Recent Alums Share Passion for Social Sustainability and Community Design

One creates sustainable community spaces in Los Angeles; the other restores and repurposes existing structures in Detroit; both are graduates of the UO School of Architecture & Environment’s Department of Architecture and involved in public interest design and service-based practice.

Chaz Kern, MArch ’17, a design fellow at LA-Más, an urban design nonprofit in Los Angeles, says her firm reaches out to the community to create public spaces, alternative housing, and provide small business support.

Chaz Kern participates in a neighborhood restoration project
Chaz Kern, MArch ’17, participates in a neighborhood restoration project with LA-Más, a non-profit urban design organization that helps lower-income and underserved communities shape their future through policy and architecture.

“We use community outreach in our design process to make sure our designs are serving the people who live and work there,” she says. “We have a lot of allies in the government and in the city, and we’re using that to bring attention to these areas that don’t necessarily have the voice or means to have their public spaces changed.”

Partnering with local government and other nonprofit organizations, LA-Más gathers community feedback through in-person surveys and site tours. In the public spaces, they might add seating and tables or create lighting solutions. To develop healthy neighborhoods, they give small businesses a fresh new look, which might include painting the exterior, creating new signage, or helping them rearrange their store in a way that’s more efficient. “It’s about serving the communities of people, and the built projects that we do are looking at the most cost-effective way to get it done,” Kern says. “We’ll redesign their storefront and sustain them in the community where sometimes they’re getting pushed out.”

Lauren Strauss, MArch ’16, joined Quinn Evans Architects after participating in Challenge Detroit, a yearlong fellowship focused on revitalizing the city. For the past year she has been working at adapting a former bank for mixed use. According to Strauss, a sustainable building is the one that’s already built, and Detroit offers plentiful opportunities for adaptive reuse. “There are so many beautiful, incredible buildings here, and especially coming from the west coast, there’s so much brick,” she says. “There’s a lot happening, and it’s a really exciting time to be here.”

Strauss is also involved in collaborative, multidisciplinary urban planning research studies through the City of Detroit. “It’s getting conversations happening involving the community and getting back to a planning level and a more community-based, more interactive level—the human side of architecture,” Strauss says. “It’s also taught me a lot about doing human-centered design. The meetings involve listening to the people who live there, and it’s a good communication back and forth. Eventually, I think it will lead to better design because it’s a more collaborative way of doing it.”

Both attribute their career success to the training they received from the architecture program at the UO.

“My education at the University of Oregon was really well-rounded,” Kern says. “I have a lot of different interests—in housing, in urbanism and construction, and fabrication—I found a little bit of everything at the UO.”

Strauss agrees. “What really drew me to UO was the variety of options they have. If you’re into historic preservation, you can take all the courses associated with that field, and really define your education.”

Lauren Strauss works on restoration project

Lauren Strauss works on restoration project

Lauren Strauss, MArch ’16, with Quinn Evans Architects, works on restoration of the 125-year-old Crapo building in Bay City, Michigan.


Story by Sharleen Nelson