By Meghan Hall
Portland-based SERA Architects first announced its expansion into the Bay Area in 2015, and has since been working to grow its name and presence throughout the region. Over the years, SERA has worked with numerous Silicon Valley clients, including LinkedIn. Now, the firm has committed to a new, long-term home in a blossoming part of Oakland, inspired by its employees’ health and well-being.
“We decided to expand and find a more permanent home,” explained SERA Principal David Johnson. “We did a search and decided that Oakland was the right cultural fit. Then we found this existing building on the fringe of downtown in a neighborhood in transition that fit our culture because we have been a part of the change and transition of Portland.”
SERA was established in Portland in 1968, and the interior design and urban architecture and planning firm is 100 percent employee-owned, meaning that its new location on 12th Street would be heavily influenced by the firm’s employees, their values, and their combined mission as a firm.
“The practice that we have really focuses on the intersection of climate, health and equity, and we are also an ESOP,” said Johnson. “The employees are owners, so they get to have a say more so than some other structures. The employees very much wanted to be part of the community.”
SERA’s search for a new home spanned the Bay Area, but other locations like San Francisco, said Johnson, felt too corporate and disconnected from their clients. Or, the neighborhoods were already established and there was little opportunity to contribute to the evolving nature of the location. Upon settling on its new Oakland home, SERA has leased the third floor of its building for ten years, with two five-year extensions. The goal is to stay put long-term.
“The value for us as urban designers and planners is to be a part of the place,” added Johnson. “[The location] is interesting and relevant to our practice. We want to be part of the change.”
Looking for an existing building that SERA could infuse new light into was important, as many of the firm’s projects for clients include both adaptive reuse and efforts to increase sustainability. Additionally, said Johnson, the historic building had good bones with high ceilings, arched windows and brick.
“We looked for an existing building that we can bring back to life,” said Johnson. “We try to bring circular economic principals into our work, and one of those principals is to build less.”
The design of the space features custom and locally-made window shutters, which employees can individually adjust to their liking, environmentally friendly hard surface wood flooring and exposed brick walls and beams. The furniture in the office’s main lobby was sourced from a law office in San Francisco in an effort to cut down on waste, and modern fans cool the office but are also low energy and stylist. A wooden canopy and two carpets—one featuring Portland and one featuring graffiti-like designs—act as accents within the space.
SERA also invested in building systems and technologies that would make working within the office safer and more efficient. Prior to moving in, stated Johnson, parts of the office did not have a working ventilation system and as a result, SERA decided to install an indoor air quality system—the first of its kind to meet the RESET standard on the West Coast. Sensors inside and outside the building gather data on air quality, and adjusts ventilation systems to recirculate indoor air or bring in filtered, outdoor air. SERA is applying for LEED Platinum and FitWel certifications for its office, as well.
“The goal for all of us in the space was to create [an office] for our partners that would be as healthy as it could be,” said Johnson.
On a less-design oriented note—but one pivotal to employee happiness—SERA has been utilizing the JUST program, which helps organizations create and implement policies that improve social justice and employee engagement within the workplace. SERA’s most recent social justice label highlights the need for increased diversity, and as such the firm has been reaching out to more universities in an effort to diversify application pools and staff and employees have been volunteering as part of the Architects in Schools and ACE mentorship programs.
“We very transparent with our employees and with the world as to how we’re doing according to the JUST system,” said Johnson. “Being an ESOP allows more opportunities for equity for every employee that we have, and that is key.”