Photographs courtesy of Jasper Sanidad
By Jacob Bourne
When NicholsBooth Architects’ CEO, Gary Nichols, began envisioning a new home for his firm years ago, he knew that the banality of the office space at Howard and Main Street just wasn’t befitting his creative trade. After discovering an available, cost-effective space at 417 Montgomery Street, he just knew it was the right move and decided it would become much more than an ordinary office.
“One wouldn’t have known we were a design firm,” he had said of the previous location. The firm got started in 1994 and has grown dramatically serving local, national and international clients. The San Francisco Business Times’ Book of Lists rated NicholsBooth as the thirteenth largest Bay Area design firm in 2014.
Today the architectural team is well settled in the new digs a few blocks west of the Embarcadero’s Ferry Building. However, for visitors coming for the first time, the NicholsBooth office provides a memorable experience.
A feature that sets the space apart is that upon entry, the setting clearly communicates openness and flexibility versus rigid structure. Past the fuchsia elevator lobby, guests are welcomed naturally by a graphic wall, a “living area” equipped with sofas and then the customary receptionist area, visibly helpful but not overwhelming being situated off to the side.
“Our whole office is open — we can all see each other,” said Nichols. “Our real inspiration was to create a space that could be a showroom for our firm. We really watched and listened to our tech clients.”
Open as well as egalitarian, the whole team works in the same space not separated by walls or dividers. On any given day, staff may all have their heads down in a collective focus or there may be lively, interactive dialogue. An onlooker, however, would never be able to tell who’s in charge and who’s the new hire. On days with more vocal activity, a team member needing quiet can either negotiate with coworkers or escape to a more peaceful nook or private room in the office, though it’s often unnecessary as waffle-deck ceilings were added to absorb noise. As a hallmark to the firm’s flexibility, staff members are free to choose their own work schedule or work remotely. There’s even a dedicated mother’s room for privacy and comfort.
“There’s no delineation between employees,” Nichols emphasized. “We collaborate a lot more now as there’s a fluid space that allows for more ad hoc meetings.”
Details of the office evoke an understanding that employee comfort translates into greater productivity. Workspaces have adjustable desks that can be used for sitting or standing while a U-shaped desk shape allows for individualized configurations. At NicholsBooth the kitchen isn’t hidden away, instead it functions as the heart of the office adjacent to the main work area to encourage socializing among coworkers. The usually prominent office accoutrements like printers and copiers are ready at-hand but shielded from view by a sculpted wall. The project, done by a fully in-house team, capitalized on existing fine arts skills of staff and friends. At certain angles the space seems much more art gallery than office. Many of the walls are imbued with bright colorful accents and one particular corridor with a remarkably polished floor is home to a collection of pieces by local artists. Clients are routinely invited to presentations in the conference room that’s interestingly entitled “Black” though the walls and ceilings are painted white, contrasting the gray background color scheme found elsewhere. For larger gatherings, a NanaWall retracts to provide more seating.
The office embodies the firm’s sense of place evidenced within the conference room’s main table, which houses relics of the old Bay Bridge under glass; a bench nearby contains pieces of the Golden Gate Bridge.