Dave Christensen always knew he wanted to be an architect, and the area’s growth has him in the right place at the right time
Architect David Christensen is, to say the least, busy. Take last month for example.
He was working on the redevelopment of the former Peace Arch Factory Outlets, master planning an 800-unit housing development in Blaine, doing preliminary planning of a 100-unit condo project on State Street, and leading a discussion about the future of the Fairhaven Highlands.
While being involved with those projects appears daunting enough, they were just some of the 20 to 50 projects he’s typically involved with each month.
As many developers, business owners and others know, Christensen is a man in demand.
“He’s very creative and very quick,” said Brown & Cole Stores president and CEO Craig Cole, who has hired Christensen in the past for store and office projects. “He’s able to develop plans almost in real time, and he’s very much a person who helps people expand their thinking.”
Since beginning his career, Christensen, 52, who’s been working locally as “a professional napkin sketcher” since the early 1970s, said he’s always had a full plate. But not quite this full.
“The last couple years have been busier than normal,” he said. “It’s the old axiom: Form doesn’t follow function, form follows the mortgage interest rates. With lower mortgage interest rates, demand for projects is huge.”
A clamor for Christensen’s services, though, is nothing new. He’s been employed in his field since he was a freshman at Whidbey Island’s Coupeville High School.
Born in Seattle to Danish parents, Christensen, the first member of his family born in the United States, said he first became interested in architecture as a young child, looking over the shoulder of his father, a general contractor, when he’d bring construction plans home.
Still quite young when his family moved to San Diego, Calif., Christensen would often tag along on jobs with his dad.
“I saw my dad doing drawings and I was around the construction business and I really liked it,” he said.
When Christensen was 10, however, his parents died, and he moved to Northern California to live with an older sister. It wasn’t until a few years later, when her family moved to Whidbey Island, that Christensen got involved with drawing again.
“As a freshman, the school stuck me in mechanical drawing — all the guys got mechanical drawing and the girls got home ec — and I took to drawing like a fish to water,” he said.
Because teachers couldn’t give him enough work to keep him busy, he went around town to see if any professionals might be able to find things for him to do.
“In addition to drawing hot rods and cartoons, I got a part-time job for a local engineering firm, doing bridges, roads, plat maps and civil engineering stuff,” he said.
After graduating from Coupeville, where he was valedictorian, he headed to Washington State University, where he wanted to major in architecture. The scene wasn’t a good fit for him, though.
“During my first year, I broke up with my girlfriend, and WSU was into pep rallies and panty raids,” Christensen said. “It was the ‘70s and I wanted to stop the Vietnam War, and I thought, ‘I quit, I’m outta here.’”
In exploring options, Christensen discovered Western Washington University’s industrial design program and enrolled at the school. In addition to his studies, he was also working at Stradling & Stewart (now Stewart + King Architects).
After graduation, Christensen, even then a hot commodity, mixed travel and work.
He toured Europe, taking in the different aspects of international design, and upon returning to Washington, where he was tired of the rainy weather, bought a motorcycle and moved with it to Hawaii.
On Oahu, Christensen, just out of college, landed a job with Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, a leading resort hotel design firm, and helped design the island’s Hyatt Regency and Hilton, among other hotels.
One day, as he was preparing to leave for a project in Australia, Christensen got a call from Stradling & Stewart offering him a partnership in the 12-person firm.
“I was 24, unlicensed and thought it was a pretty good opportunity,” he said. “After being on the fast track, I came back to Bellingham.”
But within a month of returning, a former colleague, Marcus Johnson, offered him a partnership at a smaller firm. He took it, forming Johnson Erlewine & Christensen.
In 1980, the year Christensen finally became licensed through experience and passing the old National Council of Architectural Registration Boards exam, work finally slowed for him.
“Remember 21-percent interest rates? One year our employees made more than the principals. Not good,” he said. “Development stopped so I went and opened an office in Seattle to try to get more work.”
Eventually, Johnson Erlewine & Christensen merged with James Zervas and Faruk Taysi, forming Zervas Group Architects.
Splitting time between Seattle and Bellingham, Christensen was recruited by Callison, a large national architecture firm. The firm wanted Christensen so badly they allowed him to continue on as a partner with the Zervas Group and operate his own office in Seattle.
While with Callison, he worked mostly on shopping centers, creating initial design concepts for companies such as Nordstrom.
Next, he was recruited by Trillium Corporation and decided to take a job as vice president of development, a new experience where he’d be doing master planning, hiring architects and managing projects.
“It was frustrating on the other side of the table,” Christensen said. “Architects were taking too much time and not getting the results I knew I could get.”
In 1998, he felt it was time to get back to doing what he did best — working directly with clients — and founded Christensen Design Management.
As sole proprietor, Christensen is best known for his design charettes, bringing together as many people as possible to discuss what they’d like to see in a project and then drafting preliminary designs.
“In a normal design process, preliminary design will take months of meetings and back and forth,” he said. “I blast it out in two or three days.”
During a typical charette, an all-day process, Christensen will have a consultant or city official explain a gamut of rules, discussing the property, its environment, traffic and political issues, among other things.
Christensen then has clients explain what they hope the project will accomplish.
“Everyone’s in the same room and I’m cartooning this thing as people are talking,” he said. “By the end of the day, we generally have a narrowed-down idea for what the project is. Then I pretty much stay up all night and we meet the next day and critique it.”
During the charette, Christensen said, business owners and executives will typically learn they really don’t know everything about how their company operates, while employees get a sense of empowerment, and have a say in a project’s design.
“There’s always an ‘ah-ha,’ that ha
ppens with these things,” he said. “I never know what’s going to happen, but we always come out with an innovative solution that everyone agrees with.”
Locally, Christensen’s led more than 60 charettes in recent years, with clients including the port and city, Village Books, Blue Seas Systems and Bellingham Athletic Club.
Terry Galvin, Blaine’s community development director, recalls a charette Christensen led last year regarding the city’s redevelopment of H Street and Peace Portal Drive. With a diverse, if not contentious, crowd going back and forth with ideas, Christensen hurriedly drew their ideas on paper.
“When we were done, to a large degree, almost everybody said, ‘We want what he drew,’” said Galvin. “It’s cliché, but a picture tells a thousand words, and from his picture we were able to move forward. He has the ability to translate words into a visual representation almost instantaneously and crystallize visions.”
Christensen believes his visions come so fast because he draws from his past experiences and he stays up to date on issues in different fields, subscribing to more than 40 magazines and newspapers.
“Because I’ve designed one of everything you can think of, from high-rises to doghouses, I know the rules of thought for all these different building types,” he said. “Once we’ve got a direction and conceptual design, I bring in the gurus.”
Christensen, who’s designed about 300 buildings locally, and has received more than 40 regional and national design awards, said he gets more satisfaction from helping others than seeing his projects around town.
“An architect’s job is really just to listen,” he said. “It’s problem solving — how can I creatively and aseptically bring all these hard details and facts together. That’s the enjoyable part.”
While Christensen said he doesn’t want his buildings to be known for a certain architectural style, a curve of some form or another can often be found in their appearance.
“(A curve) just makes it more fun and free flowing. I do try to add that,” he said.
A few examples of projects Christensen’s been involved with include the Village Books building in Fairhaven, the Blossom Commons building on West Kellogg Road, and the Morse site in downtown Bellingham.
When Christensen isn’t reading about architecture or drawing, he’s writing about it. Currently, he’s working on three books: one on charettes, one on how tax codes create unintended results in architecture and one on rules of thumb for different building types.
“He’s a creative rascal,” Galvin said. “He conspires to move us all along.”
Jim Zervas, principal partner at Zervas Group Architects, first met Christensen when he was a college student at Western and said the young man had a way with people, an ability to find out just what they were looking for in a project.
“He has a good sense of humor and a knack for drawing people out with their ideas,” he said. “I think he’s one of the better local designers.”
Some past and current projects:
art courtesy/DAVE CHRISTENSEN