Five Questions With: Donald Powers

Architect talks about the decision to change his firm’s name to Union Studio. More

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Five Questions With: Donald Powers

COURTESY UNION STUDIO
"WE WANTED an optimistic, strong, evocative name that would communicate our particular expertise in merging site design and architectural design," said Union Studio head Donald Powers.
Posted 12/2/11

After 10 years at the helm of Donald Powers Architects, Donald Powers and his team of designers have changed the name of their Providence firm to Union Studio. The name change was in the works for years, as have some of the firm’s unique projects, like the Sandywoods Farms community in Tiverton and Cottages on the Greene in East Greenwich, which have both recently been completed.

Powers took a few minutes out this week to discuss the name change and developments in architecture.

PBN: So why did you decide to change the firm's name and why did you choose Union Studio?

POWERS: We wanted an optimistic, strong, evocative name that would communicate our particular expertise in merging site design and architectural design. The name Union Studio supports our belief that good design fosters communities. And, it communicates to both clients and employees, current and future, that there is depth and opportunity within this company. That’s very important if you’re trying to attract the best and brightest who need to see a future for themselves. Finally, clients who might otherwise see us as a one-architect boutique, get a better sense of us as an organization with significant resources and talents beyond those any one architect could ever deliver.

PBN: How has the firm changed over the last several years?

POWERS: We have honed our mission and solidified our commitment to mastering the range of skills and services needed to make great places that foster community and hold value. My biggest source of pride is that we have successfully created a firm in which this expertise is shared broadly within the office. We’ve never been interested in individual genius or originality for its own sake, neither of which can really be learned. We’re focused on building a firm which is knowledgeable, skilled, responsible, and effective – in service of our clients and the community.

PBN: Your designs for projects with small cottages in Tiverton and East Greenwich have received a lot of attention. Now that they are finished, do you see these kinds of projects at the front of an emerging trend, or is there an even newer idea that might be the next big thing?

POWERS: There’s always a “next big thing” that comes and goes, but we don’t spend much energy chasing trends. Our interest in cottage communities or “pocket neighborhoods” has been longstanding and is based as much on our looking back at history as forward to the future. Our involvement with The New Urbanism (a broad-based group of professionals dedicated to repairing our built environment by re-learning traditional principles of urban design) has led us to study successful housing models and patterns from the past. We (and others) have merely dusted off and updated forgotten techniques. The bungalow courts of Southern California, workers cottages from pre-war mill towns, even “utopian communities” such as those of the Shakers and Mormons offer a wealth of valuable techniques for creating appropriate, compact, and valuable communities for a less car-dependant world.

PBN: How has the prolonged slowdown in new construction changed what architects and designers are doing and do you think they would have been heading in this direction anyway?

POWERS: Painful as it has been for many, in the long run this will turn out to have been good for the profession and our communities. As a profession we were building at a crazy pace and not doing it well. The slowdown has reduced the “increment of development” with the result that smaller projects, on infill sites closer in to town have largely replaced the large lot subdivisions on “greenfields.” That’s a very good thing in our view. For us, the slowdown has also provided the margin in our day to think about other things besides the next deadline. We have been forced to become a disciplined business, after too long not needing to be. As a result we are well positioned to grow as the economy improves, which it certainly will – eventually.

PBN: Now that Sandywood Farms and Cottages on the Greene are completed, what have you learned from these projects?

POWERS: I am more convinced than ever of the need for the architect to acquire a command of the whole process of development if he or she is going to add value for everyone. To the extent we understood and incorporated the needs and concerns of every stakeholder – from community members, municipal officials, and life-safety personnel, to developer, investor and bank, to sales and marketing professionals, buyers, and ultimately, the residents or tenants – we will have been successful at creating places of lasting value.

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