The St. Johns Studio is a healthy workspace designed for thinking, comfort and focus. It is both new and old, industrial and sustainable, small and spacious, light filled without being a glass box, and quiet but not disconnected from nature and neighborhood.

Many would have considered the existing 1,575 square foot, rectangular concrete block structure a tear down given it was in very poor condition and is located in a recently rezoned and soon-to-be-redeveloped light-industrial area at the far northern edge of Portland, Oregon. Instead of treating the existing building and site as a real estate opportunity, the architect owners decided to reboot the banal building to uncover the positive qualities that already existed in the structure, inside and out, while preserving the adjacent space on the property for a future phase. 

Reusing the existing structure not only reduces waste and carbon consumption, it also makes room for new construction without erasing the neighborhoods eclectic character and past. Built in 1955 as a soap factory, the building sits at the edge of a single family residential neighborhood, in a part of Portland that was once an independent town and still feels like it. The building occupies a sunny, south facing slope overlooking a spectacular historic bridge, an industrialized river, and tree covered hillsides beyond.

The design approach was driven by a desire to reveal the proportions of the interior volume and its surprisingly dynamic relationship to the immediate exterior environment. All opportunities for new design elements occur at points where functional or code required upgrades were necessary. Design decisions result from a combination of careful observation of what existed combined with a precise, limited intervention or edit.

Design challenges included repairing, water-proofing, insulating and seismically upgrading the building to meet current codes without covering up the existing wood-framed ceiling or fully encasing the exposed concrete block walls. Roof insulation and new electrical wiring were put on top of the roof to eliminate unnecessary exposed conduit. Salvaged wood that matched the aged and water damaged appearance of the original wood was sourced for areas requiring patching. All exterior opening were existing but fitted with new doors and windows. The existing loading dock door and a blocked in opening the rear were restored with new unfinished steel carriage doors. For visual balance, an existing door was replaced as a fixed window that matched the size of an adjacent window.

The new ADA compliant core, which for economic reasons, springs from existing, off-centered plumbing points, is deliberately held away from exterior walls and the ceiling to keep sight lines to all 4 corners of the space open. 

Mirrors surface the new core on 2 sides. This material choice is simple but transformative. The mirrors reflect the perimeter of the interior volume, amplify the natural light, and by multiplying and reflecting the windows, the mirrored walls give every workstation a view (or two) of the outdoors. 

The interior is further connected to the surroundings acoustically through systems choices to reduce interior noise. In-floor heating in a new polished concrete slab (needed to create a level accessible floor), and no mechanical cooling keep building generated noise to a minimum. Operable windows provide cross ventilation as well as the ability to hear the immediate surroundings: birds, rain, wind, trains, boats, cars and pedestrians.

The required new wall insulation is surfaced with exposed, unfinished Homasote that doubles as a pin-up wall lining all 4 sides of the interior but stopping short of the ceiling to leave areas of the concrete block walls exposed. The top of the liner aligns with the existing soldier course and window headers. Homasote, which is made of 98% recycled paper and adhesive, is not typically used as a finish surface, contributes a raw, irregular quality to the interior and an acoustical softness.

Reusing existing buildings is environmentally responsible. It saves energy that would be wasted in new construction and creates less construction waste. Revitalizing existing buildings with energy efficient systems and materials is also beneficial for the community. We hope that demonstrating how a seemingly hopeless building can be beautiful, useful, and energy efficient, will give others ideas of how they, too, can minimize their carbon footprint while bringing positive changes to the built environment. Reusing buildings is also a way of creating a sympathetic continuity between the past and the future - especially in rapidly developing neighborhoods where rezoning and development interests can encourage the erasure of former neighborhood character.