Portland’s Innovative Modular Designs

May 17, 2017 | | View Comments

Explore how modular designs are shaping Portland, from tackling community issues to making delicious smoothies.

Modular design has been a driving force in some of Portland’s most prominent trends, including food carts and tiny homes. The success of modularity has allowed for increased public access to otherwise secluded resources, a counterbalance to the high-rise condos and offices, and innovative alternatives for traditional structures. Movements in the direction of modularity can be seen in increasing numbers as our city’s population booms and we adjust to make room while keeping our definitive uniqueness alive.

What are these modular spaces, and what impact do they have on our city? Designed to be portable, sustainable, and versatile, these structures are being used to solve all sorts of problems in Portland. Take a look as we delve into some of the most interesting initiatives taking place in our own backyards – in some cases, quite literally!

SQFT Studios

A guest suite designed and built by SQFT Studios in Northeast Portland.
Image: SQFT Studios.

One company that is doing its part to transform the landscape of architecture in Portland is SQFT Studios. SQFT Studios specializes in designing and building home studios and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that are customized to each client’s needs. Their structures can even be outfitted with living roofs or solar panels, which are part of SQFT’s mission to create beautiful, comfortable, and sustainable structures that almost anyone could have installed right in their backyard. Once installed, many people use their new spaces as home offices, art studios, or even rent them out.


A bedroom in the wheelchair-accessible “Pacifica” house, which can fit up to four people.
Photo: Caravan and Jeffrey Freeman.

While many people build ADUs – sometimes lovingly referred to as “tiny houses” – as a rental opportunity, few have taken it to the extent that Caravan has. They call themselves “the Tiny House Hotel,” and founders Deb Delman and Kol Peterson have built up an army of small houses on wheels that are parked in Northeast Portland and are rented out just like any other hotel room. But these houses aren’t just any hotel rooms; each has their own distinct and quirky feel that fit right in in Portland. What’s more, Delman and Peterson don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk by living in an ADU that they built themselves.

POD Initiative

Some of the POD Initiative’s pods on display in Portland.
Photo: Center for Public Interest Design.

While SQFT and Caravan specialize in providing housing for those who want to experience the lifestyle of a modular-designed building, the POD Initiative serves a different clientele: Portland’s homeless population. The POD Initiative is a project of Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, which is itself a part of PSU’s School of Architecture. The pods were tailored to the needs of homeless people in Portland, by creating designs with features such as: recycled materials, water collection, and portability. The proposed installation site for the pods is in Kenton, but for now they are on display as part of the Portland Art Museum’s “Quest for Beauty” exhibit.

SAGE Classrooms

A rendering of one of SAGE’s classrooms, showing off its space and use of natural lighting.
Photo: SAGE.

Modular design can take other forms besides housing, and SAGE (Smart Academic Green Environment) is leading the charge to bring modular structures to schools. SAGE has created as many as 55 modular classrooms, primarily in Oregon and Washington, which are designed to be not only affordable for schools and school districts, but long-lasting and environmentally sustainable. SAGE was designated by Governor Kitzhaber as an official project of Oregon Solutions—a program created to support and recognize projects that solve the community problems in Oregon in sustainable ways.


Moberi is a Portland-style spin on food carts, combining biking with smoothies and acai bowls.
Photo: Moberi.

What list of modular buildings in Portland would be complete without the Rose City’s favorite structures – food carts! Moberi got started when founder Ryan Carpenter had one simple idea: what if you could use bike power to make something delicious for yourself after exercising? With three locations around Portland, customers looking to earn themselves a smoothie can hop on a bike blender and pedal away. And if biking isn’t your thing, you can always go to these food carts to enjoy an acai bowl instead. It doesn’t get much more Portland than that!

As these projects and organizations show, modular design is already making a tremendous impact in the Portland area by offering solutions from classroom shortages to homelessness, as well as providing options for those who want a true-to-Portland experience when they visit.

For anyone wanting to learn more about how modular design is being used today and what it will look like in the future, Todd Ferry of PSU’s Center for Public Interest Design will be our speaker at our next Design Museum Mornings: Invoking Change Through Modular Design! Todd will be sharing how socially-conscious mobile spaces can tackle community concerns on June 9th at Hand-Eye Supply.

Click here to learn more and get tickets for June’s edition of Design Museum Mornings!