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High Tech, Low Tech

San Francisco companies go green the old-fashioned way by creating contemporary office spaces in historic buildings.

By Sam Lubell
November 2012
Illustration by Lenny Naar

San Francisco and Silicon Valley, separated by a few miles, have contrasting environments. San Francisco is a dense, pedestrian-friendly, public-transit-oriented city that until recently was not a high-tech magnet. Silicon Valley, for all its technological intensity, has historically accepted the suburban-sprawl model of vast campuses surrounded by asphalt moats.

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These stark distinctions are starting to break down. Silicon Valley, while still ruled by the automobile, is beginning to urbanize. At the same time, San Francisco maintains its urban sophistication while cashing in on a talent pool that wants to be part of it—giants like Google and Adobe and a tsunami of high-tech start-ups want a true city experience to lure young, hip employees.

While Silicon Valley's tech offices make sustainability a priority with photovoltaic arrays, wind turbines, and fuel cells, offices in San Francisco employ sustainable practices that are less visible. The city has a large inventory of buildings suitable for retrofitting; many older structures already employ passive and low-tech technologies like natural lighting and ventilation, because many were constructed before central air-conditioning and sealed envelopes.

"It's something that we often take for granted, but the lifestyle of sustainability is really strong in San Francisco," reports Erin Cubbison, regional sustainable-design leader at Gensler, a firm that has worked on several high-tech offices for companies including Google, Salesforce.com, United Business Media, and Hewlett-Packard.

Recently, Gensler designed a 300,000-square-foot technology center to house several firms in the historic 888 Brannan Building (formerly known as the National Carbon Building) in the South of Market, or SoMa, district. The architects are pursuing LEED Gold or Silver certification by reducing water consumption by 36 percent over the baseline and energy savings by 18 percent. The building's five-story glass atrium is perhaps the biggest energy saver, providing daylight and natural ventilation. Proximity to a dense neighborhood means employees either bike or walk to work and other destinations in the area. The office's open layout, which favors group bench desks over individual cubicles and public spaces to individual offices, reduces each employee's energy usage. Cubbison says that on average, Gensler's private offices consume 250 square feet per person, while its open offices average about 150 square feet per person.

One of the most impressive examples of this type of group office is the facility for the Australian software company Atlassian, designed by local architect Sarah Willmer. The 42,000-square-foot adaptive reuse of an industrial building in the heart of the Mission district is designed to reflect the company's philosophy of complete transparency. Workers congregate at long desks along the perimeters, while a huge open space, set with a series of risers on one side and a cluster of glassy meeting rooms on the other, becomes the focal point. Clerestories and tall industrial sash windows provide an abundance of daylight and natural ventilation. The main space is not air-conditioned (although smaller conference rooms are).

Twitter, one of the first major high-tech defections from Silicon Valley, also made a conscious decision to focus its operations in San Francisco. The company acquired 180,000 square feet inside the 1 million-square-foot, Art Deco–style San Francisco Furniture Mart, which was recently renovated after sitting dormant for years in the struggling Mid-Market neighborhood. Lundberg Design and Interior Architects used reclaimed lumber paneling from the elevator lobbies and designed reception desks from the floors of a bowling alley found on Craigslist. While the project hasn't sought LEED certification, it uses low-VOC paints, recycled carpet, and a green roof with a vegetable garden.

Another Silicon Valley transplant is Adobe, which has developed a 312,000-square-foot complex in several industrial buildings in Showplace Square, just south of SoMa. The project complements its LEED Platinum headquarters in downtown San Jose. The first phase, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, in the landmarked masonry Baker and Hamilton Building and an adjacent modern concrete building, was completed in 2006 and included the reuse of Douglas-fir timbers, which were made into stairs and reception desks, and the creation of storage space for more than 100 bicycles. An update by Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (which is also giving the San Jose office a green makeover) will open that office up completely. The company is pursuing LEED Platinum for Existing Buildings.

And, of course, there's Google, the biggest tech player of them all. Rapt Studio retrofitted offices previously occupied by the Sharper Image in the South Beach neighborhood, creating an open office with small workstations that can be easily moved. The space is organized around a large atrium with abundant light and views to the Bay Bridge. Overall, the office is dominated by textured spaces whose variety provides new inspiration throughout. The project includes more than nine tons of repurposed materials, including doors from the previous space made into wall panels, cabinet doors transformed into office screens, and glazing that doubles as marker boards inside conference rooms.

Each of these companies has a unique image to project through the design of its offices, but they all share one feature—the satisfaction that comes from revitalizing older buildings with a lot of life still in them.


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