At BIG Oakland, small companies have the opportunity to make a large impact

By Meghan Hall

Coworking and flexible workspaces are often viewed as hubs for tech entrepreneurs and burgeoning creatives. But in the Bay Area’s hectic construction climate, project teams — architects, clients, engineers, designers — are just as mobile. Spread out region-wide, these companies are often required to traverse the Bay Area for meetings, consultations and site visits. With this in mind, the founder of flexible workspace firm BIG Oakland sought to create a coworking space specifically for those within the AEC industry. After conducting a year-long pilot program, BIG Oakland, which stands for Building Industry Gathering, opened its doors to an array of positive feedback and aspirations to not just impact the AEC industry, but the rapidly changing landscape of downtown Oakland.

BIG Oakland, however, is designed to specifically cater to those within the AEC industry who have a high degree of specialization, often smaller firms that focus on certain types of design, construction or development nuances within the industry. 

“What we have noticed is that post-recession — and it may have economic but also technological origins — the middle market of AEC firms has become much smaller in favor of larger companies that have all of those specializations in-house,” explained Kyle Rawlins, co-founder of BIG Oakland. “That has been the direction of the industry, and with that as the backdrop, being able to house all of these firms under the same roof is a great starting point for building a collaborative environment that has the soft benefits of people in the same industry and the same interests, but also the practical, meaning business opportunities.”

We have an interest in connecting minority and women-owned firms to fiscal and economic opportunities

But BIG Oakland’s mission goes beyond just providing a unique space for small firms. Founded by Jean Bjork of Bjork Construction Company, Oscia Wilson of Google Real Estate, and Kyle Rawlins and Deanna Van Buren of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, part of BIG Oakland’s goals is to connect and support women and minority-owned AEC businesses throughout the region, giving them the resources and ability to bid for — and win — large regional contracts.

BIG Oakland Bay Area Building Industry Gathering AEC Bjork Construction Company Google Real Estate Designing Justice + Designing Spaces BART
Image courtesy of Emily Hagopian

“We have an interest in connecting minority and women-owned firms to fiscal and economic opportunities. There is a large disparity, especially in public contracting, between majority larger firms and minority-owned firms,” explained Rawlins. “We think of BIG Oakland as a place-based solution for building relationships. These day-to-day interactions that people can make is the pathway for sharing information, building trust and procuring opportunities. So, when we think about some of the large firms and city agencies, to be able to connect smaller firms to these large providers of contracts is one of the areas where we really want to excel.” 

Securing a successful public contract, continued Rawlins, could have huge implications for these firms and the viability of women and minority-owned AEC businesses. “Public contracts, especially are important. In good times, bad times, they are always working,” added Rawlins. “These contracts can also go a long way and are helpful for forming lines of credit. They can help to shrink what has been a longstanding discrepancy between the economic opportunities received by majority firms and smaller, minority-owned firms.”

BIG Oakland’s new, permanent location is at 1423 Broadway, right off of Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland and directly above the 12th Street BART station. BIG Oakland is also close to several city agencies, including Oakland City Hall and the Building Department — important stops for those in the AEC industry. The 3,650 square foot space includes industry-specific features such as extra-large drawing review tables, large format printers, a color plotter and a fully-stocked design and materials library. Adjustable desks, desk storage, mail services, 24/7 access and a full-service kitchen are also available to members. Daily drop-in rates start at $35, while dedicated desks start at $450. Coworking memberships range from $150 to $350. 

“We’re excited about this new location, because it’s smack dab in the middle of town with close proximity to all of the municipal agencies that people need,” said Rawlins. “It’s a nucleus of activity that is happening in downtown Oakland. We’re on the plaza, and that is a big deal for us.”

The coworking space officially opened its doors in May of this year, and its grand opening was well attended; Oakland’s Mayor, Libby Schaaf, was in attendance, as were numerous other professionals within the AEC industry.

“[The grand opening] was a great event. The City is very encouraging and supportive of our concept,” said Rawlins. “They thought our use would help to further activate Frank Ogawa Plaza, and we are hoping to do just that. We are looking forward to working with our neighbors, the theaters, the art galleries, to build a nice presence that is activated both day and night to contribute to what is becoming a pretty vibrant downtown area in Oakland.”

Of the events that BIG Oakland hopes to host includes connecting building product manufacturers and vendors with those in the AEC industry who purchase and utilize their products. BIG Oakland hopes that through these events, it can help to expand firms’ connections to those working with diverse supplier mandates.

“Suppliers are always looking for better ways to connect with the people who specify their products,” said Rawlins. “We have about half a dozen to ten vendors, and it is a fun environment. They have their samples, we have food; it’s an opportunity for people in the industry to know their vendors. We believe that making these connections in person, as opposed to virtually, is a successful strategy.”

BIG Oakland Bay Area Building Industry Gathering AEC Bjork Construction Company Google Real Estate Designing Justice + Designing Spaces BART
Image courtesy of Emily Hagopian
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