Chandra Robinson of Lever Architecture

In this episode, Ana hosts Chandra Robinson of Lever Architecture. They discuss ways to support smaller-scale builders, the importance of proximity in sourcing materials, and balancing innovation with the immediate needs of community and client, among other topics.

Recorded on Jan 18, 2023. Read a transcript of the episode below.

Chandra Robinson

Chandra Robinson is a principal at Lever Architecture, a firm founded in Portland, Oregon by Thomas Robinson and Pamela Kislak in 2009. Now based in both Portland and LA, the practice currently numbers over 55 employees.

Lever Architects operates at the intersection of research and design, developing and testing next generation building assemblies and sustainable tools while foregrounding human experience and equity. Recognized for innovation in timber construction by Fast Company in 2021 and 2022, the firm won Architectural Record’s Vanguard Award in 2017 and was named an Emerging Voice by The Architectural League of New York in 2017.

Robinson is vice chair of the Portland Design Commission, a founding board member and treasurer of the Portland chapter of the National Organization for Minority Architects, and a member of the advisory board of Hip Hop Architecture Camp.

At Lever, she recently completed a LEED Platinum campus for equity-based foundation Meyer Memorial Trust. She is currently working on several civic and educational projects, including the Portland Museum of Art, Portland State University’s new School of Art + Design, and two libraries for Multnomah County Library.

About I Would Prefer Not To

Conceived and produced by MIT’s Critical Broadcasting Lab and presented with The Architectural League, I Would Prefer Not To1Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” The Piazza Tales (1856). tackles a usually unexamined subject: the refusal of an architectural commission. Why do architects make the decision to forfeit the possibility of work? At what point is a commission not worth it? When in one’s career is it necessary to make such a decision? Whether concealed out of politeness or deliberately shielded from public scrutiny, architects’ refusals usually go unrecorded by history, making them difficult to analyze or learn from. In this series of recorded interviews, I Would Prefer Not To aims to shed light on the complex matrix of agents, stakeholders, and circumstances implicated in every piece of architecture.


Transcript lightly processed and provided for reference only. May not accurately capture all aspects of the conversation.

Ana Miljacki: (00:21) Hello, and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ana Miljacki, Professor of Architecture at MIT and director of the Critical Broadcasting Lab, and on behalf of The Architectural League of New York and the Critical Broadcasting Lab, I welcome you to our architecture podcast series titled, I Would Prefer Not To.

I Would Prefer Not To is an oral history project conducted through audio interviews on the topic of perhaps the most important kind of refusal in architects’ toolboxes, refusal of the architectural commission. By definition, the topic of refusals stays hidden from public scrutiny, and thus also hidden from history. Withdrawals of this kind tend not to leave paper trails, and are not easy to examine or learn from. And yet, the lessons contained in architects’ deliberations about and decisions not to engage are politically relevant and urgent. Decisions to not engage a commission or types of commissions, or commissions with certain characteristics, inevitably forfeit potential profit, placing other values above it, at least momentarily.

My guest in this episode is Chandra Robinson. Thank you for joining me, Chandra.

Chandra Robinson: (01:33) Oh, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Miljacki: (01:36) Chandra is a principal at Lever Architecture, a firm founded by Thomas Robinson and Pamela Kislak in 2009, in Portland, Oregon, and now based both in Portland and in LA and currently numbering over 55 employees. Lever Architects have been described as working through an important feedback loop between research and design, developing and testing the next generation building assemblies and sustainable tools, as well as foregrounding human experience and equity. They have been recognized for their innovation in timber construction by Fast Company in 2021 and ’22, and for their achievement in general by the Architectural Record‘s Vanguard Award in 2017. Lever were part of the Architectural League 2017 Emerging Voices cohort. They have just landed the commission for permission for the Portland, Maine, art museum expansion, which is led by Chandra Robinson.

Chandra Robinson is vice chair of the Portland Design Commission, a founding board member and treasurer of the National Organization for Minority Architects, Portland chapter, and on the advisory board of Hip Hop Architecture Camp. In her role at Lever Architects, she recently completed a LEED Platinum campus for equity-based foundation Meyer Memorial Trust, and is currently working on several civic and educational projects, including the Portland Museum of Art I mentioned, Portland State University’s new School of Art and Design, and two libraries for Multnomah County Library.

Now, we may get to talk about some of this work, specifically about what has been driving it, as well as Chandra Robinson personally, but we will at least begin to do that by talking about what is not on the boards at the moment—by discussing, at what point is a commission not worth it? What kind of line gets drawn with the decision to forfeit the possibility of work, and how such decisions are made in the studio?

So I realize that these questions land differently for different firms, but we’ve been starting our conversations with the most important and most memorable decision to not engage or to drop a commission. And if that has not yet happened, at least not in these terms, can you imagine it happening at Lever? And on what grounds?

Robinson: (04:05) Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great place to start. I mean, really thinking about what we do at Lever, it’s really based in design, innovation, equity, and sustainability. Those are all values that we seek to really have resonate with clients and in projects. But I do remember very recently, there was a project that was a mass timber project that a developer came to us with. And you know, the only reason we didn’t go forward with it was because we were already quite busy. So it’s usually a consideration—what do we have for staff? Do we have the right people for the right job? But it also wasn’t necessarily innovative. They weren’t looking for anything innovative, and that’s really important for us. So just straight-up mass timber, and they wanted it to go really fast. And so we thought, “Well, you know, we have a lot of other things going on right now. And this is not one that’s really pushing the firm forward.” And that’s typically what we, what we try to do, is find every next project is something where we can iterate on ideas, where we can push the building technologies a little more, change details, do some research, work with manufacturers and figure out how they can make the things that we need in this next project. And this particular project didn’t have any of those; it just wanted to be mass timber. And so it was kind of a weird one for us. We all were sort of looking at each other like, “This is one we’re really going to say no to, because we have the opportunity to do something else, that . . .” it was more equity based and could actually make an impact in the community. So we chose that instead. And it seems like exactly the thing people would come to us for and what we would be excited to do. But in that particular case, it just didn’t quite have enough meat in the project for us to want to take it.

Miljacki: (05:57) Do you think that these kinds of decisions impact the practice in the long run? Or short run?

Robinson: (06:03) Yeah, absolutely. I mean, but they’re always aligned with sort of our strategic plan, our goals, our mission for the firm. And for trying to . . . we’ve already done a lot of mass timber projects, there’s a lot of teams, a lot of firms who’ve done one or two, right, but we’ve been doing this for a little while longer. And so we’ve done many, right, so it’s not something that we need to get into. Like, a lot of people are saying, “Hey, we need to get into mass timber, right?” That’s what everyone wants. And because we’re not in that position, we’re able to think a little bit more critically and say, “Is this pushing us forward in terms of our strategic plan? Is this making it so that we are able to chase work around the country and around the world? Is this something where we can go into a community and work with the manufacturers and actually have them ramp up production or start producing something different that’s really going to help them grow their business as well?” There’s just so many factors that go into it. And all of those, really, based on, where do we want to go? Is this project right for us at the time?

Miljacki: (07:10) I think . . . Your answers make me think I have to ask you a question that I usually leave for a little bit later. But are there procedures in place at Lever that expose the office in general to the realities of running the office? Or invite everyone to think collectively about the commissions that you will and will not take? And how are the decisions made that you’re describing?

Robinson: (07:36) So we have a group of principals, and we have a group of senior associates as well. And so, we meet often, principals meet very often, and every week we’re talking about leads and things that were are either go / no go, and we have that discussion in a meeting together, sometimes in person, sometimes on Zoom. And so it’s typically all of the principals in that meeting. Sometimes they’re also senior associates, because they’re running big projects, or running lots of projects. And so we talk about it together. And I remember some projects coming up where it was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting to me.” But it wasn’t as interesting to everyone else. And we couldn’t take on more than one project at that time, right. So it was like, “Okay, if this is more important to everyone else, then let’s go for that,” right? But it’s really among all of the folks in leadership at the firm—that’s really our process.

And not to say that happens every time, because there are many times when things come in the door and they’re sort of an automatic yes or an automatic no, that everyone understands, like, “Yeah, we definitely want to be going for that,” right. Going after Portland State University School of Art + Design was definitely a “No question, we want to go for it.” Really exciting to work with the university, and I went to PSU, so it’s really exciting to work in our town. And for institutions that we love.

And there are other things which are . . . you know, folks often come to us with things that are, maybe the scale is really small, or the scope is really unclear. Or it’s somewhere where we haven’t worked before, and it would require us to do a lot of sort of background research to figure out if this is a project for us. So there are lots of things that Sarah, who’s our principal in charge of business development and marketing, will just look across a table and say, “This came in,” and everyone’s like, “Yeah, no.” And it’s, you don’t really have to discuss it.

Miljacki: (09:32) But I’m going to ask you to discuss it, actually, because this is very interesting! And the idea that there are, you’re already articulating for us a set of values without really naming them, but it sounds like, or maybe the question is, are these values articulated somewhere? Are they shared across the firm? Are they ever sort of spelled out amongst you?

Robinson: (09:54) Yes, absolutely. Yeah, we have a mission statement and a series of values that we share with people when they’re onboarded, and they’re new, but we also have, we kind of do a lot of things to really support our office culture. And one of those things we do is what’s called a cultural assessment. So we’ve been doing that every year, where an outside HR company comes in, they meet with each person individually, ask them a series of questions, 13 questions. It’s about how they feel they’re being compensated, what’s going well in the office, what’s going poorly, and ask, one of the first questions is like, how would you describe what is important to Lever? And every time, number one is design, number two is innovation, and then sustainability. And equity for different people may or may not come in when they answer that. And so it’s, it’s kind of a test for leadership to see if we have been communicating that to people, if they understand that, based on having worked on projects with different principals.

Miljacki: (10:59) Do you do the same for clients?

Robinson: (11:02) You know, we don’t, but what we do in the design process is, we create a series of design principles. And those principles are based on the client’s values, right? And then if we’re doing community engagement, it’s based on community values, and so you have something to kind of follow through the project. But that’s one of the big ones to think about go / no go is if, like, if the clients are, we already feel like they’re aligned with what is important to us, and we don’t have to align on every point, you know, it could be a really interesting project that really is just about sustainability and not other things. And that’s okay—if it’s something that’s exciting to us at the time, we can go for it. If there’s alignment on nothing, then that’s one where we really sit there and say, like, “What will . . .why would we do this project?” Right? It’s not doing something great for the community. It’s not advancing sustainability, or it’s not advancing equity or innovation, right? And then we think, “Well, that’s not a project that we need to take time out to do. We have other things that can make impact.”

Miljacki: (12:08) I have two more related questions, because I’m interested . . . we immediately landed on these. Thank you for your candidate opening! Number one is, do you think you need an outside firm to sort of assess that internal kind of feeling? Its curious to me.

Robinson: (12:30) The cultural assessment? The reason why it’s important is because, to have someone outside of it is so that staff members can feel like they can be candid knowing that their responses are entirely anonymous, right—never tied to anyone’s name. And sometimes the HR person will sort of generalize the comment so that it’s, you can’t recognize which person, and it’s, we feel like that’s important. Because if I’m asking people this question, they may be like, “Oh, but I really like working with Chandra, and I don’t want her to be offended by this comment or something,” right? So if we have an outside person doing it, people are able to feel like they can be more candid. And because we do it every year, they know that’s coming. So imagine maybe the first year someone is working with us, they still feel like “Oh, I shouldn’t say anything bad,” right. But by the next year, they understand how that process went, and that it really is anonymous, and we actually sit down as a whole firm and hear the feedback.

Miljacki: (13:30) So when looking at the work of Lever Architects, especially the projects that you have been in charge of, and maybe specifically this recently opened Meyer Memorial, it seems that it has entailed a kind of negotiation between different kinds of sustainability. That’s how we summarized it here in our own trench: environmental, economic, social. And so we were wondering if you could talk about techniques or strategies when it comes to conversations about what to prioritize with clients, and when to prioritize it? And maybe the question is also, where are you most invested?

Robinson: Yeah.

Miljacki: And then finally, what is the role of architecture in these negotiations?

Robinson: (14:20) Yeah. Meyer Memorial Trust, incredible project, because there was an incredible client that obviously matched all of the values, all the things that we want to be doing in the world. They were already not only supporting them, but you know, financially supporting, providing grants to communities to do this kind of work around equity and sustainability and education. So working with them was very easy. And it was a very different sort of process than maybe with another client where you are trying to get those things into the project, but they’re not the ones championing them, right?

So we did a lot of different things in terms of sustainability. And it was, it was all based on, we kind of set up, “Here’s all the possible things that we can do,” and here’s the cost to them. And then now let’s prioritize them with you and say, ok. So for instance, we had a very robust sustainable wood procurement process. So we were looking at all of the products that we use in the project and saying, “Okay, what is a more sustainable choice? Is it closer to us? Is it FSC? Like, what are the characteristics of this thing? Is it provided by a tribal enterprise? Who is managing the forest? Is it provided or manufactured by Black-owned or women-owned company?” And so we had all these kinds of things, right?

Because to me, sustainability and equity are really tied together. It’s not just about making a building that’s really healthy and uses materials responsibly, but also that we’re not pulling materials from some other part of the country, and kind of ruining someone else’s neighborhood, ecosystem, habitat. We want to be responsible wherever we’re getting it from. And so, to me, that’s equity, is saying that, a lot of times manufacturing places, that’s where poor people are, and we don’t want to impact them negatively. So a lot of that’s equity to me. So we would say, “Hey, here are all these things. Here’s the wood ceiling, here are the trusses, here are the glulams. Which of these things do you want to go forward with?” And we’d set up, if it’s a 10 percent premium, just get it, we don’t need to ask the client. If it’s a 20 percent premium, let’s talk about it with them and say, “Hey, here’s, the most expensive is FSC, here’s another choice and another choice.” And then the discussion would be, where is that piece of wood going? If it’s the linear wood ceiling, everyone sees it, they come into the building, and you can talk through the story of the building and the equity and the sustainability process because you can see it. But If you’re talking about a truss that’s in the attic that no one can see, maybe that’s not a priority. So spending the money where the client wants to based on their values was really how we made that happen.

And it’s pretty great, because you can do that with any client—it doesn’t have to be a client that is, you know, already bought into everything. You can just share with them, “Hey, look, the premium on this is 3 percent.” It’s a very small, a small amount of money to add in to actually have this happen. And so that’s how you can get things into projects—sometimes it’s just by having access to that information.

And so, Meyer did so many different things because the client was championing it. So it was not only sustainable wood procurement, but like I said, it was thinking about where we’re getting any of the products. If there’s anything that can come from a tribal enterprise, or a BIPOC owned company, we wanted to go for that. But we also thought, “How are we going to get all of these smaller businesses engaged in the project?” Instead of working with, the biggest structural engineer, the biggest civil engineer, all of those kinds of things where we’ve worked with these people for a long time. Instead saying, “Yeah, we’re going to use someone else. Because we know they can do the work, even if they don’t have a project of this scale in their portfolio.”

And that all, that went down to the builders as well. So choosing a casework subcontractor that was a minority women-owned business who didn’t have a project of this level of finish in their portfolio, it just meant that as an architect and myself and the interior designer knew we were just going to spend more time on the job site, maybe sketching through some details to make sure that they were going to be successful and they knew exactly what we wanted. So they weren’t wasting materials and wasting time—we wanted them to be profitable on the project. And so we knew it was going to take a little bit more of our time to do that.

So there are actually so many things like that, that we did on this project. But I think those are the two that are really recognized.

Miljacki: (19:02) So when I listened to another conversation you had on this project, I was struck by two things. One was the idea that the design team made a deliberate decision to work with both the kind of novel mass timber technologies as well as standard construction methods. And related to that you invoked an idea which you just described, the stretch opportunities.

Robinson: Yes.

Miljacki: And you say there the point was, with the stretch opportunities in different scopes, was to say that, “Maybe you haven’t done this before, but you can do it. And if you’re given the opportunity, that might mean that in the future, you can then bid on projects like that.”

Robinson: Yes, yes, exactly.

Miljacki: But for me, this seems like a very important thing to highlight even further, sort of the idea that, that there is a deliberate design decision in the project that enables these two different ways of thinking about technology and thinking about delivering the project. And thereby, that kind of stretch opportunity becomes a viable way to think about it.

Robinson: (20:06) Yeah, it becomes ingrained in everything. It’s not even just about one specific subcontractor working on it. But very specifically in Meyer, there’s a pavilion and event space, it’s called the Center for Great Purposes, and that is all mass plywood. So again, mass plywood being a product, it’s only made here in Oregon, it’s rural Oregon, and it’s close by, it’s probably 70 miles from the job site. So picking something that was an innovative material, using it in a way that people had not been using it . . . because a lot of times we’d seen it in, you know, back-of-house stairs or places you don’t recognize it. But this was kind of putting it in the nicest space in the building, and just sanding a little bit and making it really simple so it looked really beautiful and elegant, despite being a very industrial material. So we knew that we wanted that mass timber element in it as well, but the rest of the building is traditional stick frame. And that was really specifically so that everyone who comes on the project kind of has the experience of understanding this mass timber technology that we’re working with. And, but would also know that they can be successful on the project, because they were working with traditional stick framing and gyp ceilings—things that are very typical. If you do a whole mass timber building, what you end up doing is you’re very fussy about what’s in the ceiling and exactly where it goes. And so sometimes that takes a really long time to make work, right, because it’s all exposed. So we’re very particular about where things are. And we didn’t want that to impact subcontractors in a way where they were taking way too much time to try and figure this out, or didn’t feel like they could be successful on it. So we said, “We’re gonna do some of this and some of this.”

Miljacki: (21:47) I’m interested in the in the way in which you describe the role of the architect in this, or conceptualize the role of the architect in this project. So the architectural object plays a role, but there is both a kind of didactic role and a teaching role, like a didactic role in storytelling, something for the client, and also a teaching role in, that might have transformative capacity in the field.

Robinson: (22:16) Yeah, I mean, and I’ll even step back one and say that myself, as an architect, being on this project was really important, because Meyer Memorial Trust, the CEO is Michelle Depass, a Black woman, the developer that was working with them, Anyeley Hallova, a Black woman. And then the contractor on board was O’Neill Walsh Community Builders, and the PMs for both of those were both women. And then myself. So myself being honored as the representative of the architecture and the design team was really important, they were setting this up to say, if we’re trying to get more women and people of color, not only owners of businesses engaged in this project, but the people who are actually building it, we wanted to see a lot of diversity there, it meant that we were starting from the top, and making sure that our design team, our contracting team was also diverse.

So that to me, also is the role of the architect is to say, is to be really visible, and to say, “This is what architecture is. It’s not as fancy as you think it is. It shouldn’t be intimidating. And Black women are architects.” Because in Oregon, there are four licensed architects who identify as Black, and I’m one of, I’m one of those four. It’s kind of insane. So I think that’s also part of the role of the architect. For me, my job really is to be visible, and to just really let people know who architects are.

And so that’s, starting there, the sort of management and design level, and then thinking about who’s going to be on the job site? That was, having the contractor go out and work with NEIMAC. And, and lots of organizations that are all about subcontractors, smaller businesses, and working with them to say, “You might not bid on this job because you think it’s a bigger job, or it’s a job that you don’t have experience with, but you should bid on it, because we’re intentionally trying to bring in other builders who we haven’t worked with before.” So I think that’s also, I think that’s the contractor’s role. But it’s the architect’s role also to kind of be supporting that and saying, “Hey, that’s great. We’re willing to spend more time with these folks who may not have done this job before.”

So yes, and being sort of in a, in a teaching capacity a little bit, but really, it’s about collaborating. Because to be perfectly honest, like, sure, I can draw detail, but that builder is going to build it the right way. So they’re going to tell me like, “Oh, this will be easier, and it will make a better transition.” So it’s not that as an architect, I feel like I know more than they do. It’s more like we need to be able to have this conversation together. Especially when we’re new to working with one another. So I think that was really important.

And then working on our project from Meyer also meant that there was a very community-focused capacity that was required. So the ground floor has sort of a shared workspace that’s intended for a small business or small community organization to be able to come in and use that space, and have their own office space. And then this big event space was also meant to imagine having, you know, neighborhood meetings in it, so that it was a space that we’re going to share. And so it was really important that every step that we took still supported the equity and the sustainability that we wanted it to.

I don’t know if that answered your question or not.

Miljacki: (25:38) Oh, it was perfect. thank you! I have a question that I haven’t sort of formulated completely yet, but it’s one about, maybe, how would you describe the relationship between a design of the architectural object and some of these other concerns? Or would you describe these concerns as design? And then, what are ways that you can imagine us cultivating the skill sets necessary for this way of operating?

Robinson: (26:13) Yeah, that is a really good question. And it’s something that we’re . . . It’s one thing that I think takes a little bit longer to push out into the office, right, because it’s sort of project by project. And really, an aspect of the design is really designing for people who are going to use it. And I know that every architect will say that we’re thinking about the people who are inside. But when you’re doing something that actually has a community engagement component to it, and you’re actually listening to the users who are going to be coming in there, then there’s a translation of what people have said to what actually happens in the design. And so to me, that is the design. It’s like, well, what are we designing? First, we have to ask, and if we’re asking community members, that’s a different process than if it’s really just the client. But then those two things come together. And we’re designing based on those requirements for using the building. So it’s, I do think the object is the design. And there, there are definitely aspects of it, where you kind of start the process before the engagement. And that’s all sort of the site work and understanding. But really, once you start thinking about where program goes, that’s really thinking about the people in the building, whether they’re the owners or not. So I do, I do think that’s part of the design.

Miljacki: (27:32) But it sounds to me like you’re also thinking about the builders.

Robinson: Yes!

Miljacki: The kind of detailing is facing the builder as well as the user.

Robinson: (27:44) Yes. And I think, starting with Meyer was really great, because we recognized how many other options we have out there that we can engage people with. So now when we’re on projects, we think, “Okay, well, here’s a project, here’s our structural engineer, and we’ve worked with them, and they’re great. But we also want to make sure that we’re giving other people an opportunity.” So—and this is the same with builders—so we’ll say, “Okay, here’s our structural engineer, but they’re going to partner with a smaller structural engineering company, that’s minority-owned, and they’ll give them some of the scope.” They take that scope, the bigger company takes a scope. And by that method, those folks get more experienced and can be more successful. And then thinking about the builder as well, we’re really saying that, “Hey, we want our details to be simple. So that no matter who we’re bringing on to the project, we know that we can convey this idea without it being too fussy and making it hard for them to actually be successful and give us what we want.” And so we are thinking about that, we’re thinking about how can we make things, every time, more simple, so that they’re beautiful. And it helps us honestly, it kind of helps in the VE process, because if there’s nothing extraneous, there’s nothing that’s fluff, it’s like, “This is it, this is what’s required in that space.” Then the space really, the design intent really carries through very easily no matter who’s building it. And so you don’t have to have worked with any of these builders for years in order to sort of get a great result. And so we are thinking about that, we’re thinking, “Okay, well, maybe we can hire that same casework sub on this project, so we add them into our list of people we work with and say, ‘Hey, let’s get this person on this job.’” So we are really thinking about that.

And I don’t know that, that is, I mean, I think that it’s part of the process, and a necessary part of the process, right? You can’t change anything unless you change things. But I don’t know that that’s a value that that everyone has . . .

Miljacki: Is understood.

Robinson: Yeah, I don’t think that’s what they think their job is right? But I do.

Miljacki: (30:00) I’m gonna go to a very different place now, a couple of really different aspects of your work at Lever. So I’ve been reading up on the Portland Art Museum expansion, and since we’re close to it here on the East Coast, I also know of architects who are really hoping to find themselves on that shortlist. It’s an interesting and important commission, and from what I could synthesize quickly, it seems that your private pre-architecture experience of that part of Maine and also the dedication to engaging the context, its people, its manufacturing logics all seem key. And I’m wondering if you’re able to tell us more about this project at this early stage of it?

Robinson: (30:48) Yeah, absolutely. There were, I think in the competition there were probably 100 firms. . .

Miljacki: (30:54) Including the kayaking!

Robinson: (30:56) I will tell you about that for sure. There were like 100 firms and then the shortlist was four, we were so excited because we were really excited about this project in general. And one of the reasons we were excited, besides it being a museum, besides it being in a beautiful place, and working with a really visionary institution that has already done a ton of engagement on their own, and really wanted this building to reflect that . . .

But I also, before I went to architecture school, I was a sea kayaking guide. And I had paddled in a lot of different places. But I spent three summers paddling in Maine before I started architecture school. That, that was in Casco Bay, which is right by Portland. And then also in some of the Northern bays like Penobscot Bay, but I spent a lot of time there. And it’s really, the best times of my life are just, you know, floating on the water, sitting on the beach . . . we used to do all these trips, we take this specific path through all of these islands, and every day was magical. But there were these, these islands that were so special that were part of a nature preserve, two little islands that, that at the low tide, were connected by a sandbar. But you didn’t know that unless you had spent time there. So mostly, when I would bring groups to camp on those islands and have half camp on each island, they didn’t know that was coming. It was just a surprise that happened later where they could run around and visit each other’s islands, right. I just have such fond memories of paddling out to the middle of the bay where all the lobster boats would come and sell their lobsters, but paddling out there with all of the people and buying like 20 lobsters and putting them in the boat and paddling back, and just climbing up those observation towers, because there’s a few of them in those islands, and go climbing up and seeing the sunsets and sunrises. It was just, it was really magical and beautiful.

And so I have this really deep, real love and understanding of what Maine is like and being there a long time. And another, our project director on that, who’s sort of managing the competition, he grew up in Maine. And so really having these personal connections, I think, is really what makes your work more meaningful in places and more meaningful to the people that you’re, you’re coming to and saying, like, “Look, I’m not a total stranger, I know what’s incredible about this place without even doing research first.” I think that was our connection, was also a big part of why our team really resonated with folks at the PMA.

And then the other part of that was really, because we have been doing community engagement and doing institutional public projects where that part is really important. And we’re really representing people’s voices in the design. We understand how to ask questions, put workshops together that help people be informed, and help get their opinions across to the client. Because of that, we were able to actually initially bring in Chris Newell, who’s Wabanaki, I would say a community leader, he’s an educator. Having him on the project . . . We know lots about Maine, but we don’t know about the indigenous peoples of Maine. We know about the indigenous peoples here in Oregon and Washington, because, you know, I grew up here, so I know lots of different tribal nations, but we don’t know anything about the ones in Maine. And so bringing Chris Newell was really important because he was teaching us, like, what is the worldview of the indigenous people of Maine?

And one of the things, lots of things came out of that, but one was that they’re the people of the Dawn Land, and it’s their responsibility and their privilege to greet the sun as it first touches the continent because Maine really sticks out there. And it was just, it was so beautiful. It’s like, how can we not bring that into the project somehow, right? Really starting with an indigenous worldview, starting with something that’s truly, truly important to the people of Maine really made a big difference because we were integrating . . . And I think a lot of times the mistake is made that you design something, and then you say, Okay, now we’re going to do engagement around this and ask people what they think about it, instead of designing first with their values and their needs in mind. So again, that really resonated with the folks at the PMA as well. And they’re so cool, I’m really excited to get to work with them. They’re just full of joy. They’re really excited about this project, they really want it to be as equitable as possible and make a new kind of museum where people don’t feel like, “Oh, museum is very fancy, it’s not a place where I belong.” But instead, foregrounding: “Hey, you might be an artist, come into this makerspace! See, if there’s things that you want to make, maybe you want to come into a class, maybe you want to come into a community gallery and see work that your neighbors have put up.” But really trying to let people connect more easily with art, because we all deserve that. We all deserve to have art in our lives.

Miljacki: (36:25) Well, thank you for that answer. Let’s maybe talk about housing projects that you’ve been involved in at Lever. How do you think about this work, and especially with respect to these other topologies that you’ve been involved in, like libraries, office buildings, and museums?

Robinson: (36:44) So this folds in well, because a couple of years ago . . . I mean, I’ve been at Lever more than four years, less than five years. But a few years ago, as we started to make these changes and really focus on equity and community building in our projects. We—Thomas, actually—said at some point, he’s like, “Yeah, maybe we only do affordable housing now. We don’t do multifamily unless it’s affordable.” We’ve done multifamily that’s not affordable before, we’ve done all kinds of housing that you can imagine, but it just seemed like, “Hey, this is a place where we can make an impact, making really beautiful homes for people that is meant for folks with less money.”

So some of the projects that we’re working on right now, there is a project called Dekum Court, it’s 187 units. It’s in North Portland, and it includes a whole community center building so that there are places for kids to go. It’s like a lot, a big site. And then the other one, and that’s in construction right now, the other one that we’re working on is Albina One, and it’s also an affordable housing project. It’s actually right across the highway from Meyer, and it is the very first project in the Albina Vision Trust Community Investment Plan.

And so like in many cities, there are areas that used to be Black neighborhoods, where, that’s where the freeway would be planned to go through, right. So like every city. Every freeway cut up immigrant or Black neighborhoods. Of course, it’s happened in Portland as well, and it split the neighborhood in half, so in one area now there’s a lot of warehouses, parking lots, things like that, used to be a neighborhood, and then the freeway separates it from the rest of the Albina neighborhood.

So the Albina Vision Trust Community Investment Plan—and you note it’s not called a master plan, because we try and we just try not to use the word “master” anymore. It gives you kind of a bad feeling, right? Especially not, like, master bedroom. That seems terrible, right? Can you imagine like, what’s the opposite of the master? I don’t want to think about that. So it’s a community investment plan. In that plan is, it’s like a 50-year plan for 96 acres of creating hubs of education, of research, bringing in more parks, all these kinds of things that are connected, can connect people back to the river, because it’s all been broken up. This project is the very first project in that 96-acre Community Investment Plan. It’s affordable housing, but it also has a very large park next to it, that’s part of the site, and that’s intentional, because we know that the community is going to grow over time. But there is no place for people to go right now. There’s only one other residential building, and that’s right next to where we’re building Albina One. And so the intent was to create a space where people could come and gather in the place where they know there will be a community, where Black folks who’ve been pushed out will be coming back. But here’s a place right now where people can meet and have, be in community together and think about what the future is about. It’s not just about creating beautiful homes for people and for families, but creating all of this community space on the ground floor so that the community can start to come together in this area that they’re going to take back. And I’m so excited about the work that Albina Vision Trust has been doing. They’ve been working for years and working with community members and having so many meetings to hear, what are the important things? What do you want to see in this plan over the next 50 years? So I’m very honored that we got to do the first project. It’ll be construction in the summer.

Miljacki: (40:33) It sounds like lots of great clients coming your way.

Robinson: (40:37) We’re so lucky! So many great clients in Portland!

Miljacki: (40:40) I was wondering, I thought that maybe my question was really geared towards figuring out if there are major differences in the way in which these typologies and commissions play out in the office and, in reality, but they’re sounding similar, actually, the museum and the foundation and housing.

Robinson: (41:07) Yes, and that’s, that’s part of design right, now we’ve really folded it into as many things as we can. It really is an important part, and we are really fortunate that we have so many clients in Portland that are working towards the same goals that we can play a small part in.

Miljacki: (41:29) What kind of client, or type of question, or what conditions of work enable your best work?

Robinson: (41:38) I think clients who are a little bit open-minded so that they know that, after seeing the work that we do, or understanding our process, they are at least a little bit open to it. We, that makes it so that we are actually excited to, I don’t know, engage and spend a lot of time on this, because we know that something great for the community is going to come out of it. I think it’s really just, it can be that where we know that they’re open, it can be something where it’s, it’s just really an exciting opportunity for us to innovate in terms of building technology. Mass timber is a whole series of different products. We can use any number of things, old or new, to create something. It’s really about just exposing the story of the materials. So building just isn’t a building, but it’s, you look around and you say: all of this came from the Umpqua tribe forests, being able to connect design to more than just what you see. But the whole story of where it came from and what it means to people. I think that’s what, that kind of flexibility from a client to make those choices about where we’re getting materials, is, that makes it really easy for us to start to innovate and do different kinds of work.

Miljacki: (43:03) I definitely feel like we should talk about cross-laminated timber or, or mass timber, or at least about the way in which testing and research, which seem to be supported by grant money at Lever, feed back into architectural production or attitudes about it in the office. It seems like there is a real robust research arm with testing and breaking and burning and . . .

Robinson: (43:38) Yeah! It absolutely is. It’s a big focus, one of the early projects, Framework, which is unbuilt to this day, it was a grant from USDA, related to tall timber, and how can we make that happen? What do we need to do? From that grant, we used a million dollars just in testing, testing for fire, how we can rate different size members, and, yes, pressures on them. We did a three-story shake table test, because that project was specifically about having a wood rocking wall. The core walls are really for the lateral strength of the building, so they keep it from racking like that. Having this rocking wall meant that it could rock in a seismic event and then reset itself back into place. And then there were parts of it that you have to fix, like, what we call fuses just because they’re a thing that can break and be replaced. But then that means that you can use the building again, you can replace the windows, you can fix the walls, but you don’t have to tear it down. Right now, all of those systems are really just supporting the building so that you can get out safely, but it doesn’t mean that the building is usable afterward. Part of that testing was about this new technology.

And so that came from a grant. That was amazing because it was open source. It meant that all of the design, all of the details were framework, were open to anyone in the country. It was paid for by the government. And so it got people sort of jump-started and able to say, “Okay, here’s a set of details that I can use to build this tall tower, if I have the money and the client who wants to do it.” I think that part’s really exciting, because it’s really contributing to everything that’s happening out there.

We also recently got another grant, which is around the sustainable wood procurement. It’s to create a web tool for designers so that they don’t have to do all the research—like, “What are the sustainable sources? What are all the different places that you can procure this wood in different levels of sustainability?” So that designers don’t have to do all of that work themselves, but it will be in a web tool. Again, that’s another USDA grant that we’re working on right now. So that, again, pushes information out into the industry.

That’s really like, we are just kind of focusing on that all the time, every project that we do is a better version of something that we’ve done. And occasionally, it’s an entirely new thing. For the Adidas project, there’s these really interesting corbelled beams, where we’re setting the CLT double tees that sort of, CLT on top, and then has sort of, it’s just like the concrete double tees, but it just kind of sets them into these beams that are concrete, and doesn’t require then a mechanical attachment. It’s just gravity attachment on this concrete that has a little metal plate, and you’re landing these CLT double tees on it. That’s not something we’ve ever done before. Probably no one else has either. I haven’t looked at every building. But it’s a really, it’s a really different way of thinking of doing things.

We’re always really excited about that type of innovation: What’s something that we can do that’s going to make this faster? What something we can do that makes this simpler to build, and therefore less costly? If we can make it faster, we can take out so much money out of the project and make it so much more affordable for doing it faster.

There’s a lot of great things about the innovation and research arm. Jonathan Heppner, a principal here, he’s, that’s sort of his focus, is working on all of those, those grants and those research projects that we’re doing. Yeah, and really looking at details. It’s something we’re all always really excited about, to look at, and to think, like, “What’s the next thing that we can do?” So we’re not just doing mass timber, but we’re innovating in the field, and we’re pushing that information out into the country.

Miljacki: (48:08) I have two short questions to end with. One is, did you ever regret not taking a commission? Or vice versa?

Robinson: (48:17) I don’t think we’ve regretted taking a commission. We’ve always worked hard somewhere, you know, more work than expected, I think, and sometimes that’s just like, the level of bureaucracy with a client, there’s 20 people who have to make a decision on something before you get it.

Miljacki: How about not taking a commission?

Robinson: Not taking a commission . . . So far, no, no, really! The projects that we’re doing, I mean, I think we’re just in such a great place right now. Projects that we’re doing are all really exciting. I think the only, they’re not really regrets, but sometimes we’ll be like, Oh, this is taking way more time, we need more people on it, we may not be as profitable. I think that, in general, we’re kind of, if it’s a public project, if it’s an institutional project, we’re like, Well, that happens. Sometimes this one’s not very profitable. But that one over there with the developers more profitable. And so we’re, kind of got a balance in there. So I think those are the those are the times when we think about a project and say like, oh, okay, this was different than we thought it was going to be or different than we imagined it was going to be. Then projects that take forever to get off the ground. You’re like, Wow, that was, this is, I really want this to go forward, and it feels like it’s not and it happens in rounds, right rounds and rounds of fundraising, and then that feels like, I don’t know. Feels like a lot of work.

Miljacki: (49:51) Well, thank you for talking to me today, Chandra.

Robinson: (49:55) Yes, really fun!

Miljacki: (49:57) And listeners, thank you for listening to this episode of I Would Prefer Not To.