Menlo Park has become a magnet for Silicon Valley startups and the investors who fund them. A venture capitalist who wanted to locate his headquarters in the midst of the action invited homebuilder Living Homes to create a prefabricated office in a residential neighborhood. The site had no staging area for conventional construction, and the client needed to win the approval of homeowners to secure a conditional use permit. Prefabrication promised to be a cleaner, more efficient way of working. Ray Kappe, who has collaborated with Living Homes from the time Steve Glenn founded that company, did some conceptual sketches, but the client commissioned a final design from Paul Murdoch Architects.
Murdoch has won attention for educational buildings, libraries, and, most recently, the memorial for United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, the fourth plane to be hijacked on 9/11. Murdoch was project architect on the client’s house in northern California. Over the years, they stayed in touch, and Murdoch tweaked and renovated his house.
From the street, it might easily be taken for a house: a two-story glass facade screened by a cedar grille. Projecting canopies and large trees shade expansive windows and the rear yard and roof are covered with plantings. A ramp leads down to automated parking for fifty cars, and the steel-framed modular structure rises from this concrete podium. To reduce the weight of the frame and stay within the height limit, the structure is supported at the perimeter and the core. The rectilinear block is composed of 12-foot modules, ten on the first floor and eight on the second.
The project demonstrates the virtues and limitations of prefabrication. In Menlo Park, it was a site-dictated expedient that may have saved six months (construction extended over two and a half years) but provided few cost savings. The language is similar to that of Living Homes, but the structure had to be adapted to the capabilities of the supplier. Murdoch employed one company to fabricate stripped-down steel modules, and a framing contractor to do the joists and infill. The client asked for seamless architecture with refined detailing rather than a bare bones building in which the modular construction was clearly expressed.
The office is an elegant addition to the neighborhood, in its layered facades, woodsiness, and abundance of greenery. It opens up to the garden, and has qualified for a Silver LEED rating for its active and passive energy conservation strategies. The 12,500 square feet of offices are naturally ventilated, and partitions can easily be reconfigured to provide more or less room for the client’s startup enterprise. Its residential scale makes it feel like a home away from home, which is comforting for people who may spend more time there than they do in their own nests. Bare concrete floors and walls of glass reflect sound, but much of this is absorbed through the perforated metal ceiling by vertical fir baffles (which align with the cedar trellis outside) and a thick layer of insulation.
As Murdoch observed, “There’s inherent tension between the high-stakes, risk-taking venture and the desire for a casual, collaborative environment, as there is between the partners in their private offices and the younger employees who reject the idea of hierarchy.” He tried to resolve this issue in his use of bold purple glass in the lobbies, which signals an adventurous spirit, and a consistent use of wood veneer, white-board, LED lighting, and transparency throughout the building. The offices are welcoming and refined, flexible and precise, and they have fulfilled the client’s high expectations.