Downsized: Local Architecture Firm Puts Olympia On the Map As A Leader in Passive House Design
by Natasha Ashenhurst • Photography by Poppi Photography • Courtesy of Artisans Group
Originally published in the Thurston Chamber’s VOICE Magazine | December 2019
How does where we live and what we live in translate into financial freedom, living simply, and lowering our environmental footprint? Are we willing to give up large, energy-intensive homes for something more modest? Are the gains worth the sacrifice?
According to architect Tessa Smith, CEO of Olympia-based Artisans Group, more people are choosing smaller, more energy-efficient homes because they are yearning for the financial freedom a smaller mortgage provides, want to live more sustainably and have less house to take care of while living in a beautiful, thoughtfully designed space. “When you own and operate something that is right-sized, you have more financial resources while living in something that is higher quality and is much easier to care for,” she said.
A 2018 survey by the National Association of Home Builders confirms that the small house trend is gaining momentum — over half of Americans say they would consider living in a home that is less than 1000 square feet compared to 2,700 square foot home that is the national average.
Olympia is at the epicenter of the passive and small house movement, thanks, in part, to the work of Artisans Group. “We weren’t the only reason it happened — rather, it is our community’s culture of caring about each individual’s role in the greater community as well as our desire to lower our environmental footprint,” Smith said. A new book called Downsize: Living Large in a Small House, written by bestselling author Sheri Koones, features two Artisans Group designed homes.
History – From Remodeling Firm to Architect Innovators
In 1999, Randy Foster was operating Artisans Group as a small remodeling firm. As its reputation spread, the company grew to a team of over 30. Tessa Smith joined the firm when she was 20-years-old with a degree in sustainable design, working with businesses doing green-building residential work. Then the recession hit, and the team went from a staff of 32 down to five employees. The construction industry was contracting, and Foster and his team started looking for alternatives to building and remodeling.
Around 2009, Smith went to a lecture in Seattle about the new Passive House movement. A Passive House is a building standard and construction concept that combines energy efficiency, a comfortable space, is affordable, and has a lower ecological footprint.
“I came back from that lecture in Seattle passionate about Passive House design. I told Randy I was committed to pursuing Passive House design and construction. Randy started asking questions about what I learned, and he became very interested in Passive House design as well. Eventually, we both became Certified Passive House Consultants, and I bought into Artisans Group as a 50 percent owner,” she said. Smith was only 23-years-old.
Soon after, they designed their first Passive House, only the 2nd completed home in Washington State. The trajectory of the firm changed overnight and many more such Passive Houses followed spanning the region. After several years as Design/Build they realized that their design opportunities were limited by scope and geography as a design-build firm, so they converted into an architecture and planning firm with great success. By that time, Smith was a licensed architect—a process that takes eight years total. Eventually, architect Roussa Cassel joined the business bringing a background in residential and hospitality design.
The team was soon collaborating on projects such as 222 Market, Dillinger’s Rum Room, Little General, and all of Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. cafés. They continued to design residential homes but also moved into commercial design, which includes medical clinics, multi-family, and mixed-use design projects.
Today, Smith is CEO, and Foster and Cassel are CFO and COO respectively — each owning an equal share of the firm. Artisans Group recently received its Women Business Enterprise status with the State of Washington, so they’re qualified to partner with other Architecture firms on larger design projects for the state, which requires that 10 percent of projects are awarded to Women and Minority-owned businesses.
Future Projects and Trends
As passive building gains momentum, so does Artisans’ reach with projects from Vancouver, B.C. down through Portland, Oregon. They are currently designing a 12,000 sq. ft. co-working space in an old granary at the Port of Bellingham. In addition, they are planning a yet-to-be-named restaurant that will go in the ground floor of Olympia’s Views on Fifth. However, their passion project is working throughout Thurston County to find innovative ways to help solve the housing crisis. “We’re excited about bringing together the Passive House and multi-family housing sectors. We believe that one the most sustainable things you can do for a city is to increase density. All of the nice things we love about cities – such as walking to our favorite coffee shop or grocery store – all come from density and sustainable growth. We applied for and won a project offered by the City of Lacey to design Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) plans that Lacey will offer to residents at no charge,” said Smith. Artisans Group designed cottage-style plans (with optional energy efficiency upgrades built into the plan) that Lacey residents can use to build ADUs in their back yards – adding density and helping alleviate Thurston County’s housing crisis while offering residents rental income.
One of the problems with receiving awards and national attention for architectural design is that potential clients are under the impression that custom architecture and Passive House design is only for the wealthy. Smith wants to throw that misconception out the window. “Although we always enjoy a project with the budget to be very expressive and unique, we are often times less expensive than other architects in the region, especially for our portfolio prowess and energy efficiency specialty. Many of our residential clients are solidly middle-class. Living in a smaller passive home and lowering one’s environmental footprint should be available to everyone. Most people—when given the opportunity — want to live smarter, surrounded by great design, and we’ll continue to do our best to remain friendly and accessible,” she said.