Whenever an architecture firm gets to work on its own new or remodeled office space, it's an opportunity: to show the firm's prowess, to work without the constraints of a client, and to change the culture of the firm itself. In recent years firms like SERA Architects and Thomas Hacker Architects have done just that with ultra-green new office jobs, while Zimmer Gunsul Frasca and Ankrom Moisan have new HQs in the works for the next year or two.
BOORA Architects thought building a better office would entail moving out of their leased space in the Morgan Building downtown, on SW Washington just around the corner from Broadway. After all, it was an old building they didn't own. But after extensive research into the building itself, negotiations with the Morgan's owner, and a thorough examination of where BOORA's employees live and how they arrive at the office, the firm decided to stay put.
However, if you visited the BOORA office before its renovation and see it today after a $2.5 million renovation, these are two very different spaces occupying the same 26,000 square feet.
In the old office, the entry lobby provided not the slightest glimpse of architects working. Today one can look in any direction coming out of the elevator and see wide open spaces, tall exposed ceilings, beautifully rough-textured wood and concrete, and a focus on communal teamwork over individual desk work.
As it happens, the circa-1913 Morgan Building was designed and built before air conditioning was prevalent and when electric light could be unreliable. So it had excellent preconditions for two very important 21st century green building needs: natural daylight and ventilation. An independent analysis by engineering giant Arup (collaborators with Koolhaas, Foster Herzog & De Meuron and virtually every famous architect working today) confirmed that it had ideal green possibilities.
The Morgan was designed by legendary early 20th Century Portland architect A.E. Doyle, whose firm was then called Doyle, Patterson & Beach. Doyle also designed the Central Library, Benson Hotel, US National Bank, Meier & Frank building and numerous other downtown landmarks. Pietro Belluschi also got his start in Doyle's office.
The brick and terra cotta Morgan building is E-shaped on the back, so it allows natural illumination to penetrate deeply into the space. Once BOORA took out the ceiling, revealing another three feet of space, they were halfway there to a much more pleasant environment. But they left the giant concrete columns exposed, which both figuratively and literally anchor the space.
The natural ventilation system is rooted in operable windows, but that's not where things end. BOORA installed exterior temperature sensors to alert employees to when outside temperatures are ideal for opening the window, and then when they do, ceiling fans spread around the air. (That could also work well when someone has too much chili for lunch.)
BOORA's office renovation isn't just physical, either. Traditionally the firm has operated like a series of small studios, each headed by a particular principal. It's felt in the past, for example, like Heinz Rudolf runs an in-house firm designing green K-12 schools. John Meadows, Stan Boles, Michael Tingley and others divide up the various condos, university projects and arts facilities. or something along those lines. But the new office emphasizes that everyone works or at least weighs in on every project.
In that way, BOORA's new office and the culture they're trying to create seems to resemble a lot of firms, particularly the larger sized ones, in endeavoring to create a more collaborative, democratic design environment. After all, if you're a talented young architect, where would you rather work: at a place where the principals make all the key decisions, or one where you have a voice?
Right now BOORA is heavily involved in work at Stanford University, and they also have their second large condo for Hoyt Street Properties about to complete: The Encore. The firm has been around for many, many years. In fact, their 50th anniversary is this year. Having the right kind of office is, as for any company, the way to insure they stay around for another 50.
Being downtown also affords BOORA some nice views of the central city. I took these shots on a recent visit. Sure beats the dumpster my office looks out on. The above images, by the way, were provided by the firm.
by Brian Libby, 2008
Published with permission of Portland Architecture