The new headquarters in San Francisco looks to expand regional and national presence

By Jack Stubbs

“With what we do at a national level, there’s almost no better microcosm than San Francisco to see it all play out. Both internally and externally, for us to be able to have a space here where we can bring outsiders in for those discussions — for us as researchers as we walk the streets and come in contact with many of the people that we are spending our time writing about and studying in various ways — and we want to make sure that they have a voice at the table in political debates,” said MollyAnne Brodie, senior vice president for executive operations at The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). 

San Francisco, and the wider Bay Area region of which it is a part, has long been regarded as a hub of intellectual capital and economic prosperity. Companies across the business and non-profit spectrum continue to look for ways to expand their reach and presence there while at the same time adding a new dimension to the changing fabric of the city and region.

That was certainly the case for KFF, which in March 2018 relocated its company headquarters to a 26,7000 square foot office building located at 185 Berry Street in San Francisco’s Mission Bay/China Basin neighborhood. 

we want to be able to provide a convening space where we can have powerful national conversations

The design team on the project included San Francisco-based architect Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), who aided by a consultant team that included office furniture dealer Coordinated Resources Inc. (CRI), Principal Builders Inc. (contractor), Nabith Youssef Structural Engineers, AWA (mechanical, engineering and plumbing), Niteo (lighting) and Bradac Co. (property owner’s representative).

Image courtesy of CRI

“For the Bay Area, we want to be able to provide a convening space where we can have powerful national conversations about these very issues with the city and county of San Francisco, about how to think about growth and the city’s vulnerable population in a city that is undergoing so much economic change,” Brodie added. 

The office has for about a year-and-a-half served as KFF’s headquarters and is the focal point from which the organization hopes that it will be able to build upon its national presence and operating strategy, which spans a wide range of sectors. Established in the early 1990s, KFF is a non-profit organization focusing on national health issues, and it has tried to lead the country in global health policy, as well. KFF develops and runs its own policy analysis, journalism and communications programs — sometimes in partnership with major news organizations — and looks to provide non-partisan analysis and journalism for policymakers, the media, the local health policy community and the broader public. 

Image courtesy of CRI

The new San Francisco headquarters represented a new chapter geographically for the organization — the non-profit was formerly based out of the nine-building Quadrus property on Sand Hill Road in San Mateo County’s Menlo Park, and it also continues to operate out of another office in Washington D.C. — the hope was that the new Bay Area location would allow KFF to continue broadening its scope and day-to-day impact on the local community, according to Brodie. “With regards to KFF’s mission and vision [for the office], we had been based in Menlo Park for over 25 years for a series of reasons. To be able to recruit an excellent and diverse staff, the vitality and public transit and everything San Francisco had to offer was where we were more likely to [achieve] that,” Brodie said. “More importantly, though, we just felt like the future of KFF was in San Francisco. Looking towards the future and changes [in the Bay Area], we felt that it was time for us to make a move.”

Key to KFF’s overall goal of continuing to open important channels of conversation around global and local health policy was a recognition that the organization’s new headquarters would need to provide necessary adaptability by improving staff collaboration and cohesion, while also remaining true to the character of an already-established organization, according to Greg Mottola, principal at BCJ. “Rather than designing the very raw open, adaptable, flexible environment of [some of] the rapidly-growing tech companies [in the San Francisco Bay Area], so an interesting design challenge was how to create a really refined and detailed aesthetic for the organization,” Mottola said.

KFF’s facilities consist of two multifunctional rooms — the KFF Conference Center, which can accommodate up to 160 guests, and the KFF Board Room, both of which feature advanced acoustics and audio-visual equipment — where the organization hosts a variety of internal workshops and presentations. One of the main challenges that the building, a former industrial warehouse, presented the design team with was how to create an open, collaborative space for KFF while also allowing its employees to do heads-down, focused work, according to Mottola. 

“Unlike with a lot of the startup companies that we’ve worked within the past, KFF already had a pretty established work culture, team structure and [an idea of] what they were lacking in their Menlo Park location,” Mottola said. “[BCJ] had to figure out how to give all this access to light and views; we had a deep floor plan that was designed in a warehouse originally…the key design move was the development of clusters of smaller, efficient private offices…that was a building block of the design concept…the nature of KFF’s work is almost an academic kind of work environment, with focused work but still with the need to collaborate with team members.”

Image courtesy of CRI

The office design features clusters of glass-enclosed private spaces strategically placed to feel private and inward-focused when seated at a desk, but transparent and open to daylight and surrounding views when standing. The space also incorporates existing steel sash windows and exposed raw concrete columns with modern elements. 

A design focus with office headquarters was how to increase collaboration and cohesion between KFF’s staff members through programmatic design moves, though the broader driving concept was to create a focal point further connecting KFF with the surrounding community. Upon entering the lobby, guests are greeted by an active, illustrative LED wall that features a healthcare history timeline and the latest health news headlines, a design feature that BCJ developed in collaboration with KFF. 

The hope was that new synergies created programmatically within the space would be felt throughout the wider Bay Area community, as well, and the space is available for use by other non-profits, public agencies and select private-sector organizations. “One of the goals moving here from Menlo Park was to democratize space,” Brodie said. “We wanted to be a part of the community and give back by providing a space where non-profits could both use the conference space, and also hold the larger conversations around health and policy out here in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” she added. 

The hope was that the prominent location of the headquarters — adjacent to the Embarcadero along the waterfront, directly across from Oracle Park and less than two blocks from the Civic Center and Powell Street BART Stations — would allow KFF to successfully integrate into the existing business community and ecosystem of the Bay Area, according to Helene Gregoire, associate at BCJ. “It was about finding the balance of being an established company but also being approachable, inviting and warm,” Gregoire said. “Its presence right on the water — within San Francisco and in the public realm and public eye — speaks to the importance of businesses and organizations in the city very much having an urban presence.”

In a growing city and region that is increasingly dominated by players in the technology sector, all parties involved in the collaborative design process — KFF, BCJ and CRI, among others — looked to bring something new to the table. “KFF is unique in that they’re a very established organization in comparison to a lot of the tech offices or build-outs in the Bay Area, [where] it’s kind of learn-as-you-go and everything is done so quickly — [even though] a lot of times clients and owners don’t really know what their projected growth is,” Gregoire added. 

While HFF hoped that its new headquarters would allow it to continue to attract and retain the region’s best new talent while staying true to its long history, at the forefront of everyone’s mind was how the policy organization could more effectively contribute to the larger national conversation around increasingly delicate issues. “Our number one focus has always been on access and financing of low-income and disadvantaged populations and to keep the focus of people in policy and political debates when we’re debating important things like access to health insurance coverage, cost of healthcare,” Brodie said. “In a place like the Bay Area, where you’re seeing so much of this on a day-to-day level when you walk around on the street — with UCSF, Dignity Health and other massive impressive research and medical institutions, tech companies and healthcare companies nearby — you also still have very vulnerable populations.”

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