When Steve Powell walks into a building, he may know his clients’ goals, tastes and ideas, but the voice he hears comes from the building itself.
     “I’m looking for clues,” Powell says. “What does the building tell me about what it wants to be? What’s the character? Are there unique design features or materials? I really work off that. How can I tap into the spirit, character and zeitgeist of that building? You have to go in with an open mind, instead of preconceived ideas.”
     Powell’s ability and willingness to approach each project as a unique entity with an eye for both preservation of existing character and practical renovation has made his firm, Powell Architecture + Building Studio, one of the stars of East Nashville’s rejuvenation. Through their creative redesign of existing structures and neighborhood-friendly new construction, Powell has played a hand in creating such landmarks as East Side Smiles, No. 308, Five Points Pizza, The Crying Wolf, Walden on Eastland (The Wild Cow, Jeni’s East Nashville, The Silly Goose, Ugly Mugs Coffee & Tea, Two Ten Jack) and the old Fluffo Mattress Factory on Main Street (Fat Bottom Brewery, The Filling Station East, Exit Realty, Hot Yoga of East Nashville, and Scout’s Barbershop).
     A native of Boston and a graduate of Georgia Tech, Powell moved to Nashville in 1988 and worked for various architectural firms, primarily designing high-tech medical facilities.
     “I designed a lot of medical facilities all over the United States,” Powell says, “but at a certain point you want to get closer to home. I wanted to do things more unique. With the medical work you couldn’t do a lot of creative stuff. [Starting my own firm] was my chance to do unusual projects and have a creative outlet.” Establishing the firm as Powell Design Studio in 2007, Powell first set up his office in Marathon Village. After a year, he made the jump across the river to a clapboard Victorian house at 10th Street and Shelby Avenue.
     “We were still in Marathon when we started working with March Egerton on the Walden project,” Powell says. “We were looking to relocate, and East Nashville had the vibe and the opportunity we wanted.” The multistage Walden project is an example of Powell designing new construction that integrated with the existing neighborhood.
     “I’m proud of Walden because it helped create a core,” Powell says. “We tried to set a tone, quality and character for East Nashville — to work on [the neighborhood’s] original strength, so we don’t look like we’re in filling it with Brentwood strip malls or apartment buildings.” Although the mixed-use new construction of Walden was one of Powell’s first designs for the East Side, the firm has truly made its mark in the rehabilitation of existing buildings.
     “I would much rather take an existing building and renovate,” Powell says. “A lot of the projects we’ve done in East Nashville have been renovating and building out old buildings — the nastier the build, the better. One of the first was the 308 Bar. It definitely fell under the category of old, nasty building. There was shag carpet glued to the walls that had been there since the ’70s.”
     After establishing themselves as premier designers and architects, it eventually made sense for Powell to expand into contracting. As one of the few firms in the state of Tennessee licensed for both design and construction, Powell Architecture + Building Studio is able to see projects through from initial concept to completion. “I like to say that we’re architects that build, not contractors that do blueprints,” Powell says.
     The company recently moved their offices into a newly renovated space in the old Fluffo Mattress Factory on Main. Their simple but appealing and functional office space features several Powell design hallmarks, including the prominent use of recycled wood from previous projects. The company currently employs seven people, including Sharon Powell, Steve’s wife, who joined the firm in 2012 as office manager, and architect Manley Seale, who became a full partner in January 2014. Rounding out the office staff is Juno, Powell’s friendly and curious black greyhound, a retired racing dog who has happily adjusted to her “renovated” life as the official office greeter.
     “We don’t have a house style,” Powell says, “but we do have a consistent theme in a lot of our projects. We reuse, recycle and work with the building, but if you look at the projects, they’re completely different. The Walden project, the 308 bar, The Crying Wolf or Five Points Pizza — they all look different, they have different needs, they’re in different buildings and the clients have different visions of what they’re trying to communicate.” Those similarities and differences make it difficult for Powell to single out one project as his favorite.
     “We’re proud of all our projects because they’re all different,” he says. “I’m proud of being able to play a part in what is happening in East Nashville as a whole. When our offices were still at 10th and Shelby, I would walk Juno over to 5 Points and back, and we would pass four of our projects.”
     With the accelerated pace of redevelopment that has hit Nashville recently, Powell acknowledges the challenges that beloved neighborhoods are now facing and the responsibilities he has as a hometown architect and builder.
     “There are a lot of market forces at work here,” he says. “There are a lot of big boys from other cities and they want to tap into East Nashville and profit from what we have here. So we could be hijacked if we’re not careful.” While the challenges are great, Powell is still a believer in the spirit of the East Side.
     “I’m optimistic about the future because there are so many folks here that are aware of the character and attributes of East Nashville,” Powell says. “The delicate thing is how we maintain that character, diversity and uniqueness so we don’t become a homogeneous Atlanta-Buckhead neighborhood. I think it will require folks coming together that have that vision and commitment. As soon as you get on this side of the river, you can taste it over here. That’s going to be our struggle: How do we grow but still keep that feeling?”

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