Let's Talk with Josh from SERA Design

Josh Cabot, of the holistically-focused firm SERA, talks Design Week Portland and Endurant Design
Steaming meals are served as works of art as the twilight transforms iconic Mt. Hood in the distance from pure white to a pink glow. Bicyclists of all types and color flash by, would-be dull street intersections come alive with their vibrant painted murals. This is Portland, where the evergreen trees are the only constant; where change is driven by the fearlessness to create, and design principles live at the core of the city’s ethos.
April’s Design Week Portland (DWP) brings creation and design full circle. DWP is a weeklong series of programs that focus on the process, craft and application of design and design principles in all forms of media imaginable. Its mission is to increase appreciation and awareness of design’s impact on community development, education systems and the economy.
SERA, an architecture firm founded in 1968 in Old Town Portland is organizing a DWP event on Wednesday, April 26th. The event, titled Endurant Design, offers designers and the general public an opportunity to dig in to the potentials of using resilience as a design concept, both in how it can help to more effectively bounce back from large scale disasters, and build community and prosperity.
We recently spoke with Josh about SERA’s upcoming DWP event, Endurant Design and how resilience drives planning for a sustainable future in the event of disaster.
Can you tell us more about the DWP event on April 26th?
SERA does a Sustainable Action Celebration every year and we saw DWP as an opportunity to invite the public in to see what we’ve been up to and to hear what they’re passionate about, particularly when it comes to creating a more resilient Old Town. We wanted to do an active event that gets everyone acting as designers. Our Principal Planner here at the office, Tim Smith, has a process called “Civic-Ecology” which envisions urban spaces as ecologies with people as another resource within the interconnected web.
Top-down design is never as effective as getting people from a range of backgrounds into a room to map out their urban ecology, and so this is a chance to open our doors, roll up our sleeves and have fun dreaming about a more resilient future for our neighborhood. What will be the identity of Old Town in 2035? How we can make it more resilient in the face of sudden natural disasters as well as the slower moving stressors of gentrification, homelessness, etc.  
Resilience as a design concept gets really interesting when you start to look beyond just the looming threat of The Big One, aka a Cascadian Subduction Zone earthquake. While we are definitely committed to working with our clients and consultants to design structures strong and flexible enough to resist earthquakes, that’s just one step. We also need to consider how a building can still perform in the absence of outside power and water sources, whether that’s through maximizing natural light, or capturing storm water for instance. These kinds of strategies offer great benefits in the aftermath of a disaster, but the cool part is that they conserve resources and make for better more livable buildings in the meantime.
What local projects is SERA particularly proud of?
Well, one of the biggest projects we have done recently, along with CO Architects, was the Collaborative Life Sciences Building located in the South Waterfront area. You can’t miss it if you are driving along I-5 or biking across the Tilikum Crossing; it’s silver and, frankly, has a massive presence along the river. That building won many awards for its environmental performance.
We sought to be very mindful and considerate of the day lighting, ventilation, and the materials that were used. I think the most fundamentally unique aspect of this project is the way the spaces of the building are designed to bring together students, researchers, practitioners and the general public in an effort to deliberately promote social interaction, and hopefully collaboration. This is especially apparent in the bright and airy atrium with crisscrossing walkways that spill into breakout spaces where people can run into each other and, well, collaborate!
In terms of sustainability, this project reclaimed an existing brownfield, it manages storm water with green eco-roofs, and uses non-potable grey water for toilet flushing, which conserves water while also using much less energy for a building its size.

From where do you draw your inspiration as an architect?
I am really inspired by the robust resilience of nature, and how these lessons are out there for humans to internalize and build into our repertoire. One of the many interesting things we’ve been doing at SERA lately is a research and development effort on Biophilia. The idea is to understand the human desire to be surrounded by nature and natural phenomena, like the sound of rainfall or images of leaves and branches or having a distant vista. These sorts of phenomena tie us back to our natural and primitive nature, and we’re finding more and more scientific research to back up the positive effects of these connections. From there we try to weave these concepts into our designs, which helps fuel our creativity while hopefully providing an even greater benefit to the users of these spaces.
For instance, you may have seen the remodeled Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in downtown Portland, in which we sought to take advantage of as much natural light as we could. We actually slanted ceilings downward away from the windows in order to bring sunlight deeper into the offices. Then, we added a metallic lattice of fin type elements to break the light up, reduce glare, and avoid overheating the building when the sun is low in the western sky at the end of the day. This allows the building to lower its power bill and helps the employees enjoy their time at work by connecting just a bit more with the natural world outside of their offices.
What other DWP events interest you?
One event I really want to go to is called Show Show at the Alberta Rose Theater on Tuesday night of Design Week. Melanie Rowell is a local comedian in town who produces, and I guess it happens a few times a year. Show Show basically mixes live stand-up comics mashed up with locally made animations that they interact with in the background.  I hear that this particular event will be about the stuff behind the scenes. How is “Show Show” made? What is their process? Sounds fun and pretty interesting.
I also have to plug an event on the same night as ours called Let’s Talk Transparency, which a few folks at SERA are helping out with. It delves into the topic of health and environmental product declarations that we as designers are increasingly insisting upon to make sure we’re providing healthy environments for our clients and their users. I have to say that everyone at SERA loves Design Week, there’s just so much to see! We love learning about other creative fields; we definitely don’t just stick to architecture.
Josh Cabot is a Senior Job Captain at SERA, who helps to manage the creation of design documents, serves as a point person for clients and consultants, and observes progress and helps coordinate onsite efforts with contractors. SERA operates today on three primary scales of design: interior design, architecture, and urban design and planning. SERA has three guiding principles that drive their design efforts: supporting human health and wellness, effectively managing resources (such as energy, water and waste) and creating timeless, enduring places for people. seradesign.com

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