Get to Know our Newest Principal

May 29, 2024
Graphic of Principal Chelsea Johnson

We are thrilled to welcome Chelsea Johnson, AIA, LEED AP, to the DBA Principal team. 

A powerful, positive leader, Chelsea has been a key member of DBA since joining in 2011. She originated the role of Managing Director in 2022, guiding us through the first few years of our Strategic Plan and building robust systems for firm operations and growth.

A skilled architect, collaborator, and team lead, Chelsea has guided some of DBA’s largest projects, including 855 Brannan—a 449-home mixed-use, mixed-income community completed in 2018—and Hunters View Phase III Affordable Housing—a pair of resilient residential buildings and a public park rounding out San Francisco’s Hunters View Master Plan, currently under construction. She is now leading the community and design process for State & Hope, the largest mixed-use development in Santa Barbara, California. 

We welcome Chelsea—and her optimism, steadiness, effectiveness, and keen intelligence—as a stellar addition to DBA’s Principal and Ownership team. 

In Her Own Words

I grew up in Oakland, California, and Ashland, Oregon, a childhood that fostered my dual interest in the urban realm and nature. I studied studio art at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota where I explored the functional arts, printmaking, and drawing. There, I became interested in architecture as an art form connected to people. After a post-college year teaching English and creating art in Thailand, I went on to pursue an MARCH at UC Berkeley.  

My interests in school were always urban landscape-oriented, investigating a larger fabric beyond the building. I spent two years creating socially focused landscape architecture and public art with Walter Hood in West Oakland, a formative experience where I was inspired by an approach to design that transcended the property line and drew inspiration from the social and cultural context of place. I knew I wanted to do something alternative to traditional architecture practice—something that was rooted in social good and social justice work. 

When I joined DBA in 2011, it felt like a really good fit to dive back into architecture and explore a growing interest in housing. In my work at DBA, I’m especially inspired by this similar sensitive approach to designing for place, particularly how the ground floor engages with landscape and the public realm. 855 Brannan—my first project, which I worked on for six years—has an active ground floor with an array of uses that engage the streetscape, a central redwood grove, and two flexible pedestrian passages that activate the site and add a walkable scale. The project also references and honors its historical context by reusing timbers from the previous existing building, a former turn-of-the-century train depot. One of the most exciting things to me is finding special moments and inspirational opportunities that I can connect to in a project to make it contextual, personal, and authentic. 

What originally drew me to DBA—and what also makes me passionate about being a Principal at the firm—is the combination of elevated design that makes an impact in communities and the truly special culture and staff here that are aligned with that mission. As a Principal I look forward to continuing with this dual outward-inward lens—focusing on design as well as internal support of people and processes.  

I currently live in Truckee, California, with frequent visits to the Bay Area and our San Francisco and Oakland offices as well as to Southern California, where I am leading our first two projects in the region, complex developments in Claremont and in Santa Barbara. 

From my home near North Lake Tahoe, I enjoy multiple forms of skiing—skate, downhill, and backcountry—as well as camping, hiking, climbing, and paddle boarding. It is such a joy to create urban spaces that connect city-dwellers to nature, and to keep my own connection vibrant through watching my two-year-old son delight in snowfall, creeks, mud, and pine-needle–covered woods.  

Reflections from Colleagues

“Chelsea is extremely talented both as a designer and organizationally—qualities often not found in the same person. As a master of the ‘yes and’ statement, Chelsea really builds on and strengthens other people’s ideas.” 
—Daniel Simons, FAIA,Principal 

“Chelsea brings clarity of thought, warmth, and empathy to every design or strategy discussion, no matter how difficult the topic. Chelsea is a very strong leader, and I’m looking forward to her insights on both the daily leadership and the future of the firm.” 
—Caroline Souza, AIA, Principal

Get in touch with Principal Chelsea Johnson here.