Learning from Beale Street

By TEF / November 03, 2016

Fresh out of architecture school in 2012, I got an offer to intern at the San Francisco office of a big global design firm. I managed to eke out a living on an intern’s salary by living off of credit cards in a cramped room I found on Craigslist. My first substantial project was the renovation of an historic warehouse at 375 Beale Street in San Francisco’s South Beach neighborhood into a new shared home for several Bay Area regional agencies, dubbed the Bay Area Metro Center. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a four-year journey during which I would cut my teeth as an architect, get my professional license, and see the building completed and occupied.

Beale Street render
Before picture and rendering courtesy of Perkins + Will

It was a huge and complex undertaking. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission had picked an abandoned former U.S. Postal Service warehouse as the place to collocate its headquarters with the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

That meant this humongous, eight-story concrete warehouse—with floorplates that stretched across the width of a city block—had to be converted into contemporary office space. The big design move was to carve an atrium into the center to bring daylight into the floor plates, then create collaborative spaces throughout for casual interaction. Perkins+Will—the big global design firm I mentioned—was responsible for the shell and core, while TEF handled the interiors.

Beale Street photograph; exterior 
My responsibilities started with a humble assignment: drawing up diagrams and working on the building’s bike storage area. But as other staff members went on to other projects or other firms, I was asked to design a security desk, then the back-of-house spaces, followed by the main boardroom space.

Beale Street photograph; interior 
Then, in the midst of construction, the project architect left. As the project’s new knowledge-bearer, I found myself loaded with architect-owner-contractor meetings, requests for information, and shop drawings. It was daunting, but during that time, I learned volumes about delivering a building project. Three sobering revelations in particular come to mind.

DESIGN DOES NOT STOP
First there was a conflict between the warehouse building’s existing structural conditions and the smoke sensor and atrium sprinkler constraints. Long story short, details were re-imagined, which led to the transformation of the atrium design during construction. What was originally envisioned as a glassy atrium with rough concrete slab edges protruding at each floor evolved into a warm, wood-filled space. As architects and designers, many of us prefer the front end of a project. We enjoy creating renderings and big concepts, then move on. But design doesn’t necessarily stop once the drawings are issued. A project can very often morph and evolve until the ribbon is cut (and sometimes beyond that!), and construction can be a design exercise in real time.

Beale Street construction 

Beale Street photograph; interior, upper level 
IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATION, BEWARE THE COPY/PASTE
In the age of efficiency, firms are constantly looking to systematize and streamline the design process. At the same time, every drawing in a set will be studied by contractors and building officials, so we have to make sure not to automate our thinking when compiling our drawings.

With the Bay Area Metro Center,  I learned this lesson sitting through accessibility reviews with the Division of the State Architect. Many of the project’s typical details needed updating based on various minor iterations of the code. Automatically copying and pasting details from previous projects soon proved to be less of a time saver than expected. As architects and designers, we need to make sure that protocols are in place to facilitate a streamlined process that also integrates thoughtful and conscientious quality control measures.

STEP BACK AND LOOK

It’s easy to get frustrated during a project’s construction. There’s real money and time on the line—it’s not like in architecture school. You’re constantly working to find common ground with the contractor and trying to pick the right battles. You’re focused intently on specific issues and details and sometime lose track of the larger scope. When these things bogged me down, I had to remember to step back and look at the big picture.

I remember the first time I saw something that I designed realized at the project. More than a year into the process, the construction site consisted of nothing more than concrete and dirt. I traveled to Oregon to visit the shop of the mill worker who was making the main security desk. To watch someone produce the wrapped, triangulated surface that I’d sketched up years ago was a well-timed reminder of why I was doing this. And now, to know that people are walking by it every day makes me proud.

Beale Street photograph; lobby 
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other agencies started moving to the Bay Area Metro Center earlier this year. With the completion of this project, I decided it was time for me to move on as well. I’d worked alongside TEF for years, and Andrew Wolfram had already made the leap from Perkins+Will to TEF. I felt there would be more opportunities at a small firm to work on projects from start to finish, and they’d be local, so I could see them taking shape in the physical world.

Beale Street photograph; outdoor space 
The role of the architect is changing, and many designers get slotted into one role over the long term. The legal requirements for the building industry have become so complicated that the number of specialists we need to rely on has grown astronomically. But I’m a big believer in the idea of the well-rounded architect: someone who can diagram, program, draw, design, take care of construction drawings, and then handle construction administration.

Beale Street photograph; staircase 
Although I occasionally grew tired of working on a single building over such a long period of time, the experience accelerated my understanding of project development. I could connect early decisions to their outcomes and learn from them, which is something I would never have experienced jumping from one project assignment to another. I think many young architects would be better fulfilled working on a project from contract to occupancy.

Beale Street photograph; office space 

 

Other blogs by TEF

Time for a Party Art & the Unexpected Contemporary Access Programming a Nonexistent Existing Building Learning by "Leap" and Bounds Back to the Healthcare Future Recharging the Street Summer Reading: June Summer Reading: Final of the Series The Lantern: A Modern Café for Modern Students You Also Have to Remember to Look Down Kids on the Move The Opportunity/Constraint Tango The Architect as Volunteer for Education and Social Justice: an interview with Amanda Hoch, Diana Rodriguez, and Maryam Rostami TEF Alumni Notes The Architecture Profession - The Interns' View TEF Alumni Notes Restoring Warnecke’s Asilomar Additions: A Conversation with Andrew Wolfram and Bridget Maley Care and Comfort: Designing Kaiser Permanente Northern California's First Inpatient Combined Medical-Psychiatric Unit A Message to our Friends and Collaborators SOLIDARITY The Language of Connection: An Interview with Artist Favianna Rodriguez Maryam Rostami on advocacy and well-being Jennifer Tulley on the entrepreneurial mind and what’s next The Art of Craft: A Conversation with Rachel Hammond, Justin Tang, and Kate Thorson Connecting People to the Waterfront: TEF’s History of Design at the Edge of the San Francisco Bay TEF and San Francisco Public Works: A Dialog with Edgar Lopez Connecting Community Service and Engagement: A Conversation with Mrunalini Kulkarni, O.J. Monegas, and Glynis Nakahara The Art of Collaboration: A Conversation with Tatiana Bilbao, Sam Miller, and E.B. Min Navigating the Future of Work in Hybrid Workplaces: A Case Study An Interview With Patrick Bell: Business Advisor to AEC Firms