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Originally published July 29, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified July 31, 2012 at 1:55 PM

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In Person: Apartment boom has been good to Runberg

Architect Brian Runberg and his midsize firm designed about one-fifth of the record number of apartments being built in Seattle.

Seattle Times business reporter

Brian Runberg

His firm: Runberg Architecture Group, Pioneer Square

Its work: Has designed 3,500 apartments under construction or in the pipeline, more than 85 percent of them in Seattle

Age: 48

Family: Married, daughters 4 and 7.

Home: Queen Anne

Home away from home: A cabin in Priest Lake, Idaho, that his family has owned since 1926.

When he's not working: Skis, hikes, bikes.

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A record number of apartments — more than 7,000 — are under construction in Seattle this summer.

Architect Brian Runberg and his midsize firm are responsible for about one-fifth of them.

Runberg Architecture Group buildings are going up in South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, Columbia City and West Seattle. More projects are in the planning pipeline in the Roosevelt, Denny Triangle, University District and Ballard neighborhoods.

The apartment boom has been good to Runberg, a Northwest native whose lifelong fascination with architecture first was expressed in the elaborate sand castles he built as a boy on the shores of Priest Lake, Idaho.

Design consumed him as a youngster, Runberg says — so much so that when he was asked to rake up Ponderosa pine needles he would arrange them into the outlines of imagined buildings, then ride his bicycle through the "streets" between them.

Now his Pioneer Square firm, Runberg Architecture Group, is designing real buildings for some of the region's biggest multifamily developers — Vulcan Real Estate, Equity Residential, Harbor Urban, Holland Partners, R.D. Merrill.

Employment at the firm is back up to 20, its pre-recession level.

New apartment buildings are transforming neighborhoods across the city. Critics say many projects are too big, or too bland. Runberg says his profession has an obligation to get them right.

"You're irreversibly changing a block," the architect says. "We fully understand there's a responsibility involved."

Part of that responsibility is to the neighborhood, Runberg says: "Each one is unique. Ballard doesn't deserve to have the same product as First Hill or Queen Anne."

But there's also a responsibility, he adds, to the people who will call his buildings home. Fostering social interaction through design is a priority for Runberg, one he traces to two stints studying architecture in Denmark.

There, he says, he found complexes that had become real communities, where residents shared meals, watched each others' kids and became lifelong friends.

Runberg figures he's wanted to be an architect since he was about 5.

He grew up in Spokane, but spent summers at his grandparents' cabin on Priest Lake, building forts in the woods and those ambitious sand castles on the beach.

Expo '74, the Spokane world's fair that remade a neglected corner of that city's downtown, helped open the 10-year-old Runberg's eyes to architecture's variety and power.

Midway through his architecture program at the University of Idaho, he spent a year studying in Copenhagen.

"It was probably the most profound experience of my life," says Runberg, who has Swedish roots. "I felt I belonged there."

Scandinavian design resonated with him — its simplicity, its practicality, the way it responded to nature.

After receiving his degree, he spent five years working for an architecture firm in San Francisco, designing houses for the wealthy. It was a valuable apprenticeship, he says, "but I was designing a lot of buildings the public wouldn't ever see or go into."

Plus the economy was hurting, and his mentor was looking to semi-retire. So Runberg returned to Copenhagen on a Fulbright grant, spending 1 ½ years delving more deeply into the intricacies of Scandinavian design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Runberg says he spent lots of time in Danish apartment complexes, eating and sleeping in them while he probed what made them not just projects but communities.

After more graduate work at the University of Washington, he hung out his shingle in Seattle in 1998. He says he chose to specialize in apartment and condo design, in part, because there's more stability in that sector than in office or retail: Demand for housing never dries up completely.

Over the years Runberg and his team have designed housing for students and seniors. They have done low-income apartments and historic renovations, including the transformation of the century-old First Church of Christ, Scientist, on Capitol Hill into 12 luxury condos.

Clients speak highly of Runberg. He's got a knack for picking up on neighbors' concerns about a project and adapting his designs to address them, says Denny Onslow, until recently chief development officer at Harbor Urban.

Runberg Architecture holds its own in competition with much larger firms, says Brandon Morgan, a Vulcan development manager.

"Brian knows the right balance between bringing a project in on budget and challenging the client on aesthetics and sustainability," he says.

Runberg also has become a small-scale developer himself. In 2006 he bought a long-neglected, two-story retail, office and apartment building in the center of Priest River that his great-grandfather had built more than 80 years earlier, then set about restoring and updating it.

The improvements slashed the building's energy and water consumption. "As an owner, I can speak to my clientele about sustainability with real conviction," Runberg says.

That experience also has heightened his appreciation for the economic pressures his clients face, he says.

"I think Brian understands the development business, that it's not just aesthetics," says Vulcan's Morgan.

Multifamily development operates on lower margins than commercial development, Morgan adds: "We don't get to embellish as much. He understands that. He's very sensitive to that."

Given those limitations, how does Runberg go about trying to build community through design, the goal that so intrigued him as a student in Copenhagen?

He points to GreenHouse, a 124-unit Harbor Urban complex in Columbia City slated to open in September.

"We challenged Brian," Onslow says. "This project is in the most diverse ZIP code in the country. We asked him how he would respond to that.

"After a weekend or so he came back to us and said, 'I think food and growing food and urban agriculture is the answer.' "

Runberg explains: During his time in Scandinavia he learned community gardens often became social hubs. That was reinforced, he says, by his own experiencing renting a city P-Patch.

So each GreenHouse resident will get a small garden plot on the roof, where it's hoped they'll get to know each other planting seeds and pulling weeds. Baskets will be placed in the lobby where tenants can leave excess produce for their neighbors.

The gardens made sense at GreenHouse partly because of Columbia City's thriving farmers market, Runberg says, but each neighborhood requires its own distinct approach to community building. "We proactively go out and try to understand each one."

For instance, at Stack House — a full-block Vulcan project in South Lake Union that includes renovation of the historic Supply Laundry Building — Runberg architects have designed a public courtyard at the base of the laundry's distinctive smokestack.

Plans call for it to serve as a focal point not only for the project but also for the neighborhood.

As his firm's workload has grown, Runberg acknowledges he's spending less time on the fine points of project design: "I usually fly at the 30,000- to 50,000-foot level."

But he attends almost all meetings with clients, and visits project sites at least once a month. Plus he participates in Friday afternoon sessions at which the architects in his firm review and critique each others' work — exercises that are both fun and productive, he says.

Runberg expects demand for the kind of buildings his firm designs will remain strong for some time.

"People are gravitating to dense urban areas," he says. "They like what the city has to offer."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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