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Image: John Clark

At WILLIAMS FIVE with Ben Kaiser and Corey Martin of Path Architecture.

Less than a mile northwest of the Z-Haus is Path Architecture’s Williams Five, a quintet of live/work townhouses clad in swaths of rich cedar wood wrapped around crisp white-stucco planes. Aligned perpendicularly to the street on a 5,000-square-foot lot, the modest 1,500-square-foot units feel expansive, with generous windows that open onto communal courtyards where residents mingle and share meals. “We like to find a site where we can put five units where there ordinarily would only be one single-family house,” says Path partner Corey Martin. “You create an outdoor courtyard that brings everyone together, and it becomes a really great, inspiring place to live.” Sustainability is, again, intrinsic to the project, which features high-efficiency heat pumps and a rainwater management system. Just don’t call it a marketing tool. “‘Green marketing’ kind of annoys us,” Martin says. “It’s just what you do. You don’t use it as a selling tool.”

Nearby, just off of NE 45th Avenue on Ainsworth Street, Darin Dougherty of Seed Architecture is putting the finishing touches on his SIPs House, named for the structural insulated panels made of high-density insulation and plywood that create the home’s angular framework. Dougherty clad the house in coppery, virtually indestructible sheets of Cor-Ten steel and planks of wood salvaged from two old barns he bought on Craigslist. “It’s important that my projects have a connection between the exterior and interior,” he says, “whether it’s materials that speak to nature or floor-to-ceiling glass doors.” Indeed, set back from the road in a semirural stretch of the neighborhood, the house looks like a modern interpretation of a barn.

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However divinely inspired, innovatively designed, and exactingly crafted their projects may be, these architects must still survive a recession many older colleagues say may get worse than that of the 1980s, when roughly 40 percent of Portland’s architects lost their jobs. Although Dougherty’s SIPs House will shortly hang its own “For Sale” sign in a beleaguered real estate market, he remains optimistic. “There’s a certain level of quality and form that will weather any economy,” he says. “There are so many creative people in Portland who understand the value of design, we shouldn’t have too much trouble.”

Dougherty’s confidence is buoyed in part by the small but critical financial successes his colleagues are enjoying. The market may have forced Path’s Corey Martin and his partner to switch Williams Five from condos to apartments, but all five units are now rented. Another of Path’s recently completed projects, the Park Box, which faces DeNorval Unthank Park, is also at capacity. Nearby, Waechter has sold half of the Z-Haus (he will live in the other half). Works Partnership’s Bside6 will be 40 percent occupied when it opens—not all that bad considering such downtown projects as the First & Main building, which is nearly complete without a single tenant signed, or the Park Avenue West tower, which remains for now a giant hole in the ground. And—no small feat—Holst has survived the downturn without a single layoff.

‘I think Portland is still the Wild West. We have so much access to a landscape and resources that we think of things differently.’ -Corey Martin, Path Architecture

Sure, the small size of these firms’ projects and their offices’ low overhead help. But so, too, might their belief that Portland’s commitment to sustainability and pride of place can, finally, be fused into a bolder, more confident brand of architecture. “We have a collective urban consciousness,” says Neburka matter-of-factly, “that Portland is the place that can set the standard in architecture for how we treat the planet.”