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Workspace Arms Race

Lauren Murrow | December 3, 2013 | Story Architecture

Every morning, Airbnb's 200 local employees face the enviable option of working from one of eight exotic locales. There's a Balinese single-family home decked with potted palms, intricate wall tapestries, and a woven grass ceiling; a Milanese one-bedroom that features lavender toile wallpaper, a flat-screen TV, and a dining table seating eight; and a quaint Parisian flat filled with Eames furniture and splashy shadow-box art. Only the San Francisco hills visible through the windows of each dwelling give away their actual location: the vacation-rental company’s new offices at 888 Brannan Street in Soma. Each conference room in the complex replicates a coveted Airbnb listing, from a Copenhagen pad—complete with faux timber beams—to the living room of the founders’ original Rausch Street apartment, faithfully copied down to the lucky red velvet Jesus statue. “There were times when we were challenged as architects to push the limits more than other clients would ask us to,” says Lisa Bottom, a principal at Gensler, the global design firm behind the Airbnb and Facebook offices. “But our job was to be an enabler of their company’s culture.”

This physically manifest mission statement isn’t just a twentysomethings-with-money vanity project: It’s both a backlash against the dutiful 40-hour workweek and a reward system built on open bars, food trucks, and original art. In office renovations throughout downtown San Francisco, a culture shift is increasingly apparent: you’re not working for your company anymore, your company is working for you. “It’s not enough to give employees a big paycheck and a Ping-Pong table anymore. You can only throw so much money at people,” says David Galullo, chief executive officer of the branding and design firm Rapt Studio. Lauren Geremia, founder of Geremia Design, whose portfolio includes offices for Dropbox, Instagram, and YouSendIt, agrees. "Office design today is about inspiring the people who work for you to create at the highest level," she says. "You're constantly having to think, 'How do I make this fun for these people?'"

But one person's fun is another's frat house. Youthful design features, once seen as a figurative middle finger to corporate America, have become a source of derision among heavy-hitting Bay Area design firms. “A lot of gimmicky design—silly furniture for silly furniture’s sake—came out of the last dot-com boom,” says Collin Burry, design director at Gensler. “That world is kind of trite now; that irrational exuberance is tired.” Sascha Wagner, a principal at Huntsman Architectural Group, refers to the former style—the primary-color palette, the haphazard furniture arrangements, the game room as nexus—as a kindergarten aesthetic. “Office design was so reactive in the past decade, like, ‘Let’s do the absolute opposite of what’s been traditionally done because we’re edgy and rebellious,’” he says. “But not everyone wants a slide in their office.”

That’s not to say that faddish features—foosball tables, gaming consoles, and graffiti art—have been completely banished from the landscape. But the prevailing opinion—or ardent hope—among Bay Area designers is that the tech industry has finally outgrown the gimmicks. In fact, tech companies are no longer the only ones seeking their services. Increasingly, financial, law, and consulting firms are looking to loosen their ties and knock down some cubicles as well. “I’m not just designing for a 25-year-old guy anymore,” says Geremia (who, six years ago, was 25 herself). The design challenge, then, is to find ways to create a space that appeals to both straight-out-of-Stanford wunderkinder and seasoned middle managers.

Rather than taking the lead from Facebook and Google, the original trailblazers of office cool—“Frankly, it’s going to be hard to out-Google Google,” says Galullo, dryly—local designers are guiding their clients toward a hyperpersonalized office plan. Firms like Rapt and Geremia Design are now hiring not only architects and interior designers but also graphic desigers, prop stylists, visual artists, and brand strategists—all of whom collaborate on the same projects. “The right clients for me are not those who want to tour five tech offices and take notes,” says Geremia. “The clients coming through my doors are asking, ‘How do we make this different?’”

For the designers, these companies are like tweens going through a self-discovery phase: They want an office that is a visual manifestation of their brand and the desires of their employees. At the in-the-works financial district offices of online brainteaser company Lumosity, Geremia is installing large-scale mind games in the conference rooms, connect-the-dots wallpaper, and tangram-inspired bookshelves. At LightSail, a green-minded energy-storage company in Berkeley, she’s prototyping tanklike light fixtures that contain growing plants and algae. At Weebly, a web-hosting service, Huntsman designed a secret room for potential new hires that opens through a library bookshelf. (Pull on the right hardcover volume.) At Quid, a company that tracks online technology for investment firms, Studio O+A created a circuitous white-on-white entrance to convey a ’60s spy novel atmosphere. At Airbnb, software developers gather in a room modeled after the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. And at Twitch, a live-streaming gaming platform, higher-ups requested a sensory deprivation tank for employees craving an escape from their screens. (“Ultimately we couldn’t support the weight,” sighs Wagner.)

The new San Francisco office is a party hub, a buzzy restaurant, a getaway, and an underground gallery. “It’s like red carpet meets hotel lobby meets cafĂ©,” says Burry. At the SoMa office of giant Pixel, a software developer, Studio O+A turned the basement into a sprawling whiskey bar. “A lot of social lubricant is being brought into the workspace,” says Sara Anderson, an associate principal at design firm Perkins+Will. “You have to create this hybrid place where you can get work done, throw a party, or just shoot the shit.”

But these loungey, multitasking designs aren’t purely for fun—they’re bred largely out of necessity. As more tech companies look to make the jump from the suburban campus model popularized by Google and Apple to the city, rents in San Francisco continue to soar. According to local real estate firm Transwestern, year-over-year rents are up 21 percent for downtown office space: at up to $50.83 per square foot, compared with $39.84 last year. Coveted brick-and-timber warehouse buildings in SoMa—which designers wistfully liken to unicorns—are scarce. “For the last 10 years, the square-footage-per-worker allocation has been shrinking. People were trying to find the bottom,” says Wagner. “It was ‘How little can we have and not have a rebellion on our hands?’” That squeeze ushered in the popularity of benching, in which employees sit at long communal tables—bringing the per-person space allocation to as low as 130 square feet. “You’re basically separated from the next employee by the screen of your MacBook,” he says.

Tech firms, in all their marketing ingenuity, have found a way to spin the space deficit: It’s not downsizing—it’s “integrating.” Fifteen years ago, the 70/30 ratio was the gold standard—70 percent of workers in cubicles, 30 percent in private offices— but today, private offices are becoming obsolete. In the new downtown offices of Gensler, for example, one third of the workforce won’t even have an assigned desk; instead, they will roam freely among common areas. In the new office prototype, environments are adaptable: movable and retractable walls, pivoting doors, platforms that double as tables and seats, and desks and chairs set upon wheels. “We can’t afford to create a different setting for every activity, so we need to create a set-ting that accommodates every activity,” Wagner says.

Space isn’t the only casualty of the real estate boom. As rents have climbed, design budgets “have literally gone the opposite direction,” says Burry. Without sky’s-the-limit budgets, 3,500-person firms like Gensler and 10-person firms like Geremia Design find themselves competing for the same jobs. Shrinking bottom lines have forced Bay Area design firms to work faster and more efficiently to remain relevant. “The backlash, then, is companies saying, ‘Oh, you can do this for less,’” says Mary Lee Duff, a principal at Interior Architects. And if you can’t, someone else can. A fiercely competitive tech sector begets a cutthroat design sector. “It’s a little lean” out there, says Burry, but there’s an upside to all the frenzied competition. “It forces us to be creative, to do more with less.”

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of San Francisco

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