BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
The latest installment in our series highlighting local architects introduces us to Erica Dunn, lead architect at Green Hammer. Serving as the design team manager and lead architect in this design-build firm, Erica guides the design process and ensures steady collaboration as projects transition to the build team. A world traveler at a young age and quick with math, she initially began college studies at Berkeley focusing on international business but changed course fairly quickly once exposed to the potential of design and art. Finding something so fresh and different allowed Erica to see an artistic side she didn’t know existed, especially when until that moment she insists “there was no artistic aspect to my personality!” That initial joy at finding her talent towards design has since grown and is now coupled with a deep passion towards sustainability. Starting as an intern at a residential firm in the Bay Area after graduation, she has travelled full circle back to residential projects, in addition to commercial and multi-family projects, with Green Hammer after seven years at Hennebery Eddy Architects. Inspired by the design-build company’s mission and ambitions to create transformative buildings, it’s clear in speaking with Erica that the collaborative process of integrated design is a natural fit for someone who’s comfortable with both her analytical and creative sides.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Erica Dunn: I had no idea I wanted to be an architect until my freshman year in college. I went to the University of California at Berkeley thinking I would study international business. Partway through my freshman year I realized I had no interest in studying business, that I had just chosen it because it seemed like a respectable career and I liked math. I remember sitting in my dorm room going through the entire degree catalog at Berkeley trying to figure out what else I could major in. The only two that jumped out at me were psychology and architecture. I was already in an intro-to-psychology class and a friend of mine, who was studying architecture, encouraged me to take the introductory architecture class. It was a lecture course that looked at the role and impact of architecture across a wide range of scales – from our cities, to public spaces, to our homes, and finally to its impact on the human experience and our emotions. I realized that studying architecture was not just the study of design but also of human psychology and how to create spaces that could have a positive impact on the human experience.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
My undergraduate degree in architecture is from Berkeley and my master’s is from University of Oregon, in the Portland program. While they were pretty different experiences they did have two things in common that had a huge impact on me – they both had sustainable design at the core of their teachings and were both extremely collaborative environments.
Berkeley’s curriculum had a very strong design and art focus for which I am extremely grateful. Not realizing I wanted to be an architect until after I was in college I look back and realize how lucky I was to be, first, at an undergraduate program that actually had architecture as a degree choice and, second, was also one of the top architecture programs in the country. Growing up my only artistic endeavors were music and dance focused, never drawing. Berkeley had amazing visual studies courses that I threw myself into and really discovered a whole other side of myself and a new means of communication. The studios were very intentional building blocks that focused on the fundamentals of design and developing a strong understanding of intentional and intuitive design decisions. They also focused on architecture at the granular scale in terms of the elements that make up a building and how to use those to create space.
The University of Oregon was an excellent bookend to Berkeley, with the focus on urban design - how buildings create spaces within a city – and the tectonic aspect of architecture.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
I feel really lucky to have worked on a number of amazing projects, but one of my favorite projects, which is currently wrapping up, is a new Tasting Room and Case Storage for Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden in the Rogue Valley. It’s tiny for a commercial building, about the size of a single family home, but it’s packed with ambition. The owners of the vineyard are an amazing couple whose environmental goals are aligned with Green Hammer’s mission of creating inspiring, low-energy, healthy buildings. For the project we are pursuing the Living Building Challenge, are part of the Energy Trust of Oregon’s Path to Net Zero Program, and it was designed using Passive House principles as a means to net-zero energy. It was also my first design project with Green Hammer and it was amazing to see the power of a unified design-build team when it comes to achieving really high sustainability goals.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Some of my biggest mentors have actually been the contractors I’ve worked with on projects - which probably influenced my decision to work at a design-build firm. Mike Fessler is an incredible superintendent at R&H Construction with whom I was lucky enough to work. He taught me a lot about construction sequencing, tolerances, and that, while the industry can sometimes encourage an adversarial relationship between architects and contractors, at the end of the day, good architecture requires a team effort where everyone is working towards the same goals.
He’d probably be surprised to read this, but I think of Ian Gelbrich of FFA Architecture and Interiors as a design mentor. He and I shared a cubicle at Hennebery Eddy when he was designing Fire Station 76 and he had such a clean and clear design process. It was really inspiring to watch.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
My job with Green Hammer is really my dream job: running a small design team within the context of a design-build firm that specializes in high performance buildings. The variety of roles I play on any given day – from designer to project manager, to business developer – keeps things exciting. And getting to work on highly sustainable buildings with this incredibly talented team of architecture and energy geeks keeps me growing as an architect.
My abilities and skills in architecture have always stemmed from my interest in understanding human beings and how we engage with the physical world. Working closely with clients, hearing their stories, and understanding their goals for their projects feels really natural to me because I’m genuinely interested in learning about people. I see my role as an architect as that of translator: of listening to clients, listening to the site, listening to the program, and translating that into an inspiring design that feels like the natural integration of all those forces. Last week we were on a site visit with our client for a new net-zero energy home in Southern Oregon that’s a couple of months away from completion. He lives in Ohio - he and his wife are retiring to Southern Oregon when the house is finished - so he had not seen the project in several months. When we walked up to the library space on the upper floor that has this incredible view of the surrounding hills and the space is just flooded with light he said, with a big smile on his face, “You made my dream a reality.” I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
Union Way and the Weiden + Kennedy building are two of my favorite new-ish Portland Buildings that are really thoughtful in their approach to public/common space. And the Union Bank of California Tower is one of my favorite high-rises. It’s so uncommon to see such a successful integration of a high rise and ground-floor landscaping, but the texture and color of the slate on that building is the perfect backdrop to the white cherry blossoms. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the spring when the cherry trees are in bloom. It’s amazing to think that for that brief moment, such a strong and elegant building is subservient to its landscape.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
One of my favorite spaces in a building is/was the Tadao Ando room in the Art Institute of Chicago. Walking across the threshold into the silence of that space, both visibly and audibly, was breathtaking. I understand they’ve opened it up to the rest of the museum now which is such a shame. It was a peaceful refuge within the bustling chaos of the Art Institute. A building I could spend hours in is the Musee d’Orsay - such a brilliant adaptive reuse that serves its new use so well while preserving the original building’s history, character, and sense of scale. And eating in the train station’s original, over-the-top, and beautifully restored, Beaux-Arts restaurant is an amazing treat that’s not to be missed.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Just like in most architectural communities, our focus tends to be on commercial architects. I think Portland has a lot of great architects doing residential work, like Giulietti Schouten Architects, that you only really hear about when there’s an AIA Homes Tour. I would love to see more presentations and discussions around the beautiful residential work happening in Portland.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Looking at the current development boom in Portland, our residential built environment is stratifying into large single family homes and 4-story multi-family micro-apartments. Within the context of increasing the city’s density, there needs to be a return to the middle ground of housing typologies such as courtyard housing and row houses – something that balances the need for more housing units within the city with the human need for light, open space, and room for families. We’re working on a new 16-unit development in Northeast Portland with BCMC that has a really interesting program of creating multi-generational, age-in-place, market rate apartments modeled on co-housing. It’s a pretty unique development model and I think the Portland market is ripe for it.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I am really struggling with the city’s local government these days. I understand, support, and even encourage the increase in density in Portland, but I think we are not placing enough expectations on what our buildings give back to the experience of the city. When we are lucky, you get lovely spaces like the Hacker building on Division (with Salt and Straw and St. Honore) where the building steps back and actually creates spaces and courtyards for pedestrians to inhabit. And when we aren’t lucky, we get a wall of residential units on the first floor with all of the window shades drawn - because who wants a pedestrian two feet away looking into their home? I think of cities like Vancouver, BC that placed real requirements on new developments to provide public amenities as part of the projects and I think Portland is missing a huge opportunity in this current building boom.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I think David Adjaye brings a really interesting perspective to the world of architecture and to his projects. With his focus on the cultural and historical context of a site, the building program, and the occupants, I’d love to see what he would do in Portland. On the other end of the spectrum I would love to see something by Baumschlager Eberle. I love their meticulous (bordering on obsessive!) attention to detail and the way they use repetition to create a sense of texture in their buildings.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Ceramic cups and bowls. They are similar to architecture in their notions of form, function, materiality, tactility, and color. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my husband works for the Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC) so we are always finding ourselves at ceramic sales. We live in a very small house and we have enough cups and bowls to easily serve 40 people. We’ve tried to put a moratorium on buying any more, telling ourselves we’ll only buy things to give to other people, but somehow those “gifts” never make it out of the house. The bowl and the cup in the photo are by Rebekah Diamantopoulos (now Rebekah Diamantopoulos Jones) whose work, at least when at OCAC, often played with balance and the tension of the appearance of mass on these tiny bases.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Amelie," "Annie Hall," and "The Artist." (Apparently I need to branch out and see some movies that don’t start with the letter A!)