Despite being a fairly young architecture firm, nine-year-old WRNS Studio has a portfolio rivaling some of the best in the business. The 60-person firm, founded by architect Bryan Shiles and three partners based in San Francisco, wrapped up a new regional campus for Adobe Systems in Lehi, Utah, in 2012, and is now constructing a series of buildings for another tech giant, Intuit, in the Silicon Valley. Add to the mix other prestigious clients like the University of California and Stanford University—not to mention a mantel-full of awards from the AIA—and it’s evident that this burgeoning firm has nowhere to go but up.
Here, Shiles discusses the importance of teamwork, standing out from the competition, and why architects should really consider trading technology for crayons.
Interior Design: WRNS Studio is a fairly young firm, what do you do to stand out from the competition?
Bryan Shiles: We stay incredibly diverse for one thing, and we treat every project like it’s a unique situation. We also work very hard to create buildings that appeal to our clients and to place. If you look at our portfolio, every project is a little bit different.
ID: A sustainable approach to design seems to be a common thread with all of your projects. Why?
BS: I think in some ways our clients demand it, but in other ways it’s because we believe in it so much. Here in California, I think that we’re learning from each other and it’s now just part of the ethos and is in the water. Almost all we do in the Silicon Valley nowadays is certified LEED Platinum and it’s come to be expected, which I think is a very good thing.
ID: One of your firm’s largest projects as of late was Adobe Systems. How was it designing for a company whose business is based on creativity?
BS: When I was younger, I remember [architect] Peter Eisenman said to me, “You can’t do good architecture without great clients,” and Adobe was a great client. It was empowering, they wanted something terrific and they challenged us to think outside the box and do something out of the ordinary. They were with us every step of the way.
ID: What aspect of design do you enjoy the most?
BS: I enjoy the bookends of design. I like the very beginning of a project, when you’re starting to tell the story of a place and you’re talking with your client and hopefully you’re both getting excited about the possibilities. It’s then that the first marks and the first models start to gain traction and build the rhetoric of the project. I find that moment very exciting. I also enjoy when a project is completely framed and you can start to see the beginnings of what you did right and what you did wrong.
ID: What technological advancements in design are you most excited about using in your own work?
BS: Crayons. It’s funny, I teach at Stanford University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering , so I’m around technology all the time and I’m around young people who are incredibly enthused about technology, as am I. However I think there’s a time and place for technology—especially in our design process—which is why I say crayons, because I think there’s a bit of a seduction about technology these days and that has caused some loss in authenticity and how we represent what’s going on in our designs at any particular moment. So what I’ve been reeling about a lot these days in my studio and to my students is to be technologically able and curious, but also critical about technology and choose the right medium at the right moment in your design process.
ID: You founded WRNS Studio with three other principals. What are some of the benefits of this teamlike work environment?
BS: We all have a shared core passion, but we’re also really good at slightly different things, giving us good overlapping and complementary skills. So we’re not siloed, meaning I’m not responsible for revenue or for getting projects, and my partners aren’t responsible for theirs. We do things together and create designs together, almost always collaborating across partner lines. The prime benefit is shared responsibility and some very good collaboration.
ID: I understand that your firm does some pro-bono work. What is your approach like for these projects?
BS: We approach them the same as we would any other project. What really drives the studio is an intellectual curiosity about place making. For example, in San Francisco we worked on a 2,000-square-foot community clubhouse and about 20 blocks away we’re constructing a 250,000-square-foot building for the University of California. These two projects seemingly couldn’t be more different, but our approach to design was almost exactly the same because the park had a particular set of characteristics and the community members involved had their own passion about the park, because it’s in their neighborhood, and [WRNS] had our own curation of place. So the approach was almost exactly the same as the one for UC.
ID: What helps you feel the most creative in your work?
BS: A client that pushes me, which circles back to Adobe. They put almost no limits on the project. Of course there was a budget and a schedule, but in terms of taking their needs and interpreting them into something exciting and creative, it was one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had as an architect.
ID: What is your vision for WRNS Studio going forward?
BS: I’ve always been a real “see the ball, hit the ball” kind of person and curious about the next thing. Our studio is lucky, since we’re doing incredible projects in the valley and for universities, and we’re getting better and better projects. So far each project has challenged us, so there’s a trajectory that’s going on in the studio and I want to continue that trajectory and see where it takes us. Now, having said that, I do have some dreams that center around working in other regions. We have been almost exclusively in the West and it would be a dream to work in other fantastic cities.
ID: Is there a current project you’re working on that you’re most excited about?
BS: We’re doing a group of buildings for Intuit right now and it’s really interesting because Silicon Valley is changing. The old pattern of what suburban development should look like is being rethought and the valley is densifying and transportation is shaping how the valley is being built out, and we’re right in the middle of the conversation. The project we’re doing with Intuit is going to be a really exciting new kind of product for the valley.
The other project we’re doing is a building for UC Berkley where several university departments are coming together into one building. We’re using a lot of what we learned in the workplace environment for clients like Adobe and Intuit, and are finding that these two worlds are starting to merge. Universities are looking to learn what’s happening in a high-tech, collaborative work-place environment and how those sorts of spaces can apply to a university setting.