Owen Gabbert Q&A: On ADU's, Community Building & Alleyway Appreciation


A developer with a vision, and the skills to pull off building everything from a neighborhood wine bar to a modern pool house, Owen Gabbert’s wide-ranging expertise and passion pushed him to start his own LLC of the same name. Raised in the Irvington neighborhood of Portland, Owen manages construction projects all throughout Oregon while specializing in community-based development. From projects as diverse as the Old Germantown Remodel in the West Hills to Psychic Bar in North Portland, Owen and his team bring innovative problem-solving to every project they touch. 

 Psychic Bar via Abby Gordon Photography

 Dame via Thomas Teal

 

As Portland residents, we’ve witnessed the power of Owen’s work for ourselves countless times while strolling through our own neighborhoods. And most recently, we’ve been obsessed with his strikingly simple but elegant ADU’s. For those who are curious, Accessory Dwelling Units or ADU’s, are additional units on your property that can be used for a variety of purposes. From generating additional storage space to creating a rentable unit for additional income, ADU’s increase property value and have been popping up throughout Portland. Traditionally, these spaces have been formulaically built out of necessity in lesser-seen parts of the property such as behind the garage or as a basement-type extension to the house. Lately, Owen’s team has been challenging the status quo by creating functional ADU’s that are beautifully and thoughtfully designed.


Lucky for us, Owen is not only an expert in all things ADU, but he is also a long-time friend of Schoolhouse and even served as the developer for the Pittsburgh Detective Building, Schoolhouse’s newest location. After seeing the minimalist Mallory ADU Owen created with Dyer Studio, we caught up with Owen to learn more about his process, thoughts on community building, and how to seamlessly pull off building an ADU.

 

 Mallory ADU via Spencer Eide

 

Tell us a bit about your background – when did your passion for building become more than an interest?


I grew up around real estate. My dad started a construction company, so I was exposed to it at a young age. My parents actually thought I’d be an engineer because I really loved building Legos! As I grew older, I started working construction during summers and was given the opportunity to learn carpentry. But my professional desire really kicked off in my early college years. We built a longhouse out on our family property from partially salvaged materials and locally logged timber. I was drawn to this idea of building something for ourselves. We were making it up as we went along, but the idea and opportunity to manage a project from start to finish and problem solve as we progressed made me think “I could do this for a long time.” That combined with my studies of American History and particularly gentrification in Portland led me to see real estate and construction as an opportunity to give back to my community through my profession in an impactful way.

 

The Longhouse 

 

How did your company get started?


When I graduated from college, I was asked to work at a high-end residential design-build firm and started as a carpenter. From there, the owner quickly asked me to help estimating. It was a really great experience and I learned a lot there, but I felt like something was missing. One, I wanted to have more control of the project - similar to the longhouse project I worked on in college. We worked on these incredible spaces with extravagant budgets, and that was a great experience and opportunity, but most people have a budget they cannot exceed. So, I started to think, “how do we help people achieve their vision on a budget that works?” It was something I wanted to really lean into. Two, I wanted more control of who I worked with – from clients to designers to building owners. Building a team and working collaboratively towards a shared goal has always been important to me, and it became a key part of our company ethos.

 

My experience at a design build firm provided me with the tools to communicate with our design partners to achieve their, and the clients, vision – we’re good at helping figure out how to deliver the spirit of the design in the most cost effective way  - it allows us to partner with and assist clients who are design driven. You want this architectural moment to happen? Okay, here’s how we can do it on the budget you are working with.

 

 BeechHaus via Christopher Dibble Photography

 

What are the most important considerations to make when building and designing an ADU?


Budget is a recurring component of our process; it's not like the sexiest part of the conversation, but I think it's something that people have to be really upfront about (with themselves and the rest of their team!). It can be really painful for clients to go through an entire design process only to find that what they want is twice the amount they can afford. Let me be clear – that’s not to say that you should strictly work to a budget and toss out any ideas that don’t fit into that. Rather, you should engage a full team – designer and contractor – at the outset, so you can get comprehensive feedback throughout the project. We want to help clients be thoughtful about their resources and tackle it from the get-go because that will create efficiency and will allow the design process to run smoothly as well. We want to be a part of the team as early as possible to allow our knowledge to be a tool to the designer and client as they iterate through options.

 

It also comes down to making a list of priorities. How do you maximize key design components and concepts? Is it important to be one level? Is there a certain aesthetic you want to capture? Where on the property do you want it to be located? Are you going to move into it or rent it out? If you want to maximize your rent, you're going to do something a bit different than if it's your home that you want to move into. For instance, if you are going to rent it out, do you want someone to be able to access your house from the backyard? Function and priorities are important. It'll drive your choices.

 

Old Germantown Remodel via David Papazian

 

What does the general process look like from start to finish?


I like clients to come to us as they’re assembling their team. Find your architect or designer and take that decision really seriously because they’re going to guide you through the process; then, either at the same time or just after, start interviewing contractors to decide who you want to spend a chunk of your life with, because you’re going to be emotionally and financially involved for a while. From there, we help brainstorm options within the context of the design with the design professional and price things out as the design progresses from a schematic level to a more complete set. We come up with a series of estimates to help choose every piece of material and present it to the client. Then, we progress forward or work on cost-saving ideas based on feedback.

 

It’s a linear process, but it is also iterative. So, sometimes you go forward a couple steps only to step backward as you get additional information. For example, if the client says that they want their ADU to be two stories with a roof deck, but they find out that the roof deck is $20,000, they may rethink that. We always tell people to practice restraint and embrace the constraints you are facing. Budget is frequently a constraint or the site itself could provide limitations. We encourage people to think about how to embrace these challenges as a team instead of fighting against them.

 

B3 via Jenny Trygg & Kate Richard

Lincoln Remodel via Caitlin Murray 

 

Any ADU-specific design tricks that you’ve learned along the way?


Here are the two tricks that I like and applied in my own home. First, figure out ways to make things in your ADU do more than one thing. What that means to me is if I have a two-story ADU, I can use the exposed wood decking as the finished ceiling below, the structure for the room above, and the finished floor. So now, rather than building and finishing the floor and the ceiling separately, you can make it all in one. The honesty of materials makes a space feel better to me. It also starts to feel more comfortable. It’s cost-effective and you can make really interesting spaces.

 

Second, ADU’s are always going to be space-constrained. So, design with that in mind. Can your kitchen island have a couch on the back of it? Can your dining room table also serve as your prep table? Or it could mean furniture that moves or retracts. Look for opportunities where you can simply have dual functionality out of things and utilize design tricks to make that space feel bigger. Find underutilized space, like under your stairs, and put it to good use. Your designer can help with this part. Utilize your resources and your team. This is a great way to get good design at a workable budget.

 

Lincoln Remodel via Caitlin Murray

Rio Vista via Sally Painter

 

What are the most common hurdles (and how can one avoid them)?


First – assemble your team and be honest about the budget. Don’t hide it. There’s a tendency for people to withhold their budget when that is such a key part of the process. There’s this notion that people often have that the contractor is going to bring their budget up to the target the client provides. So, they want to hide it, but the reality is that we’re almost always going to have to work together to bring the cost down to the budget. So, we have to work together to figure out how to make it work. Often, we get drawings that are very far along and there’s no room for adaptation or feedback without significant changes. Don’t get too far down the stream without assembling a team and trust them to help you. If you don't trust them, then you have a big problem.

 

Second – be really clear on your goals. If you’re showing me a Pinterest image, tell me what you like about it. Get specific and make a list. Spend as much time as you can early on to make decisions. Trust your architect or designer and make as many choices as you can upfront because it allows us to create a really tight budget. Decision fatigue is real and it is doubly challenging when there is time pressure associated with your choice. Making decisions early on is a benefit because now your contractor knows exactly what they're building. Plus, you don't have to make a choice on the spot. With that said, there's no replacement for being in a space. So, you might end up changing some things. But to the extent that you can, shrink the number of decisions you'll have to make during construction and you'll be ahead of the game.

 

 NE 8th ADU via Caitlin Murray

 

You grew up not too far from here in Northeast Portland. From a developer’s perspective, how have you seen Portland change in the last decade? 


I think development has become increasingly formulaic. And that's not good for our neighborhoods, because each community is unique and different and generally broken down into smaller buildings. In its recent history, Portland was an undiscovered oasis to the national development community, but now the secret is out, and there are lots of new people moving here. As a result, a lot of outside investment came here to develop larger buildings, based on a financial model. And that’s okay because we desperately need more housing, but my hope for the next 10 years is that there will be more creative, innovative projects that will respond to neighborhoods and communities. That's what we try to do in all of our projects at all scales – from building my house on an alley behind an existing duplex to restoring existing buildings like the Detective Building or developing unique projects that value design, economics, and sustainability like One North.

 

I think and hope that in these denser, closer-in neighborhoods we are going to see more creative projects that take a cue from the adaptive reuse we’ve seen throughout the Central Eastside and Northwest Portland, and apply it to all sorts of building types, because there are more spatial constraints as larger lots have already been developed. I hope that will mean that instead of a house or existing building being torn down, there will be units, residential or commercial, built behind it or the house will be split into a duplex and shared.

 

One North via Andrew Pogue

 

Tell us about your latest community development in Portland. What excited you most about these types of projects?


We are just about to complete a co-living project on Michigan Ave. in North Portland. In general, multifamily developers across the U.S. build larger apartments with a mix of studios, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. When I think of those projects, I imagine someone on the bus, looking at their phone, getting off the bus and walking into their building, all while still looking at their phone, only to get home to their studio to close the door and watch Netflix. Before you know it, they’ve been in there by themselves until the next day. And they do it all over again. Of course, that is not everyone’s reality and there are lots of great apartments, but living arrangements have become isolating.


By nature, humans are social creatures (some more than others), but in the U.S. we sequester away into small private spaces. In many other cultures, communal living is standard and celebrated. ADUs are one version of that (they’re called mother in law suites for a reason), but there are not many building layouts and operational property management structures that actively support a collaborative living model. We’ve intentionally built our project and signed on a very hands-on operator to create a legitimate, programmed community experience, supported by buildings that are designed to facilitate that.

 

Instrument HQ 

 

So, in this project, we are trying to offer an alternative approach as to how you might live. In our project, there will be 26 bedrooms across four buildings. You’ll have your own bedroom and bathroom suite but have access to a large shared kitchen and dining area in the main house. It means you’ll have less private space, but more space overall. It’s set up so that theoretically 26 people could all prep and share a meal in the main kitchen and dining room. To make that work, it’s got two fridges and two stoves and double everything because the intent is that it can accommodate all residents.


We bought an existing house built in 1890 and added three houses around it. By doing that, we’ve incorporated the original house into a larger development that is community-oriented. It’s inverting the idea of an ADU in a way. Rather than putting a small house behind or within an existing house, we’re putting multiple new houses around an existing older house. Around town, we’ve seen a lot of micro-units pop up, but we’re not trying to compress everything into a smaller box. We're trying to get the get some of those functions out of that box and say, "okay, what private space do you need and what do you want to share with other people?” One of the buildings are already starting to be occupied and the other ones will be complete over the next couple of weeks in September. We'll probably be fully open October 1.

 

Vista Sunroom via Jenny Trygg & Kate Richard

 

What are some “work” projects on the horizon for you?


We’re also working on a ground-up bar with a rooftop deck over in Southeast Portland with a food cart pod design around it. The idea is that it will function more like a food hall. Food cart pods have historically popped up out of necessity - waiting to be developed combined with aspiring chefs as small business owners. We’re taking a little different approach and planning one out intentionally and thoughtfully from the outset, for the long term.


Finally, we're building ourselves a new office which is fun because it will be designed for our own use. It will be behind a very cool house that we're buying. It’s also a manifestation of this reoccurring interest I have in alleys – they’re underutilized assets that people typically associate with negative elements, but they’re actually the best place to walk! They’re wide and quiet, but not very hospitable to cars. So, I’m always looking at how we could utilize alleys during our development and building – I live in a house that fronts on an alley in fact. The office will be another exploration of and experiment in alley projects!

 

Commercial ADU via Jenny Trygg & Kate Richard

 

Any "not work" projects you're excited about?


We end up with a variety of extra materials from our projects. So, we have a yard full of miscellaneous building materials – windows, lumber, plumbing fixtures, you name it! We've been talking about building either a tiny house or tiny office. We’re interested in a job trailer because we’d like to elevate that particular function in construction. Typically, you see construction trailers on job-sites that are poorly built modular things, but what if they could represent our values and the projects we work on? What if we could build our own and make it really interesting?


It would also be great to approach a nonprofit and ask, “what can we build for you?” Historically, we’ve typically donated a lot of extra materials, and that’s great, but as builders, we also have all these skills to leverage those materials! We build things all day. Our team can actually take the materials we have and apply their talent and creativity to them instead of just donating. It’s still very much just percolating, but I'm hopeful about how we might do that and give back to the community. It would be great if it became a reoccurring thing for us.

 

Mallory ADU via Spencer Eide


Shop ADU Favorites