the brick support above the column of books). The Rare Book Room was my first project within a project that I was largely responsible for. The southeast quadrant remodel is a favorite too, again from the great Powell’s people, staff, and managers that we work with and also working on a Portland icon where the project is all about the books, and the architecture supports the books and wayfinding to find, buy, read, and sell books. I still prefer to turn pages than to read on an electronic device.
Halsey Terrace is a simple, low cost project where Ernie and I designed a renovation of existing apartment buildings that had been run down and were in need of repair. There was not any “high design” work, but it was very rewarding to see the apartments, community space that we created by combining two of the previous apartments and covered patio between the buildings in use after the project was complete. The people living there really seemed to appreciate having their place to live, community space, and having front porches of their own.
Stoller Winery and Stoller Tasting Room are two of my favorite projects that I have worked on while with EMA. They are two adjacent buildings for the same client at Stoller Family Estate, and each have a very distinct style that is directly reflective of each buildings’ unique program. They are my favorite projects for the people, the place, and the architecture, but also the process of designing, as part of the design team, and seeing these buildings built. I learned a lot from each of the contractors as they each worked in their specific ways.
Through the winery project I became friends with their then new winemaker, Melissa. On both projects I was very involved in the design of the details and the construction administration. Ernie Munch is the architect of record for both. We still enjoy our many visits to Stoller Family Estate for weekend wine tasting, great people, and disc golf.
Stoller tasting room exterior (Andrea Johnson) and interior (Carolyn Wells-Kramer)
We are currently working on a project that I feel a close connection to, but certainly one that I would never hope to have due to the circumstance. Years ago I met Brian Duncan and his wife Hanne through mutual friend’s potlucks and gatherings. They had recently moved to Portland, and I remember my wife Deb and I agreeing that we hope to become close friends someday. Brian and Hanne are the type of passionate and caring, selfless and full of life people that everyone wants to be friends with. As sometimes happens with life, work, and birth of children, it took a while before the friendship formed.
Last spring I heard the news that Brian had been hit by a car while riding his bike. He was lucky to be alive, but will likely never walk again, and is now a quadriplegic. This hit me hard.
Months later, after they decided that they will stay in Portland and when they were fairly sure that Brian would be able to come home, Hanne called and asked if I would look at their house and help make it as accessible as possible. A Portland foursquare, there was limited space to work with on the first floor. We came up with a great design and fit a modern addition into their small back yard with room leftover for a garden and great light and views to their outdoor spaces. It would have been a really fun project to see built, but we could not figure out a way to make the small and tight upstairs bedroom spaces accessible in any way, especially within their budget.
The project would have given Brian and Hanne a new master suite and an accessible yard and downstairs, but he would never be able to go to his daughter’s room. We were lucky enough to be able to place that design in the archives of not yet built when they found a one level home on three lots just two blocks north of their current home. Thus the project name Two Blocks North. This new project wasn’t a huge design project. It will simply create an accessible hallway, master bathroom, and some material and finishes upgrades from this 1950s ranch home. However, the personal importance of the project and the people make it great.
We are working on confirming donation funding and donated materials and labor for the last few parts of the project, which is really only the beginning of Brian and his family’s’ adjustments to a new and different life. Phase 2 & 3 of the project include an integrated planter and front porch, ramp, and sidewalk that will be planted to blend into the house, and a covered ramp and patio in the back of their “new” home. We have had amazing support from many communities, but we can always accept more help for these great people.
The last favorite project that I would like to mention is our own home, a remodel of a simple 1925 house that my wife Deb and I created for our family. We used recycled, reclaimed, and rejected material to create an energy and space efficient home that reflects our values and aesthetic. We enjoy living in our home, and sharing what we have done and learned while creating the place that we live and play.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I cannot answer this question in the singular sense, but if I had to name one, my most important mentor among my colleagues has been Ernie Munch. I am a grateful person in general, but I struggle to convey the magnitude of the impact Ernie has had on my career. It is a bit transcendent. I had moved to Portland and I applied for a position at EMA. I didn't have my master's degree. I had more aspirations than projects on my resume. I did not have a network of local references, and the position had already been filled. Ernie saw something in me of value and he made a new position. You could call it an investment, but it was a wild gamble, really.
Before architecture I also had a ten-summer career as a clay recycling specialist, sculptor, artist, and eventually a potter with Steve and Laurie Pounder of Claybanks Pottery. Steve was the person who really pushed me to apply to and go the University of Michigan and then to move away from Michigan and explore the world, and Laurie continually encouraged my growth as an artist. Another early and very important mentor is Chuck Gordon of GBD Architects, who has been a longtime career mentor from when I first met Chuck through a University of Oregon building enclosures course. Chuck taught me a great deal about building enclosures, details, teaching, and learning from others. Another important mentor has been Bob Grummel of Grummel Engineering, for life coaching, quick thinking with a sharp pencil, and much encouragement along the way. Doug Macy of Walker Macy for his ability to read the landscape, Wayne Stewart, retired civil engineer for his ability to apply math and common sense at the same time. And Don Geddes of Walsh Construction who has shown me how to approach a project from conception through completion with a straight forward, open, honest, and level headed approach.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like the people, communication, and seeing how a project and all the relationships of people and materiality of a project come together over time. As an architect, I most excel at the details.
Watzek House (Brian Libby)
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Watzek House by John Yeon, Commonwealth (Equitable) Building by Pietro Belluschi, Wieden+Kennedy Headquarters by Allied Works Architecture, Cathedral Park and St John’s Bridge by Robinson and Steinman, the Marilyn Moyer Meditation Chapel at the Grotto by TVA Architecture, and the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center (Ecotrust Building) by Holst Architecture, to name a few.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Outside of Portland but still in Oregon, the Mt. Angel Abbey library by Alvar Aalto is a favorite local building. Outside of the US, I have a large list of favorites: from Kunsthous Bregens by Peter Zumthor for its minimalist, brutal, yet simple spaces and the amazing experience that I had while walking in the dual facade, to Segrata Familia by Antonio Gaudi, and the Pantheon when the sun comes through the oculus just right.
Mt. Angel Abbey Library (Brian Libby)
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I do not believe that architecture is about being heralded or gaining credit. There are, however, many great architects, designers, and firms doing good work. I would also like to point out that it is often the work being done by the designers, project managers, and staff of the firms that should really be heralded.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I would like to see more projects that are reflective of Portland, of how we live, work and play. I would like to see housing options for families, and inclusive housing that is based on the assets, interests, goals and needs of those who live in a community rather than designing and building to accommodate peoples’ deficits. I would like to see more use of natural light, similar to how Scandinavian countries respect, cherish, and harvest their daylight, and continue on our track forward with sustainable, efficient, smart and sensitive buildings, spaces and transportation systems.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I rate the performance of local government on the level of livability of Portland, and I think that the Urban Growth Boundary and the careful and thoughtful planning of how Portland changes over time is a big part of our great City and the Pacific Northwest. To the extent that the local government has been supportive of this trend towards continuing to make Portland a great place, I appreciate and respect what many planners, bureaus, commissions, and great people within the local government have done. There are, of course, a few people within local governance that have their head too far into the rules and don’t take the time or effort to look at the big picture, that being the health and well being of our community and the intent of the codes and regulations. I like to work with those in governance that are there to serve and protect the public interest, and who can look at the regulations and code and interpret and enforce code with reason and a proactive approach. I would rate the overall performance of our local government high, but with plenty of room for improvement in some of the review and communication processes and with the respect and regard to attracting viable and sustainable businesses to this great place that is Portland.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I would rather see more of our young architects and designers from here in Portland design more great buildings in our communities.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Pottery, both sculptural and functional, and electric vehicles.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
The Princess Bride, Fantasia, and my next future favorite may be Shantaram, since I love the book.