Gold Rush

Gold Rush

Facebook. Twitter. Hipstamatic. Farmville. Yelp.

You probably know these names because they appear as colorful apps on your iPhone. But while they’ve become iconic in the virtual world, the companies that created them are also developing major presences in the real one. They, like so many others, have recently opened impressive new tech offices that are transforming the Bay Area.

Spurred by the mobile computing revolution (the iBubble?), tech is hot. In fact it’s so hot that it’s singlehandedly driving the real estate recovery not just in Silicon Valley but also in San Francisco. And it’s producing some of the most innovative offices in the country: open, activity-based, and collaborative spaces with a start-up’s flair for edgy design and a clear directive to draw talent and attention with sophistication and amenities. And it’s working: these offices have gotten so much notice that they’re becoming a model for office design across the business spectrum.

“Everybody is trying to specialize in tech now,” said Studio O+A principal Primo Orpilla, whose firm is the most prolific of the tech designers, having built offices for Yelp, AOL, Facebook, Microsoft, Square, Ticketfly,, and others. He calls their work “spatial branding,” creating memorable environments that combine a spare aesthetic with slick, beautiful graphics that conjure the essence of each company. They focus more on communal, not individual areas. From breakout spaces to meeting pods to bocce ball courts, the culture of the group has trumped the individual.


Studio O+A is just the tip of the iceberg. From young avant-garde firms to architectural giants, it seems that all Bay Area designers are getting in the game, following the parade of real estate agents paving the way with creative office dollar signs in their eyes. Like Studio O+A, their work is more sophisticated than the gimmicks and generic office buildings that once dominated Silicon Valley culture.

As of last year, San Francisco architect Sarah Willmer was known for designing pristine houses in the Bay Area. But now she’s completed one of the best tech spaces around, the new South of Market (SoMa) offices for Atlassian, an Australian-based software developer that is working with many of the world’s largest companies. The studio is located inside a warehouse originally built as a printing press. The project includes exposed ducts, gigantic steel trusses and concrete offset with lots of glass and steel.

Employees work in open banks of desks, including the executives, and the most grand spaces are reserved for public interaction. Not only is there a gigantic bleacher-like auditorium space in the center, but there are over ten conference rooms as well as smaller group spaces and meeting spaces, from foam booths to glass cubes. Along one wall there is a bank of six conference rooms that can be seen from the center of the space (the center one cantilevers dramatically), almost as if you’re watching engineers perform on Hollywood Squares.

All this reveals the lengths to which tech companies will go to lure talent. They’re hiring the best architects, not just those who specialize in tech.

Willmer saw an opportunity to do more with tech, where clients are innovative by nature and there is, after all, lots of work. Another newcomer to tech is digital fabrication specialist IwamotoScott Architecture, which has completed dramatic offices for immersive and interactive media company Obscura Digital and are finishing another for Heavybit. Just take a look at Obscura’s tilting conference room walls, its polygal office enclosures, and its overlapping, fabricated steel-fin installation and you know this is not the normal office. Lundberg Design, known for slick restaurants and commercial spaces, recently completed new offices for Twitter and is working on more for the tech giant. Min | Day completed (pardon the pun) a jewel-like space for mobile gamemaker Pocket Gems. Envelope A+D has completed an office that looks like a cool San Francisco restaurant for Synthetic, which makes, among other mobile apps, Hipstamatic.


Yes, design is coming to a world that was once dominated by fluff and, well, engineers’ style. In San Francisco and even in Silicon Valley, architects are removing drop ceilings and corner offices and exploring large span structures, concrete, and steel. IwamotoScott’s Craig Scott calls it the vintage coffee-shop look, perhaps a sentimental throwback to industrial, not digital times. Atlassian associate Annelise Reynolds calls it “stripping away all the fluff,” maybe a trend started by simplicity-obsessed Apple? Gensler’s Randy Howder adds that still-developing startups have a natural affinity for spaces that aren’t completely finished.

While many tech offices are interior build-outs, firms—particularly the big guys— are working design into ground-up work and large-scale retrofits as well. You can’t mention tech architecture without including Apple’s spaceship-like Cupertino offices by Foster + Partners, which will wrap around several acres of central green space. Google’s “Googleplex,” made up of more than 50 buildings (many retrofits) in Mountainview, continues to grow, although it’s unclear who will design their major expansion that was once being laid out by Ingenhoven Architects. Gensler retrofitted 1.1 million square feet of former Sun Microsystems space in Menlo Park for Facebook, including a central thoroughfare outside, while  

Still among all this grown-up (or at least 20-something) sophistication there are remnants of the ping-pong and foosball culture that first gained attention and notoriety during the dot-com boom. These people know how to take breaks and have fun. Studio O+A’s 395 Page Mill incubator offices in Palo Alto are inset with a huge half-pipe-shaped seating area and bocce ball courts; Nichols Booth’s San Francisco offices for Zynga (makers of, among other apps, Words with Friends and Farmville) include game rooms, athletic courts, smoothie bars, and eating spaces themed on the word “Play.” Huntsman Architectural Group’s new offices for YouTube are equipped with a giant central slide. All these amenities don’t just draw talent, they keep the talent at work.

In San Francisco, the epicenter of tech space is the warehouse-rich South of Market, which is home to both established companies and start-ups; a hip area that makes the law and financial firms in the towers downtown seem irrelevant. But with once-suburban tech companies expanding to desirable urban markets to find and keep talent, they’re looking wherever they can for new space. Several, including Twitter and, have opened spaces in Mid-Market, an area that has until recently been a sketchy place for those down on their luck. Others are traveling even farther afield in this city that is perennially short on available real estate. In Silicon Valley, the epicenter, Palo Alto, is basically all bought up, so firms are moving into all corners of the Bay. Facebook’s move from Palo Alto to Menlo Park is a good example.

If developers can’t build for specific companies, they’ll buy warehouses and build spaces for a bunch of them. A number of these incubators are popular in both San Francisco and Silicon Valley, from 395 Page Mill in Palo Alto to the Hub, filled with 125 workstations in the San Francisco Chronicle Building in San Francisco. In Silicon Valley true start-ups also buy into “tech spec” suites, which are no-frills workspaces without adornment.

The building boom shows little sign of stopping. At Pocket Gems, the office grew from 35 people to 135 in one year. After completing their first space last year, Min | Day was immediately commissioned to build the next one. At Twitter, Lundberg was asked to build two more floors right after his first project opened. And Facebook moved into its new Menlo Park headquarters just three years after it had moved into space designed by Studio O+A in Palo Alto.

Which begs the question, will it all last? It all sounds familiar, but unlike the last tech wave, this one, said Sascha Wagner, principal at Huntsman Architectural Group (the firm is working with, among others Google, Youtube, Autodesk, and Dolby and start-ups like Weebly, Twitch TV, and 99 Designs), seems to be accompanied with less hysteria. Offices are growing fast, but they’re still being more conservative about how much square footage they buy. And firms like his are less likely to jump at just any tech work.

John Kilroy, president of Kilroy Realty, which owns the most tech property in the city, is confident that “while it will go up and down, it’s very clear that this is where mind-driven, entrepeneurial companies will remain concentrated.”

Once-derelict neighborhoods in San Francisco are turning into cool high-tech hubs, and bland office parks in Silicon Valley are becoming bastions of urbanity. And offices here, from finance companies to medical firms, are beginning to look more like tech offices, with open layouts and more communal spaces. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before your own office starts knocking down walls and installing a ping-pong table. Yes, the rules of the iPhone are ruling your life, including how and where you work.