PRP Now! Diego Zubizarreta Otero // LEVER Architecture

November 13, 2019
PRP Now! is a series of interviews that highlight a current UTSOA Professional Residency Program student every few weeks.

PRP: Tell us about your PRP firm. Where are you working?
I’m working at LEVER Architecture in Portland, Oregon. We’re located in North-East Portland, a quick walk away from amazing food trucks and bars on both Mississippi Ave and Alberta Street. Our office is on the fourth floor of Albina Yard, a beautiful, light-filled glulam and CLT building designed by LEVER, and the first US building constructed with domestically-fabricated CLT. The office is organized around central workstations clustered by project teams. The east and west ends of the building are fully glazed façades which allow captivating views to the lush green (and now red, orange and yellow) foliage of adjacent neighborhoods. On a clear day, I can turn my head slightly away from my desk and see Mount Hood in the distance, a stunning stratovolcano and Oregon landmark.

LEVER is a relatively young firm that has achieved rapid growth and national recognition. Since its founding in 2009 LEVER has positioned itself as one of the leading design firms in the US to employ mass timber in major architectural ways. LEVER’s goal is to create buildings that elevate the human experience, something that is achieved by innovative approaches to material and building technologies and a design process that really integrates clients, consultants and fabricators to achieve elegant, thoughtful and well-crafted buildings. We are currently 32 people at the office with a variety of backgrounds ranging from art and graphic design to master-planning, architecture and interior design. Different sensibilities, worldviews and experiences define the team’s collaborative process and converge to make a unique and enriching work environment.

PRP: Do you enjoy the city you’re working in? Favorite aspects?
As its motto indicates, Portland really keeps it weird (really, I’d say weirder than Austin). The city itself has a unique character, culture and values that pivot around sustainability and a connection to nature and the outdoors. This is represented in the food, way of life, planning, transportation and even visually when you take a spin around any neighborhood. Portland is a major foodie town with dining options ranging from Thai fusion, modern Chinese, and Indian, to Polish, Peruvian, Mexican… you name it! No, I haven’t found tacos that give Austin a run for its money, but Portland tacos are well above average. One of my favorite aspects of Portland has been the cycling culture. I bike about 5-6 miles every day between home and work, going to the gym or running errands. People actually respect cyclists here (you know: right of way, not run you over, that kind of stuff!). There are many events around the city which center around cycling, most notably the summer World Naked Bike ride and the Bridge Pedal. One of these involves ten thousand people in scarce (or no) clothing (“bare as you dare!”) on a 6-mile ride in protest of fossil-fuel-based transportation, and the other cycling across all the bridges in Portland in one night (like I said, Portlanders keep it weird). Another incredible thing about Portland is the sheer amount of state parks and natural features that can be explored within a 50 to 100 mile radius of the city. Whether heading west to the dreamy Oregon coast, east to the stunning Columbia River Gorge waterfalls and Mount Hood area, north to exhilarating white-water rafting rivers in Washington (or cool cities like Seattle) or south to the towering Doug-Fir forests and rolling farmland hills that make looking out the window feel like you’re in a movie.

PRP: What is currently on your desk? What are you working on?
Some small-scale 3D printed models, a couple of sketchbooks, redlined printouts of a CD set, headphones, about 20 different types of markers, pencils and pens, trace sketches of details, a 4” by 4” block of salvaged old-growth doug-fir CLT recently gifted to me by a Wood Science PhD student at Oregon State University. During my time at LEVER I’ve worked primarily on two buildings for a Film/TV Studio located in Los Angeles. One of the buildings houses a unique combination of programmatic elements that is wrapped in a light and playful screen façade. The other is an office building featuring conference rooms, event spaces, theaters, lounge spaces and other varied public program. I entered the project at the quarter end of Design Development and it has been a challenging and exciting process to help carry it into Construction Documentation. I’ve performed design studies across a variety of media and workflows both digital and analogue such as prototyping façade components with 1:1 scale 3D-prints, generating detailed digital models, sketching, redlining, creating diagrams to explain key concepts and design moves, drawing interior and exterior details of the building, creating and editing renderings, and animating kinetic experiential views with model photo-stills. The opportunity to dial-in to design meetings with the client and consultants has been particularly eye-opening, providing insight on social, conceptual, performative and technical facets of the project.

In addition to my role on the LA project team, I have been able to direct my ongoing interest in mass timber through involvement in a couple of small projects in the office. I have also been fortunate to attend a few conferences and events happening in and around Portland focusing on timber products and design both through work and personally. Oregon is an exciting and impressive epicenter of the mass timber movement in the US with a staggering number of architectural practices, engineers manufacturers and research institutions and universities contributing and collaborating to develop this up-and-coming market and industry.

PRP: Describe the firm culture? The office atmosphere?
The office environment is really casual and friendly, and provides lots of opportunities to get to know people both in and outside of work. This summer we did volleyball meets every other week. On the first Thursday of every month we host happy hours with themed cocktails curated by teams. On Fridays we have toast and avocado breakfasts and chat about how the week went. The most fun outing so far was the Summer picnic where we shared barbecue and played a few matches of kick-ball with firm partners and family members (adult kick-ball fields are way too big in comparison to what the children’s fields felt like in middle school, FYI).

Our work culture is reinforced and facilitated by the space we work in and how we configure it. Ample pin-up space and open surfaces surrounding our desks allow for designers to continually share their explorations through drawings and models, or consider material details and finishes with samples and mockups. There’s always drawings or perspectives pinned up on the wall which keep everyone on the same page about different ongoing projects, and foster conversations across teams, designers, project managers and principals. Once a month or every other month we host a Design Discussion where teams present their project to the rest of the office in the interest of sharing challenging aspects to be resolved, key findings that could apply to other projects or simply to discuss and learn from design ideas and workflows.

PRP: What is the first thing you'll tell your classmates upon your return to UT?
First of all I’ll probably go to Taco Joint on San Jac and order a Pastorito. But in all seriousness, if you are able to, GO FOR PRP! The fact that you can work at an office for 6 or more months allows you to really sink your teeth into projects and get more out of the experience, as well as to develop relationships with designers that share similar values and interests as you. A PRP internship is an incredible opportunity to inform, question and complement the perspectives you’ve developed in school. For instance, I’m currently pursuing an Independent Study (or MDS) terminal project as a culmination to my M.Arch.I track, which I began researching the semester before coming to Portland. My experience at LEVER has informed and expanded my understanding of my research topic by discussing it informally with coworkers, through direct project experience, and by being exposed to current topical research in forums and conferences in town. I’m eager to go back to Austin for my final semester with a renewed perspective on my priorities and interests as a designer, and a clearer outlook on my professional life after school.

PRP: As you’re finishing up the week, what are your plans for this weekend?
It’s been an active last couple of weeks both at work and outside of it. At the end of last week I got to travel to Los Angeles to help set up a client meeting. I also had the opportunity to walk around the project site, which was really exciting. Our design proposal envisions many changes both in building and landscape design, so I cannot wait to see what the completed site will look like a few years from now. The rest of my Friday in LA was spent checking out the architecturally vibrant DTLA, grabbing tacos with a friend currently PRP-ing in Crenshaw, and running to the airport before traffic got crazy! After all that, I think I’m going to take it easy this weekend. The weather has also been cooling down significantly, so a restful and cozy weekend inside sounds like the perfect thing to do.

PRP: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Always look to work for architecture offices which embody your values or ambitions as a designer. Focus on these commonalities you share instead of on the name or status of a firm, and you’ll get the most out of your experience. Once you go and work for a firm, don’t be afraid to express your work and design interests to your coworkers and supervisors. There are always responsibilities and roles which are expected and important to uphold, yet this doesn’t mean that expressing specific interests and the experience you’re looking for is out of the question. Showing interest, asking questions, talking to coworkers in different teams and project stages can open up exciting and unexpected possibilities.