My first experience of Don Tankersley was before I moved to Portland. My partner and I were searching Craigslist for a rental and ran across a project he completed for Lair Condominiums in conjunction with architect Rick Potestio. The condos were nothing short of stunning with clean contemporary lines and an inspired use of space with defined areas for furniture and traffic. The rooms had windows in the right locations and the finishes were stunning.
The next time I ran into Don was through his work as the contractor for Blue Hour, a restaurant in the Pearl District. I am one of those geeks that look at everything architecturally, and Blue Hour is a feast for the eyes. Not only is the space innovative architecturally, the craftsmanship is what truly grabbed my interest. An architect or designer is only as good as the contractor that executes their vision – and in that regard the restaurant is a smashing success.
More recently, while driving in the Southwest hills, I pulled up in front of an amazing contemporary house that was under construction to admire the building and daydream about the view the future residents would have. As before, I studied the massing of the various planes of the house and the exterior transitions of building materials. I also pondered the ways one would build in such a difficult location. The detailing was completed beautifully, and I could tell that the contractor had quite the task in making this dream home a reality. Naturally I smiled as I read the sign for the contractor – it was another DTC (Don Tankersley Construction) project.
I’ve said you can get a feel for people by the spaces they inhabit, and DTC occupies a loft-style office space on Northwest Kearney. I’ve met many contractors over the years, and this is not your usual contractor’s office. The occupant clearly loves open spaces. The modern room displayed everything from vintage lithographs and photos to antique cameras. The conference area holds a Duncan Phyfe dining table and chairs (from Don’s grandparents) where they live comfortably integrated with the classic Barcelona chair and a mid-century inspired sofa. A more typical builder’s office has stacks of building samples, blue prints over-running the desks, tattered office furniture and out of control clutter. DTC’s office looks like a comfortable and organized place to work, confident in its style and furnishings, and suitable for a design magazine. I could tell this contractor didn’t just build spaces; he designed them.
Trained in architecture and business at Portland State University, Don started his own company 20 years ago and builds dream homes. A list of projects includes lofts, multi-unit condos and single-family residences. What is exciting about his projects (speaking as a total design geek) is the level of skill in construction. Architects and designers rely on a quality builder to interpret their dreams and drawings to make them a reality. In each and every project of Don’s that I’ve been to visit there is an attention to detail that might easily be overlooked. There is an art to building a home and a qualified contractor can make an architect or a designer look like a rock star. DTC does just that. To put it another way – a great contractor easily makes or breaks a project.
Sitting down to speak with Don, I am struck that he doesn’t fit the contractor stereotype. A slender, handsome and thoughtful man in a button-down shirt and blue jeans, he more resembles a young college professor or an architect than a builder. While he doesn’t fit my contractor stereotype, there is a sense of quiet confidence that comes through during the interview. He thoughtfully answers each question, and his passion for his work comes through in his responses.
While he works on high-end home projects in Portland and Northwest Oregon, he is quick to point out, “Comparing apples to apples, if anyone did the same work it would cost as much or more than our budgets do.” He is able to do this because he has cultivated relationships with architects and clients because of his quality of work. Ultimately he delivers the best in project management and he has cultivated the finest trade resources to complete his projects.
“The best training I’ve received is working with architects. In my career, I’ve been lucky to work with some very talented world-class architects. It’s given me a healthy respect for architects and architecture. Our interactions, while trying to please them and deliver what they’ve drawn, has been a great education for me.”
For anyone who has built a home, remodeled a room, or completed an addition, they know the importance of a great contractor. Don told me a story, that made me admire him all the more, about a time when he took a stand for a client and made suggestions to the architect that might improve the design of the project. He went so far as to suggest making an architectural change. You can’t accuse him for being shy… and he admits that it didn’t work out well (he didn’t get the job).
“Contractors are one of the most important elements of a project. When I work with an architect I try to understand the theme. What is their intention? Then when making the ten thousand decisions along the way, it’s likely to be something they approve of. As I start a project, I get to know the architect to build trust so that my opinion means more. That’s where I have my influence. After I’ve gained the trust of the client and architect, then I will say something. I try to give a different perspective. I am careful not to interject when a client has a strong opinion about something. I’m generally reluctant to give an opinion if I don’t like something. Instead, I try to make it work in the overall. With an architect or owner, until you’ve gained their trust, the last thing they want to hear is their contractor’s opinion.”
Apparently that has worked out well. All of DTC’s work is through referral. He prefers to work on no more than four projects at a time, as that is all he can manage while maintaining his level of care and supervision. Once an architect has worked with him they keep working together. That level of trust becomes a shorthand communication his clients expect.
Don has developed a reputation for specializing in contemporary projects although that is not necessarily what he originally sought. “That comes out of the interaction with the architects that are coming up with something fresh. I don’t go after modern projects, but there is a correlation between the past work and what comes to me.”
Don thinks the ever-changing quality of light of the Northwest is one of the more interesting details he deals with. Another factor that is critical to consider when building in our climate is weatherproofing since the effects of rain and water require special attention. One of his favorite elements on a home are overhangs because he likes anything that keeps water away from the house and creates an area that provides a dry space as you transition from outside to inside. An architect whose work he admires is John Yeon. Yeon was known for creating a northwest regional style of architecture in the 1930s, with an innovative use of simple building materials and the overhangs that Don loves so well.
I asked him how he would advise a homeowner to keep things in line. “Assemble a good team. Hire people who have gone through these types of projects and who can foresee the problems. You have to have trust. I often say to clients –‘You’ve hired a good architect, don’t make him do something bad.’ The single thing you can do is to know what you want. If you’re figuring it out as you go along, the project and budget will follow that path. You have to have everything lined up before you start. It’s a frustrating feeling when someone is spending your money so have the architect and designer decide everything before your start. Specifying makes all the difference.”
Don took me on a tour of a warehouse space in Northwest Portland that is being converted to a private residence. All the rooms in the 5,000 square foot single level home are oriented toward an enormous atrium. Additionally, there are 10 foot sliding glass doors with a view toward a private courtyard that will be part of the next phase of the construction. As we walked the space he pointed out details and items that the owner will likely never think about such as radiant heat flooring, the insulation and a 50 foot uninterrupted expanse of dividing wall. He pointed out waterproofing details that are paramount in our rainy region. The natural wood window frames were receiving a finish coat prior to being set in place to insure a water tight seal, and the roofing material used was a new product that is not only one of the best in the industry, it is a work of art. The architect’s drawings of the space are absolutely stunning, and as I stood there admiring the space and daydreaming again, he listed off the numbers for construction costs that sadly brought me back to reality.
Don summed up his work very simply. “I build art you can live in.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
About Jonathan Hopp
Based in Portland, Jonathan Hopp has worked as a residential interior designer for over 25 years designing homes all over the U.S. In 2011, he published Interior Bliss: How To Decorate Like A Pro Without Breaking The Bank. A regular personality on Portland's AM Northwest, Jonathan shares tips and trick of the trade to create a home that will be a delight for years. jonathanhopp.com. Write him at JonthanH@JustOut.com