Reinventing the legendary firm’s office in San Francisco took some bold steps and introspection
When Hao Ko and Randy Howder took over the leadership of Gensler’s San Francisco office in October of 2017, which in many ways is one of the firm’s most prominent ones (the company was founded in San Francisco in 1965, and founder Art Gensler still works out of the office), they were immediately presented with owning a task of finding a new office that on the surface may have seemed administrative, but in reality perhaps tested and reasserted the very foundation of the firm.
To fully grasp the impact of this transition, one should consider that Gensler’s San Francisco office was for fifteen years situated at the iconic Hills Plaza building on the Embarcadero. When the firm moved into that space, the dot-com implosion was still under way. The location at the time seemed in some ways closer to Oakland than it did to San Francisco. “Our move 15 years ago to 2 Harrison—at the time a desolate part of SoMa—signaled a shift for Gensler to be viewed as a design vanguard. People were surprised, but we set the trend, and during the 15 years we were there the neighborhood was the center of transformation with new development and the biggest names in business moving in,” says Scott Dunlap, regional managing principal and office director at the time of that move.
Continuing with that line of thinking and embracing an open mind to where the new setting may be located, the new leadership duo was thoughtful, deliberate and took a step toward something that some likely considered risky and at the very least very different.
We’re in the business to inspire. We inspire clients, inspire our people, and it’s a different day now.
The search took them through a lot of options before landing at 45 Fremont Street. They looked at the Armory, for instance, as well as other traditional and creative spaces across town. “We toured 50 or 60 buildings over a five-year period, so the question was ‘how did you end up there?’ and I think because of the hidden blank canvas that this building represented. It’s got good bones, there’s no columns, it does have a lower ceiling, but when we poked around, it’s actually really clean,” said Randy Howder, managing director and principal at Gensler. “It gave us a good infrastructure from which to build.”
Finding a diamond in the rough across three floors at 45 Fremont would have been a challenge for anyone. Owner Shorenstein had not done very much to the building for years. Like Gensler at Hills Plaza, Wells Fargo had occupied the location for years. One could say the space was not just suitable for a different firm, but for a different time, as well. Today, the building is probably best known for its neighbors—the Salesforce Tower is half a block away—and proximity to the new Transbay Terminal and Market Street. Otherwise, very little in the buildings makes it stand out.
That is before Gensler moved in. “If anyone can make a standard office building space cool, it should be us. Not to toot our horn, but perhaps we’re unlocking value in this building,” said Howder.
“The building is certainly more traditional,” added Hao Ko, managing director, principal and co-leader of the San Francisco office. “It was a way for the firm to think outside of the box and look at a space that is within the epicenter of economic activity and close to the companies that are driving today’s region and creativity.”
Another big plus for Gensler was Shorenstein’s willingness to work with the firm on a creative lease that only lasts five years. “Our five-year lease was for business purposes. We have a lot of projects under way in the city, we know how the city is changing, and it gave us a lot of flexibility that a lot of clients [have],” said Howder.
But duration was motivated by something else, as well. Five years in today’s tech firm environment is a lot of time. Anything can happen in that time frame, including ways in which companies work and how they consider office space, in general.
“Five years for a tech company is a long time,” said Howder. “The five-year lease gives us the option to stay here, gives us the option to look at our total real estate portfolio, and that five-year time also changes the design criteria for a space and budget.”
It was also a way for the company to experiment with something that it had not done before and set a tone for the future of the firm. There is a friendly competition between Gensler offices about design, said Howder, and everyone looks to the Bay Area for ideas and in some ways leadership, as well. This was a perfect opportunity for the San Francisco office to show everyone else in the company where that future starts.
“We’re in the business to inspire,” said Ko. “We inspire clients, inspire our people, and it’s a different day now.”
That inspiration had to be conducted on a strict budget, too. “People aren’t necessarily inspired just by finishes of the architecture of the space, so what drove the discipline of trying to keep within a modest budget allowed us to focus on what is important, and it’s about how people work, and that’s ultimately what’s the lifeblood of innovation and creativity versus just nice details and finishes everywhere,” Ko added.
The team looked at Design Director Kelly Dubisar to complete the vision of the space. The new office is now spread across three floors, with the middle one on the 15th floor serving as the official grand entrance to the office. This was deliberate, because Dubisar and her team wanted the floor above and the floor below to be centered physically and also programatically. The 15th floor, dubbed “The Bridge,” has become exactly what the leaders envisioned. It’s the active, collaborative floor with the espresso machine, snacks and a variety of places to sit for collaborating or meeting casually. Lunches are enjoyed there, among many other social activities and events. The other floors provide coffee service only, in a nod to keeping The Bridge as the connector.
This was an experiment for Gensler, since designers, like other people, are creatures of habit. “Change is hard! It’s hard for anybody, even designers. Maybe in some ways designers are the hardest to change,” said Ko.
But it was important for the firm to try new things, because it is a way for Gensler to adapt and live through the challenges that its clients face daily. “The entire office could be considered a continuously running lab. We’re testing things that don’t exist in any other Gensler office,” added Dubisar.
The space features a neutral palette, and the design paid attention to the volume of the space and even how the light reflected throughout the new setting. The outside is visible from almost any angle, but it does not distract from the inside, which is modern and hinges on elements that every Gensler employee will recognize. A system of filing cabinet frames hangs from the ceiling, painted in an updated but distinctive Gensler red. A massive wooden table that defined the entrance of the old building was repurposed for working stations spread across the floors. There’s even a view of the Bay Bridge from one corner of the office, a prominent marker from the old office on Embarcadero.
But Dubisar also looked into the future. The space is divided into neighborhoods, each featuring elements that will shift as time changes, accommodating new and old ways of designing. Technology is integrated seamlessly while traditional practices, such as drawing by hand can be done on hanging boards that sit or rails affixed to the ceiling.
It’s about fluidity and change, because the world around Gensler is changing, and so the firm must keep up. In one area by the main entrance three design vignettes will welcome visitors. They are installations from Gensler’s furniture partners that will rotate every two months and provide a dynamic setting, changing with the times, seasons and moods of the industry. Like the office, the firm is changing even as it retains its past set firmly inside the seams of its new fabric.