At Wharton, Every Inch Counts

Wharton recreates an Ivy League campus on one floor in one building in downtown San Francisco


| By Sasha Vasilyuk |

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he view of the Bay Bridge over the seagull-encrusted Embarcadero, arching toward the leafy Treasure Island, is a sight far removed from the brick Ivy League buildings of the University of Pennsylvania. Yet Penn’s business office—The Wharton School—is trying to bridge the gap with a new San Francisco campus that mixes tradition and innovation—and has one of the most rockin’ views in town.

In January, the 10-year-old Wharton Executive MBA program in San Francisco moved to its new home in 37,000 square feet in the 1920s-era Hills Brothers Plaza. The move to the sixth floor of 2 Harrison St. wasn’t challenged by distance—Wharton’s previous campus occupied 24,000 square feet in the Folgers Coffee building, less than two blocks away, at 101 Howard St.

Despite the short distance and apparently coincidental coffee theme, Wharton executives wanted a radically new feel for their Hills Bros. space that would embrace technology, sustainability and, of course, the incredible bay view. While they only had one floor to work with, at $175,000 per degree, they wanted it to feel like the original 131-year-old Wharton campus—shield and all.

“The program was expanding, and we needed a lot more collaboration space for students and faculty to leave the classroom that the old facility didn’t have,” said Maria O’Callaghan Cassidy, senior director of operations at Wharton. She oversaw the move, which helped increase the program’s capacity from 100 students to 160.

[pullquote_right] “Wharton is really pushing the limits of what technology can do in a classroom environment to make it as personable and intelligent as it can be.” Brad Robinson, vice president of technical services, Berkeley-based Anderson Audio Visual[/pullquote_right]Finding the space wasn’t easy given the school’s requirement for large, tiered classrooms, which mandate very tall ceiling heights. But when they found the Hills Bros. space with the help of Jones Lang LaSalle, it was a great fit for their 10-year lease. “Having that campus feel with an historic building, the bay and the arches—it was a nice feel from the very beginning,” O’Callaghan said.

As a two-year residential program, Wharton San Francisco requires its students, most of whom come from the West Coast, to spend alternate weekends studying, eating and even living together with the professors who fly in from Penn. Even though the students spend nights at the nearby Meridian Hotel, most of their days are spent with Wharton. While Wharton officials would not disclose the cost of the build-out, LEED Gold sustainable materials, state-of-the-art technology and impressive structural changes indicate it wasn’t cheap.

Led by global designer Gensler, whose office happens to be in the same building, and San Francisco-based BCCI Construction Co., which built Wharton’s previous space, the team had to overcome multiple structural challenges, including removing large concrete columns to create open classrooms and replacing them with steel beams, adding a third staircase to abide by fire code and adapting the building’s air conditioning system to deliver outside air during non-business hours, when the classes are in full swing. “It was a challenging project, but the partnership was pretty exemplary in that we were able to listen to the client’s vision and work hand-in-hand to work through all the details,” said BCCI’s director of project management, Mallory Wall.

Design-wise, Gensler obviously didn’t have any classic college lawns to work with, so designers sought to recreate the feel of a campus in other ways. Through Gensler’s design, the three big classrooms take up only 20 percent of the whole space, leaving a lot of room for other purposes. “When you try to put a campus on a single floor, your tendency is to cram in as much program space as you can. But when you go to a [traditional] campus situation, you realize a lot of learning also occurs in the in-between spaces,” said Doug Zucker, chief Gensler architect on the project.

Consequently, the remaining 80 percent of the floor area is a mix. Wide hallways and open lounges have bar-height tables, booths and couches. A block of meeting rooms detached from the tall ceiling replicates the look of adjacent buildings within the space. Cozy offices await the faculty that fly in from Pennsylvania, as do a library lounge, staff offices and, most dramatically, a 2,500 square-foot dining and gathering area—all accented by the tall windows overlooking the Embarcadero.

“They wanted this space to connect Wharton San Francisco to Penn both in terms of look and feel but still be West Coast, as most of their students are from here,” said Zucker. “One really important point was that people here shouldn’t feel like they’re getting a different education than at Penn.”

Because of that, Wharton San Francisco is a mix of old and new—exposed concrete on walls is mixed with dark wood paneling in the lobby; hardwood floors reflect light from the dramatic arched brick windows; and the more traditional muted color palette of beige and blue reflects the colors of the bay underneath. “We wanted to find a nice way to show juxtaposition between old and new, East and West coast, education steeped in tradition and the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Melissa Mizell, Gensler’s chief designer on the project.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the space is the dining room, which has direct views of the Bay Bridge and lets in enormous amounts of light, not just through the front and side windows but also through large skylights. According to Mizell, many students’ favorite spot is a large, round corner table that affords the best bridge views and sports a Wharton shield in its center.

Installing state-of-the-art technology was another essential part of creating the new Wharton San Francisco campus. Classrooms are equipped with audio-visual equipment that connects to classrooms at Penn, ceiling microphones to improve how student questions are heard, cameras that record every class by tracking the speaker as he or she moves through the space, and most impressively a network system that recognizes professors and sets each one’s unique AV preferences.

“Wharton is really pushing the limits of what technology can do in a classroom environment to make it as personable and intelligent as it can be,” said Brad Robinson, a vice president of technical services at Berkeley-based Anderson Audio Visual, which worked on Wharton’s tech systems with specialized firms PepperDash and Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC.

Marko Jarymovych, Wharton’s technical director of IT, said installing flexible modern technology in the space was a way to connect the two campuses, create a system that would last through future technological changes and be up to par for tech-savvy Bay Area students. “Our clientele in San Francisco is mostly entrepreneurs and people from the technology industry, so our technology needed to be state-of-the-art,” he said. “That’s the expectation.”

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