Interview

A Conversation with Brent Grubb, Principal | Skylab Architecture

Oregon-based Skylab Architecture first planted its design roots in the residential space, including the now-infamous Hoke House (featured as the home of Edward Cullen in the Twilight movie series). Today, Skylab’s eclectic portfolio features award-winning commercial, civic and industrial projects, as well as a notable work-in-progress, Nike’s World Headquarters.

Think Wood recently connected with Skylab Principal Brent Grubb to talk about the firm’s early adoption of prefab, why they are seeing a shift to timber, and how their recent project, Outpost, can serve as a prototype for a symbiotic relationship between commercial and industrial designs.

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Think Wood: Hello Brent. Let’s start with prefabrication. Skylab has a long history with prefab, including your partnership with Method Homes to develop a modular grid system called HOMB. Tell us about this long-term exploration.

BG: At Skylab, we’ve been practicing modular construction for more than 20 years, but people are just now starting to really talk about it. Our experience with prefab stems from our early work in residential and retail designs, and now we’ve deployed these concepts across multiple scales, from a million square feet to a 2,000 square-foot house. It’s how we design for efficiency, for maximizing repetition, and for minimizing waste. It also creates harmony in a space. Because the pieces come pre-assembled, you can pre-engineer and pre-design. It speeds up the time on site, and you can work with a standard contractor while building a more sophisticated product.

 

TW: Your recent project, Outpost, is redefining the concept of mixed-use construction by combining industrial and commercial spaces. Do you see this as an emerging trend and why do you feel this is important?

BG: We’re seeing this convergence of processes and activities that previously were separated or decentralized, as well as the emergence of industrial space being more visible and cleaner. With Outpost, we were transitioning the project site from a working industrial waterfront to a waterfront for both people and makers. We’re also working with Nike on their new world headquarters where they want to move designers and makers closer together. Today, clients are looking for an assemblage of social ideas and mix-used concepts where everyone is in the same house, making and enjoying things together. I think people are thirsty for the authenticity of that experience. They want to see how things are made and engage in the process, even if it’s just visual. There’s also a heavy recreation factor activating many of these industrial waterfront areas. So we ask ourselves, how do all of these users and uses mix together, and how can our buildings respond to and support those needs?

 

TW: You’ve referred to Outpost as a prototype for future waterfront projects. What makes this a model that can/should be replicated?

BG: For Outpost we tried, in a sense, to use a humble approach with conventional materials and conventional systems, but at an elevated level. We moved traditional street-level retail to a shared second floor experience where tenants and guests can mingle with makers. The mix of central office tenants and small businesses has created its own community, and the porch concept has served as a mixing space for people who live, work and visit the space. We created a place for people to really experience the waterfront and all it has to offer. As a palette, it’s pretty accessible for other locations and other developers to use a similar approach, especially for an all-wood structure.

 

TW: Tell us about Skylab’s evolution working with wood and mass timber construction.

BG: Our shift to build with and design with timber has been driven by sustainability, by cost and by the beauty of wood itself. Our goal [for Outpost] was to use as much wood as possible, including the structure, the window systems, the doors, etc. Local material and labor also come into play here. It’s an easier material for the trades to engage and put together, it creates a warm and sustainable space, and it allows for developers to easily plug and play different tenants with little to no tenant-improvement dollars. For us, it’s not always a hyper-purist approach, however. We have a number of hybrid projects where we are engaging with CLT and mass timber to find a balance. We are leveraging wood in its various different forms, and we always explore the right materials mix for each project.

 

TW: What’s on the horizon for Skylab? How do you see mass timber construction contributing to the next generation projects?

BG: We see mass timber as a key material and structural approach for a broader scale of projects including office and institutional but also small and medium scale residential and hospitality buildings where there is more potential for repetition. Skylab is continuing to look at sourcing these prefabricated structures closer to building sites regionally across the west coast as more mass timber factories are coming online. In several of our current custom residential projects we are exploring the potential of mass timber solutions that expose the structure. In one particular project, we are utilizing CLT in a modular industrial way with the whole primary structure being delivered to the site as a complete kit for assembly. With the unpredictable cost of materials and labor these projects are a way to demonstrate the viability of a mass timber approach regionally and also showcasing wood as the finish. 

 

Brent currently resides in NE Portland, Oregon with his daughter Amelia and wife, Laura and dog Mayson. He continues to experiment on his own house which was a structure rebuilt with local reclaimed Oregon timber and a range of wood charred and stained finishes.

 

Learn more about Brent's work on Outpost in this project profile.

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