Economy of means
Within tight limits—both financial and architectural—Clive Wilkinson Architects built a dynamic, environmentally responsible work community in a Los Angeles warehouse
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
What makes warehouses such great office spaces? Just ask Clive Wilkinson, president of his namesake architecture firm. "Due to their size and open plan, warehouses inherently lend themselves to office conversions. That's especially true in Southern California, where the climate is conducive to energy efficiency," Wilkinson says, citing a 47,000-square-foot warehouse project he recently completed in Los Angeles.
The first specification was that Wilkinson convey the client's interest in alternative, sustainable strategies. The architect therefore installed numerous 4-by-8-foot skylights to take advantage of L.A.'s long daylight hours—and reduce electric bills considerably. He also air-conditioned work spaces only, as opposed to the entire 30-foot-high volume. Together, these moves shaved almost 50 percent off the MEP budget.
The budget for the project as a whole was a modest $40 per square foot. Undaunted, Wilkinson turned to the shipping container, which he has helped make an office-design staple, composing a "cityscape" around a "main street." Flanking this 300-foot-long spine, he sited 39 steel containers: private offices for the client's 240 employees, plus multiple meeting rooms. Each container cost $3,400 to fabricate, an economical yet inventive solution.
Because the containers were a potentially claustrophobia-inducing 8 feet wide, Wilkinson cut 8-foot-square apertures in the sides facing the main street, then built out plywood forms resembling bay windows. He painted the steel boxes' exteriors in different colors to distinguish individual work spaces from meeting rooms and service areas. Inside, he painted the steel in one of a dozen shades of blue, the idea being for the color modulations to appear across long views through the space. "Like looking at the ocean or sky," he says.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Umbrellas, installed in coastal Japan and Southern California in 1991, partially inspired the containers' canopies. Wilkinson suspended sheets of white canvas from the support grid of the warehouse roof and anchored them to the containers' upper corners. "The tents can create 'neighborhoods,' distribute air, diffuse light, and dampen noise," he explains. Simultaneously, the canvas served to conceal most of the columns funneling air, power, and sprinkler feeds down from the warehouse roof.
Besides using the containers individually, Wilkinson assembled them into what he calls a six-pack: two three-container stacks placed next to each other and painted orange inside and out. At one corner of the resulting mega-container is an L-shape pool of water filled with river rocks. "The sound of water brings nature inside," the architect says. To prevent the water from spilling onto the warehouse's concrete floor, he built a frame of galvanized steel. Then he added steel "stepping stones," enabling staff to cross the pool and enter the CEO's office on the six-pack's ground level.
The six-pack also houses IT support and meeting rooms. Wilkinson furnished the latter with pine tables from the company's previous digs as well as new white beanbag chairs. "There's nothing fancy anywhere," he says. Even the CEO's office, with its plywood cabinetry, was kept nearly as basic as staff containers.
To connect the six-pack to a neighboring structure in unfinished Douglas fir, Wilkinson built a bridge between the respective top levels. Inside the Douglas fir structure, he installed another meeting room, an AV suite, and a recording studio. "Shipping containers weren't appropriate for the spatial and acoustical needs of a sound studio," he explains.
Attention to utility and economy didn't mean, however, that Wilkinson skimped on wit. To capture the company's global outlook, he modeled the top of the reception desk on Buckminster Fuller's revolutionary Dymaxion Map, a depiction of the world's continents as seen from the north pole. Fabrication was quite a feat. First, he cut a plywood sheet in the shape of the Dymaxion Map's icosahedron, a polyhedron with 20 triangular faces. Then, he says, he took an "enormous high-resolution photograph of the earth, shot from outer space" and fiberglass-laminated it to the plywood. The final step involved coating this 3.4-gigabyte image with surfboard resin, a favorite of Clive Wilkinson Architects—not to mention Southern California as a whole.