Skylab Architecture in Portland. Ore., may be best known, at least within pop culture circles, for its Hoke Residence. It was featured as the home of Edward Cullen, the protagonist in the Twilight movie series based on the books by Stephenie Meyer. Since the first movie in the series debuted in 2008, there have been plenty of “Twi-hards” clamoring for a copy of their dream character’s dream home, a multi-level timber-and-concrete dwelling with a cantilevered balcony in Forest Park, just outside of downtown Portland, Ore. Of course, says Jeff Kovel, AIA, the firm’s principal architect, “Unless you have a triangular-shaped site with southern orientation on a 30-degree hill in a forest, this isn’t going to be the right design for you.”
Indeed, the Hoke Residence hasn’t come to define Skylab, and the firm has slowly gathered momentum with its innovative modular work and wide-ranging commissions, including hospitality work for the W Seattle hotel and the Summit Sky Lodge, an upcoming prefab ski resort in Utah.
For the just-completed offices of the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant (CBWTP) in north Portland, Skylab designed a solution for staff members who had been stuck working in individual trailers, while also preserving a cluster of old-growth trees and creating a best-practices showcase for stormwater management. The building’s inflected concrete roof slabs, arranged radially, catch rainwater on their planted surfaces before channeling it into a bioswale. As Kovel tells it, “Our thought was rather than have the building further scar the site, can it heal it, in a way?”
Founded in 1999 with what Kovel describes as “a full-on startup mentality,” Skylab has grown to 27 employees. But that hasn’t changed the firm’s focus on customization. “We can give a high level of attention to a house and to a 300,000-square-foot building,” says Brent Grubb, Skylab’s other principal. “And they’re not different in terms of the expectation of product delivery.” But neither partner wants to see the firm’s growth continue unchecked. “We don’t really want to be a 100-person firm,” Kovel says. “Brent and I are both really personally involved in the design work. We could continue to develop an incredible staff, but there’s something boutique about what we’re offering.”
Both principals migrated to Portland after architecture school. Grubb spent a decade working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and San Francisco's Aidlin Darling Design after earning a degree from Ball State University in Indiana. Kovel, after completing his B.Arch. at Cornell University, landed a gig with a Portland-based firm called Architropolis, doing fast-paced projects for retailers and rock stars, most notably a Miami residence for musician Lenny Kravitz. He admired how Architropolis was willing to take on just about any project, of any scope or length. “I think that foundation, in a way, formed a lot of the diversity in our practice,” Kovel says. “A crash course [in hospitality] for three years was really outside of what I thought my focus [would be] in architecture, but I think some of that DNA has always permeated our work.”
In the first few years, Skylab designed a lot of kitchens and bathrooms, trying to build word-of-mouth recognition through quality work on small projects. Then came 1680 House, constructed on a site considered unbuildable because of its steep slope. Kovel served as developer, general contractor, and architect. The Hoke Residence of Twilight fame soon followed. After Kovel spoke at a charity event at the Hoke Residence, someone bought the lot next door and commissioned a new Skylab house, which Kovel describes as “Iron Man meets Portlandia”—it has a multi-car garage bermed into an artificial hillside, and a green roof covered in planters, chickens, and bees.
Such high-profile commissions aside, Skylab has been refining its modular approach to residential construction. The firm, in conjunction with Seattle-based Method Homes, began developing a repeatable prefab module in 2008, during the Great Recession. The team settled upon HOMB (a combination of “home” and “honeycomb”): a 100-square-foot, triangular module made of LVL beams, steel, and SIPs. The module’s integrated structure enables it to be tessellated and configured in infinite ways, according to a client’s imagination and budget.
“We’ve had people build their own models of these and submit them,” Kovel says. Grubb adds that “traditional homes are built with certain limitations, but with this system you’d be able to build one story now, and you could come in four years and build another. It becomes financially feasible to imagine it and build it in phases.”
Kovel likens the firm’s eventual goal to that of the electric carmaker Tesla Motors. Just like Tesla, which hopes to sell enough of its high-end cars to one day produce a model to market to the middle class, Kovel says that the hope is that Skylab’s modular systems can eventually be used for affordable housing. The affluent clients who buy in to HOMB’s research and development in the beginning stages will help pave the way for mainstream production, with economies of scale bringing costs down along the way.
Skylab assembled a prototype called the Ivy Street Residence, Portland’s first ever prefab house, using 28 modules of the HOMB system. Fabricated in Seattle and shipped on six truck beds to Portland, the modules were “buttoned up” on site to create a four-bedroom residence and an additional dwelling unit, which together total 3,930 square feet.
Skylab is now using the HOMB modules to design a new prefab mixed-use retail and residential mid-rise with 21 units on Burnside Street in downtown Portland. With the Ivy Street Residence serving as a showroom, the firm is hoping to attract a million-dollar investment to help develop the prefab system for a high-density project of this significant scale. Having successfully produced both the single-family version and a commercial application, Skylab hopes to see the multifamily version take off next.
One thing is certain: The firm will probably never be typecast. As Kovel says, “The name Skylab is about optimism and exploration. Futurism, with a touch of irony.”
This story has been updated. ARCHITECT misprinted the name of Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, and regrets the error.