Creating Beautiful, Sustainable Buildings in Olympia

Roussa Cassel ’05 was still completing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Oregon’s Portland campus when her Olympia neighbors—both Evergreen grads—asked her to design a home for them.

They had already selected an experienced homebuilder, Pete Chramiec ’95, owner of Bicycle Homebuilding.

When Chramiec’s clients told him about hiring Cassel to design her first home, he thought, “Oh great, a complete beginner who won’t have a clue.” But Cassel proved to be “quick, on the ball, and practical,” and their creative partnership was off and running. That handsome modern foursquare house in Olympia became the first of six collaborative projects Cassel and Chramiec have completed together in the past two years, including three homes, an Olympia Coffee Roasting Company location, a medical spa, and a parklet.

“The best part of our collaborations is that we can trust each other on things, to keep up with the things that fall within each of our specialties,” Cassel said. Chramiec agreed. “Roussa can focus on battling for the aesthetics while I focus on the building science and the endless regulations. And she doesn’t design something unbuildable. Together, we create a better product.”

The two share a commitment to sustainable design and construction techniques. When asked how their projects reflect that commitment, Chramiec replied that energy efficiency is the component that makes for long-lasting environmental impact. He completed Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) consultants training in 2010. PHIUS established a standard for reducing the ecological footprint of buildings through techniques that result in ultra-low energy buildings requiring little energy to heat and cool. Chramiec’s custom homes integrate a variety of PHIUS passive-house methods, such as super-insulation, ventilation, and airtight construction.

Cassel, who established an Olympia-based architectural design practice after grad school, was certified as a LEED-accredited professional in 2007. She and Chramiec are quick to point out that they don’t follow any eco-checklist, whether LEED or passive house, in a rote fashion. “We work locally and regionally. What’s most important is a practical approach that results in a highly energy-efficient building that our clients can afford,” Chramiec said.

Both Chramiec and Cassel offered words of wisdom for anyone considering building a house. Chramiec counseled, “It’s cheaper in the long run to build the house you really want than it is to chronically remodel,” and Cassel explained, “Many people don’t know that if they can afford to build, they can afford a designer. “It’s not outside of most people’s means.”

Learning to ‘Speak Evergreen’

Pete Chramiec spent ten years traveling the world in a political punk band before enrolling at Evergreen to complete his degree. “Evergreen was a soft landing place for my extreme idealism; it helped shape it practically. It was perfect for me.” He thought he wanted to be an organic farmer and studied sustainable agriculture at Evergreen, but found he always gravitated toward the projects that required building things. “I learned a great template for running a small business that was great training for my own business. I graduated much more ready to do what I would do eventually.”

Chramiec said his Evergreen training in collaboration and compromise has translated well to home building, where there are constant compromises to be made, such as whether to use a sustainably sourced natural material versus high R-value foam insulation, a petroleum product.

His 15-year-old company has grown through word of mouth and his roles have evolved. He does less carpentry these days, as he becomes more of a planner and general contractor. He and his employees—all Evergreen alumni—build one house at a time and build about three homes a year. Chramiec says it’s a good thing he can “speak Evergreen” with all of his Evergreen-grad clients and staff.

Freedom and Courage to Work Independently

When she transferred to Evergreen, Roussa Cassel studied pre-architecture in Rob Knapp’s Eco Design program. Because there was no Eco Design II, she studied landscape design and created an individual learning contract to help build a Habitat for Humanity house. Later, she worked for three years at an architectural firm and studied drafting at a community college before pursuing her Master of Architecture degree.

Today Cassel is immersed in several creative endeavors. She designs both commercial and residential projects in her downtown Olympia studio. She loves the town. “Olympia has so much design potential, especially downtown. It has density, walkability, and public spaces,” she said, citing the Cherry Street Parklet she and Chramiec created as an example of “the microscopically good things that bring happiness to more people.” Cassel also markets and designs products such as tables and wall cladding for Windfall Lumber, a company that creates architectural products from reclaimed and sustainably harvested wood. Coincidentally, Chramiec founded Windfall and then sold the company in 1999.

Cassel’s studio is housed in an old garage near Olympia City Hall. She and a colleague, plus a web designer and a letterpress printer, occupy the private studios and share the community/gallery area. Soon they will hang the Stable Studios and Gallery sign outside, and are curious to see how the co-working space will develop. “I created the space, but I don’t dictate what it is. It will morph into what it needs to be, if we allow for that flexibility.”

Looking back on her Evergreen experience, Cassel highlighted the relationships, collaborators and out-of-the-box thinking the college fosters. “The biggest thing Evergreen gave me was the courage to do my own thing, to be self-employed. I chose Olympia—my home— first, not my job first. Evergreen gave me the freedom and courage to do it on my own.”