Words by Brian Shuff | Photos by Michael D. Wilson
Architect Lauren Reiter gets her Portland home to work—for her family and for the planet
Architect: Reiter Architecture & Design, Builder: M.R. Brewer, Interior Designer: Reiter Architecture & Design, Structural Engineer: Becker Structural Engineers, Tile: Capozza Tile
“Every project has to work for its users,” says Lauren Reiter. “That’s the basic rule of architecture.” With three decades of licensed practice to attest—much of it in New York City—Lauren has a wonderful ease when speaking to her profession at large. Here, however, she happens to be referencing a self-designed renovation of her own home in the heart of Portland’s studio district. “Vitruvius, a writer and civil engineer from ancient Rome, said ‘Architecture should provide firmness, commodity, and delight,’” Lauren quotes, adding, “that’s what you seek to provide any client, even when that client is yourself.”
When Lauren and her husband, Neil Reiter, first came to the peninsula from Brooklin in 2014, they found much to enjoy in their new urban locale. “We loved the building, the neighborhood, and that it was a sustainable project. That goes without saying,” Lauren says. But the space was not yet working for its users. “It wasn’t meeting the requirements we had for a full time residence.”
The place had only one bathroom, for example. Lauren and Neil both work from home and needed offices as well. “We needed to create something that would serve us spatially,” she says. “We wanted rooms for when our children visit, a workout area, a screening room—we love movies—and most importantly easy access to outside.” For this, the design included an addition with two terraces, one railed with planters for privacy.
Zoning allowed for construction out to the lot lines, so the Reiters expanded their home both horizontally and vertically. A two-car garage was added, two stories on top of that, and a small addition to the existing roof. The result is a fun and complex space of many levels and many runs of stairs. “We kept the bones of the original design,” says Lauren, “but we had to make it ours.”
Perhaps the most involved interior renovation work occurred in the kitchen. “We take food seriously in our house,” says Lauren. Neil is a coowner of the ever-enjoyable Lolita on Munjoy Hill (Lauren designed the space) and an excellent cook by all accounts. The kitchen was nonnegotiable. “We like a big open space. Lots of work area. A really good working kitchen,” Lauren says. Large block counters form the space with an equally sizable island, but the softness of American maple siding paired with burnished zinc countertops (the same style used for Lolita’s bar top, by the way) keep it all feeling minimal and smart.
The home also needed to accommodate the Reiters’ considerable art collection. Pieces collected over years commingle with the invaluable work of their children, and Lauren’s design involved explicit consideration of how best to maximize display areas. “We do have a lot of artwork,” she says, “maybe too much. It’s very personal to us.”
Design considerations also included how best to light the pieces. Light plays a fundamental role in all of Lauren’s work, and she frequently tells clients that if they have 10 dollars to spend they should put 9 into lighting and 1 into paint. That goes for natural light as well—it is no accident that a glass door at the end of one hallway is the precise width and height of the hall itself, creating the sensation that “you are always walking towards light.” The existing space was on the scant side lighting-wise, so her design involved more installation than renovation, a blank slate.
LEDs light around 92 percent of the home now. “They’ve gotten decent,” Lauren says, “and they have a much smaller impact on the environment.” More than garages, or art, or terraces, it is ecological pacifism that Lauren demands first of her spaces. Croxton Collaborative Architects, her original Manhattan firm, was an early believer and leader in the field of green design, and the Reiters’ home itself has an environmental pedigree to which Lauren aspires. Originally renovated by Richard Renner in 2007, the home was the Northeast’s first renovation to receive LEED for Homes Platinum Certification. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is the most widely used measuring system to classify buildings to various levels of environmental performance.
“We’ve made every effort to maintain that standard of high performance,” Lauren says. This means: high-efficiency insulation, triple-glazed windows, under-floor heating, those LED lights, and myriad other green considerations. “‘High performance’ is a good term because it encompasses many issues besides energy,” Lauren explains. “It’s about water usage. It’s about reusing existing materials. It’s about specifying materials that are low in toxicity. It includes building and construction practices. It’s the process itself.”
To this imperative Lauren Reiter is deeply committed. In conversation, her passion reads as genuine and righteous. “Any architect that does not consider the earth shouldn’t be practicing,” she says. “Technology and understanding evolve. Buildings are a big part of what creates climate change. We have a responsibility as architects to do green construction, to make sustainable design intrinsic to our practice.” Not even antiquity is spared (nor should it be). “I would add to Vitruvius,” says Lauren. “I would say architecture should provide firmness, commodity, delight, and sustainability.”