Get Elemental: An Interview with Chris Pardo

A Mondrian color scheme accents this house in Queen Anne, Seattle. This structure was designed for a young couple expecting their first child.

This residence illustrates Elemental’s penchant for sleek, modern, simple designs.

While space in Texas is open and wide, allowing for gentle sloping lawns onto eco-friendly roofs, Elemental  Architecture and Design’s designs gets space conscious in dense, urban Seattle.

Most Seattle residents take the bus from time to time to save on gas,  and some decide to forgo the car altogether. Elemental Design took this unused garage and remodeled it into a sun patio overlooking the Seattle region.

Tall, yet aesthetically pleasing staircases are a boon to dense, urban spaces like Seattle.

Well placed windows can make even the narrowest of pathways seem open.

Interior of Norman residence. Note the primary color scheme and use of warm woods.

Get Elemental: An Interview with Chris Pardo

Laura K. Umetsu, Editor in Chief

At Chris Pardo—Elemental Architecture/Design, designers focus on simplicity and beauty. In an industry that has been wracked by the recession, Elemental has risen out of the chaos to become one of the most rapidly expanding design companies in the nation.

Q: Tell me how Elemental came to be.

A: I started this company when I was in graduate school in architecture, along with my co-founder and co-partner, David Biddle, whom I met in graduate school. I actually really didn’t like Dave when I first met him. We had a group project due on Monday, and he waltzed into our group on Friday afternoon and said, “I have some friends in town, so I’ll see you guys Monday!” But we grew to be close, and started building projects together. We both kind of got an odd reputation in graduate school, because we presented three dimensional models instead of drawings.

For our graduate school thesis, we both proposed to build a home. Everyone said it was a terrible idea. Everyone  else was designing fake opera houses and similar projects, but we both wanted to build something lasting. We tied up a parcel for five hundred dollars to build a house on it. Then we realized that it was wetlands and we couldn’t build on it. So we lost five hundred dollars on that. But then we found another parcel, that was only twenty five  feet wide, in Downtown Seattle. We were told that we couldn’t build on that parcel because of an easement issue, but I had seen a house built on a very similar parcel. We pulled the microfilm on the other similar parcel, and figured out how to get past the parking easement issue.

It was easy to get the permit, but the true difficulty was in getting the funding. We went to ten different banks who rejected us. I had only twelve hundred dollars in assets, and Dave had about that amount in credit in his credit cards. The last bank was a community bank, and they proposed a challenge: if we could find a way to  build the house for less than a hundred and twenty five dollars a square foot, they would finance the building. We found a way to meet that budget, and built the house on that lot. The house sold three days after it was built, for a hundred thousand dollars more than the bank thought it would sell for. After that, we started getting design projects left and right. We grew from that one project to seventeen in two months, and started hiring people left and right.

Our first house was in 2005. By 2008, we had offices in Seattle, Washington, Lima, Peru,  and Hong Kong. I was in Shanghai and working on a hotel in October 2008 when the market tanked. Clients said they didn’t want to have anything to do with the United States anymore because they believed we were collapsing. I had to lay off twenty employees in December of that year, and another twenty in February and March the following year.

So it dwindled down to me, Dave, and a few straggler employees really who believed in what we were doing. We hung around the office a lot. We did little design competitions. Out of boredom, I got into the restaurant industry, and started opening restaurants and bars.  I started a hot dog restaurant. I started  a sports bar and lounge. I started a night club. I started a steak house.  Since the crash, however, the credit has loosened, and more clients have begun to trickle in. We now have thirteen employees and are rapidly growing.

Q: What kind of projects are you working on right now?

A:  We are up to sixty to ninety projects a year. We do only architecture, and we mainly design custom homes. However, we are expanding into the hotel industry. One of our latest projects is a custom environmentally friendly home in Houston. It’s roofed with grass that slops down to the house in an angled lawn.  We are also working on a specialty bar and grill in New Orleans.

Q: What is your favorite inspiration for your designs?

A: It really depends on the project. In general, architecture to me means taking something ordinary like a car or a house and making it into something beautiful, yet utilitarian. We draw a lot of inspiration from Scandinavian and Asian designs. Scandinavians are minimalists and use a lot of warm woods. We like to play around with light, and bring in light where it needs to be brought in. From Asia, we get inspiration from feng shui and the natural elements. It sort of plays into our name.

Q: What is the social media screening process when you hire applicants?

A: Social media is the number one tool that we use to find and screen applicants. When we have a job posting,  or a vacancy that needs filling, we announce it on our Facebook page and announce it over our Twitter account. Then we just watch the referrals start to trickle in.

If we get a good feel for a candidate, we pull him or her in for an interview. There are two to three interviews in the hiring  process for my firm. I want to see someone who is all about our culture.

If a prospective employee writes things on their Facebook page that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory in any way, we won’t hire them.

It doesn’t matter how good his or her referrals are. We can’t afford to have someone like that on our team. We work with attorneys all the time. Like most developers, I’ve been involved in a lawsuit. I also deal with a huge number of contract issues where I need the help of an attorney to help me draft my contracts. Right now I’m developing a hotel in Palm Springs. There is an amazing amount of paperwork involved in the development.

Q: Where do you see Elemental Architecture and Design ten years from now?

A: I want to continue to take the company in the same direction that it’s been going. I hope to continue to diversify into different markets. Right now we are operating in fourteen to seventeen states a year, and have projects as far south as Mexico.

Photographs courtesy of Chris Pardo.

For more on Chris’s design work, see www.elementalarchitecture.com.

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