Architecture Magazine

The Architect's Questionnaire: Deb France

By Brianlibby

Deb France (image courtesy Oh planning + design)


For the past eight years, Deb France has led the Portland firm Oh planning + design, which has created a variety of health care, government and higher education projects including the Roseberg VA Medical Center, the Oregon State University Energy Center in Corvallis, and even a collaboration with national firm AECOM on Portland's Jeld-Wen Field. The firm's name is not an interjection but an acronym. "Our name represents Optimism and Health which are the key principles based in the work we do. These are especially important in uncertain times of change and economic challenges," their website explains. Before co-founding Oh with France also spent eight years at Portland firm SRG Partnership, where she directed the firm's health care projects, and before that three years at Heery International on projects like a master plan for Oregon Health & Science University.

Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?

Deb France: It was at a very young age like many young aspiring architects. I was around nine when I became consciously aware of being interested in architecture. I realized that there was an industry that put all of the trades and disciplines together, and I was intrigued by that and that is what I wanted so I have pursued it ever since, there was no looking back.

I was always around construction; I had a grandfather who was a carpenter and my dad was a mechanical engineer. I had the technical pieces of building construction well understood before I was a teenager; we were always building something. When I went into high school, I pursued anything that was related to design and it was usually drafting, which was as close as I could get, so I hungered for more. It has been a passion ever since.

Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?

I went to two schools; I started at the University of Idaho because I had moved from California to Idaho as a teenager and it was a great school; I took away so much from that experience. I moved to Arizona after being accepted into The Design School at Arizona State University and it was a fabulous growth opportunity for me. I was able to experience Southwest architecture and its influences both environmentally and culturally. The transition from Northwest to Southwest was very significant with lessons in regionalism, vernacular style, materials and sustainability. For me, the professional benefit was tremendous.

Library concept
Mt. Hood Community College Library (rendering courtesy Oh p+d)

What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?

That is hard to define because all projects are special to us. We have been working with Mt. Hood Community College since 2009. This is a campus that was constructed in the late 1960’s when our country was going through the boom of construction on college campuses in response to the baby boomer population. Mt hood Community College was one of many campuses built during that time and has been preserved nearly in its original form until today. The campus needs work on modernization, accessibility, seismic upgrades, and functional programming to meet modern instructional needs. The college is eager to explore possibilities and engage their community in a meaningful way that shares the needs and the vision of the future. The master planning process took about nine months in 2009-2010. We provided facility assessments and program needs analysis with campus and community stakeholder participation resulting in a campus renewal and modernization plan that can be implemented over time. Since then we have been working with the college on project implementations, preparations for funding and participating with the City of Gresham on the implementation of an institutional master plan policy, it has been wonderful.

In addition to Mt. Hood Community College, is the Oregon State University Energy Center; the Energy Center is a cogeneration power/steam plant serving the OSU campus and the first/only LEED Platinum power plant in the United States. The project saves OSU over $600,000 in annual savings. It is a really special project to us.

OSU Energy Center (image courtesy Oh p+d)

Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?

I have worked with many great architects yet there is one person that certainly comes to mind; my mentor is Vic Lituczy. I worked with Vic when I was an intern, 2 years out of school. His expertise was in healthcare and we worked on the Port Townsend Hospital together. Vic was one of those people who stood up and put it all on the table – he did not leave opportunity to be missed or overlooked. I work well with strong personalities, and I learned much from him in both medical planning and achieving optimal solutions. In 2004 I formed Oh planning+design, architecture and Vic started working with us as a client in hospital master planning and design. I feel very fortunate to have someone in my life that was that connected with me for over 18 years before he passed; I hope I can be that kind of mentor to somebody.

What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?

I like it all, I really do. I get up in the morning, and I cannot wait to come into the office-it is my obsession. This year I made a renewed commitment to incorporate more fitness into my life because as a business owner and an architect I am a workaholic with little time for fitness. I would rather come in to the office and start my work day; I just can’t wait.

Aside from loving it all, I think what I excel at is early stage planning and generating ideas that are based on the clients’ strategic needs. Working with clients to assess their needs and translate them into building solutions is my strength.

What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?

I have two favorite buildings in Portland, the Wells Fargo Center, which I love because it’s simple and stands up like a statue on the skyline; I think it stands out elegantly. The other building that I like is the Metropolitan Condo Building in the Pearl District. It’s more of a jewel box to me; I see both of these buildings as I drive in to work in the morning and they both make me smile.

Steven Holl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri 3
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (image courtesy Steven Holl Architects)

What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?

In 2008 I visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, it is a Steven Holl building which uses white opaque panels that glow from the inside out, and at night it is a beautiful glowing box in the landscape. During the day, you get the reverse effect; with ambient light coming from the outside in, and the experience inside is surreal. It creates an experience to the eye and to the body as you move through it. Steven Holl has done this on several projects, but this one is particularly amazing.

I was able to visit the Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor. The building is very narrow stone slats that are constructed so elegantly. It is ceremonial as you enter past the fountains with the smell of sulfur and stains against the stone. Once inside, there is a chamber with the various bathing experiences; such as the rose petal bath, cold water bath, hot bath, the chanting monk chamber, they are all different to the senses. At one end of the main chamber is a platform with lounge chairs to rest and contemplate. Each chair has its own window so it’s just you and the landscape.

Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?

I think there are many great architects in this city; Nancy Merryman and Linda Barnes (Merryman Barnes Architects) I believe have paved the way for women in this town to be owners of firms. They have done it and endured the difficult times where women were not recognized as leaders in architecture. I really looked up to them. They provided me with role models for starting my own firm. I think it would have been a lot harder for me without them as trailblazers.

Sometimes we forget to recognize that in addition to the creative direction and design principles of architecture, there is the management of project delivery. The profession is so much broader than one area of expertise. Project Managers who are skilled in managing projects, engaging with clients and consultants, leading internal teams, aligning with budgets, and delivery of construction administration are vital to a projects success. Dana Ing Crawford (THA Architecture) is one of the best and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.

What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?

I’d like to see Portland be less risk adverse; collectively Portland really put a stake in the ground in terms of being great planners and conscious of how we grow and what we do. I respect what we have done here as a community. Unfortunately, it feels like we are not able to stretch very far when it comes to architectural solutions, we are conservative and it would be nice to see more innovation. We are a young vibrant city; we should be showing more innovation in design.

I’m sure there are plenty of suggestions out there for what Portland could do next. I suggest that we capture the waterfront and do something a la Millennium Park in Chicago with an amphitheater and public art on display. The waterfront is already an asset to the community and can evolve to keep the quality and nature of Portland alive. It would be exciting to see the architecture on the edges emerge with more innovation.

How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?

I would say A+ with them; I am having a good year with BDS, Bureau of Development Services, we have several projects that require partnering with them and have had success. Perhaps in the past, perceptions might have been that BDS was an obstacle, yet my experience has been that they are right there in the trenches working with us and wanting to make these projects successful as a team member throughout the process. I enjoy working with BDS.

I haven’t had any experiences working with PDC, I am very grateful that they have the jobs program because that helped us finance our office remodel-we have been a benefactor of that.

Would you rather live in a South Waterfront condo, a craftsman bungalow in Laurelhurst, a warehouse loft in the North Mississippi district or a mid-century ranch in the West Hills?

 What I live in now is a hundred year old Tudor in inner northeast, and I love my home. I can walk anywhere including Old Town where the office is located. I love Portland’s neighborhoods. I definitely see myself downsizing one day, but all of those options are good options. That is one of the beauties of this community are these neighborhood hubs and every hub is special in its own way.

Thermal Valls, Switzerland (image courtesy

Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?

If we are going to dream, I’d say Zaha Hadid, because her works are wonderful and stretching beyond boundaries of what we see traditionally in architecture.

I would love to see Peter Zumthor do some work in this country, and Portland would be fabulous location for his work.

Local architects, I’d like to see more diversity. Portland has great talent and some of the firms have put a stake in the ground with many buildings in their name yet we have other great firms that should have an opportunity to be a part of our urban fabric.

Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?

I’m going to go on a limb and say I’d prefer to be responsible for a beautiful LEED building. We can accomplish both; I think the questions presumes that you are either going for beauty or energy efficiency. Why not both or better yet, a beautiful net zero building!

Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.

I love gardening and landscape, I think the way the building and the earth come together is such an important part of what we do. The earth is an inspiration to me. I am also a big fan of furniture design, I’ve personally been involved in making furniture, and it is another passion of mine.

Oh la la, c'est Cher!

What are three of your all-time favorite movies?

"Moonstruck", "Antonia’s Line", "The Sound of Music".



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