Form4 Transforms Idea into Architecture at 288,000 SQFT Innovation Curve in Stanford Research Park

Form4 Architecture, Innovation Curve, Stanford Research Park, Palo Alto, Facebook, Tesla, VMWare
Courtesy of Richard Barnes

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

Stanford Research Park (SRP) was first established in 1951 as a joint venture between Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto, boasting famous tenants over the years the likes of Facebook, Tesla Motors and VMware. A symbol of technological innovation, SRP has grown to encompass 700 acres of more than 10 million square feet of commercial space, housing more than 150 companies and featuring amenities such as sustainable transportation and recreational walking trails. 

With technological innovation in mind, SRP welcomed back the familiar efforts of San Francisco-based firm Form4 Architecture to design Innovation Curve Technology Park, a 288,000 square foot, LEED Platinum-certified project planted on a 13.5 acre campus within the umbrella of SRP. With projecting roofs, deep overhangs and striking exterior metal curves, the four buildings of which the project displays the beauty of an idea in formation. 

“Our clients talk about how their ideas evolve all the time, so we thought we’d express that,” said John Marx, co-founding principal and chief artistic officer at Form4 Architecture.

Form4 Architecture has a pre-existing relationship with SRP and has already designed 2 million square feet of the park. This relationship made the design process easier in more ways than one, not only because the team already knew what the hot buttons were for SRP, but also because they had more insight into what the client in particular wanted. 

“[Peter Pau from Sand Hill Property] loves distinctive architecture,” said James Tefend, principal-in-charge at Form4 Architecture and the project manager for Innovation Curve. “You would never know it’s the same architect doing the same building. It’s a different idea, a different expression.”

Innovation Curve at SRP is a public campus formed by four buildings organized around a central courtyard, with pedestrian paths running diagonally across to connect adjacent streets to the site. The two-story buildings, which also feature outdoor balconies and below-grade parking, each have two offset wings binding a central, glass-faced lobby. The wings are designed to break up the building mass. The architecture of the concrete courtyard paving and metal curves of the building exteriors continue throughout the interior spaces, creating a connectivity with the outdoor features.

The unique metal curves of the building exteriors are one of the more prominent features seen by the naked eye, and perhaps also the most misunderstood. As Marx explained, many people might view the sweeping curves and perceive the design to emulate an oscilloscope, or heart monitor. While good in theory, it’s not accurate, according to Marx. 

“You start with an idea in Silicon Valley, not necessarily an architectural idea but it does apply to architecture, and it goes up,” Marx said, describing the beginning of the buildings’ featured curves. “And that’s that up part of the curve, and it gets to a crescendo. It never reaches the beauty of the first original idea. It’s so pure and so wonderful.”

The curve follows the natural process of an idea. A slight dip in the curve represents analysis being conducted to see if the idea can work, followed by a long, straight line to represent the engineering phase. The next dip in the curve represents the lawyers, the insurance companies and the public relations firms. Compromises and adaptations are made, followed by a final decision.

“And then it takes off, and that’s the curve going back up again, and then it goes out into the world and becomes an iPhone,” Marx said.

The team focused on the idea of technology to drive the design of the project. They chose architectural materials of high-quality metal and glass to emphasize not only the feeling of technology, but also to reflect the light and air they wanted to incorporate with the design.

“It looks like an unusual high tech building,” Marx said. “We wanted it to be light and airy and glassy so it felt like high technology, and high technology lets you do that.”

From the beginning, Pau wanted the building designed to be LEED Platinum-certified. The desire for green workspaces is cyclical; more and more tenants want sustainable work environments, commercial spaces need to be filled, and so the reward for green workspaces lies in itself.

“There’s a lot of synergy in the park in doing the right thing,” Tefend said. “There’s this misconception that you can’t do an all-glass building and make it energy efficient. We proved that you can.” 

To achieve LEED Platinum certification, the team incorporated elements like automated shade infrastructure, high-efficiency mechanical and electrical systems, high-performance cool roofs and solar photovoltaic power generation. One landscape feature includes bioswales with native plants. This isn’t the only building Form4 Architecture has designed in the area that has achieved LEED Platinum status, though. Nearby 1400 Page Mill, while different in building character and design, has also been given the coveted title, and is also net-zero electric.

“They’re so different, but they perform from a LEED standpoint almost exactly the same,” Marx said.

The team noted that one of the more attractive features of Innovation Curve is the long, linear skylight that runs through the buildings. It brings in natural light to the middle of the building, which is typically dark in most designs, and addresses the need that many biotech companies have when looking for commercial space.

“When you’re doing life science buildout, the quality of the light is super important,” Tefend said. “That’s an attractive element when you’re trying to land a biotech tenant.”

The team recognized that not all tenants would be the same or want the same thing, however, and made sure the buildings were independent while still remaining connected to one another.

“You want the space to be a combination of connectivity, and a place where the campus will feel like all the buildings belong together, but you can’t guarantee that all the buildings will be the same tenant…it’s got to be independent, and yet together,” Marx said. “We wanted to have different experiences within the landscape. Some of them would be more cafe-oriented, some of them would be like rolling hills.”

The project’s landscaping expands that idea, blending almost seamlessly with the architecture of the buildings to further emphasize the beauty and sustainability of the site, while offering different experiences for visitors and tenants alike. Spearheaded by Northern California-based landscape firm Studio Five Design, the landscape incorporates landforms, water features and biofiltration into the core layout, and campus common zones are located beneath honey locust trees to provide respite for recreational and social activities. An oak grassland restoration zone is located at the east end of the central courtyard, and a redwood preservation zone frames the campus entry. 

“When you’re in [the redwood preservation zone], it’s like you’re in a whole different world,” Marx said. “And then you go to the other side and you’re in the grassy knolls, and you’re in a whole different world. And then you go out toward the end of the building and it’s a little more European. We’ve got different experiences, and part of that was working with the city and the city saying, ‘We’d like to do this.’ And we were like, ‘How can we make something cool out of this?’ The idea was sparked by the collaboration with the city.” 

Tefend explained it can be particularly challenging to get projects entitled in Palo Alto, but they’ve always found it helpful to establish partnerships not only with consultants, but also with city officials.

“Before we even apply for the entitlements, we’re already in dialogue with, for example, the city arborist, who knows the site very well,” Tefend said. “We just opened up the dialogue, exchanged ideas, exchanged visions, got his input. We brought him to the table so by the time we actually applied for the entitlement process, he already knew the project and was very much invested in it. That goes a long way to getting your project approved. We love that type of dialogue when we get that feedback. It helps improve our designs.”

While many projects face design challenges, Innovation Curve’s primary challenges were more budgetary in nature. The project was well-received by the client, the city and the public, but according to Tefend, the prices were too high.

“There’s always a challenge,” he said. “The expectation of the developer versus dead reality. This project was no different. The prices were way too high. So one solution we did is instead of taking a local company, we went global.” 

Since the project incorporates glass as one of its primary architectural elements, Form4 Architecture brought in an Italian manufacturer that used a German window product, had everything fabricated and brought and assembled from Venice to Palo Alto. The team ended up integrating the product into the facade, which ultimately helped them overcome the budgetary challenges by bringing down the costs of the project.

Unanimously, the team’s favorite feature of the project is the lobby. Marx noted that lobbies are usually small and not an integral part of the design. The lobbies in Innovation Curve, however, are through lobbies, with bridges that travel across and architectural elements that come all the way through from the exterior to the interior.

“When you’re in the lobby, you can really feel the effect of the curved walls,” Tefend added. “You’re directly in there and feeling the experience, and it’s quite exciting.”

Courtesy of Richard Barnes
West Coast Commercial Real Estate News