While arrangements of striking Japanese samurai armor might not be the typical idea of a corporate welcome mat, such adornments are not unfamiliar to the employees of Babcock & Brown in San Francisco, where a full suit of battle regalia “watches over” each of the office’s breakout areas.
As an avid collector of unique Japanese and Native American artifacts, Jim Babcock, co-founder of the international financial firm, had a specific goal in mind when the firm contracted San Francisco-based SmithGroup to design a new 155,000-sq.-ft., four-floor office space in the Presidio building: to harmoniously integrate his ancient relics with the modern breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge. He also wanted the space to be defined by a neutral palette with featured modern materials and elements, which would both represent the firm’s industries—rail, air, wind, and infrastructure—and portray an unexpected and interesting point of view.
SmithGroup drew inspiration from the building’s inherent “exposed” layout to create a contemporary Zen atmosphere. An existing raised-floor system, which houses the mechanical and electrical facets, and 26-ft.-high gabled ceilings on the top three floors allowed the designers flexibility to incorporate hanging elements with punched openings, such as the two-story, descending steel and glass staircase across from the reception area. The space, which features a suspended ceiling against a large textured metallic wall, creates uncanny visual intrigue as light interplays against the reflective surface. The custom-designed wave ceiling panels, which also hang over the cubicle areas, serve to animate the space and provide acoustical efficiency and further pull the indirect light into the core spaces below.
“Neutral hues and modern materials became the backdrop for Babcock’s personal collection of Japanese and Native American artifacts and small-scaled airplanes, windmills, trains, and other objects proudly displayed in their respective departments,” SmithGroup principal designer Matt Smialek remarks. “The illumination of rolling ceilings, floating clouds, and textured surface materials create an energetic space that houses this colorful staff.”
The interplay of light was another key to incorporating the surrounding environment, which according to Smialek, played a vital role in the overall design. The eight conference areas and “war room,” as well as private offices along the building’s perimeter, feature full-length glass fronts to allow natural lighting to enter the office core. “Situated in one of the most picturesque and historic neighborhoods of San Francisco, it was important to use every opportunity to highlight the surrounding area…The continuous glass wall systems not only provide daylight, but also inspire a visual conversation with plentiful scenery,” says Smialek.
The glass inclusions also contribute to the eco-friendly nature of the overall space. While LEED certification was not a definitive goal, says Smialek, sustainable design was a key concern for Babcock and remained an important theme throughout the designing process. Vetrazzo credenza tops and Alkemi countertops, as well as carpet and other rubber flooring products, all contain recycled content, while motion-controlled lighting installments and low-VOC paints were also utilized. Babcock & Brown also incorporated a recycling program and bike storage area to further reduce its carbon footprint.
“Given the complexity of the design challenges and an aggressive schedule, SmithGroup was forced to be as proficient as it was creative. The results speak to our business philosophy and image, as well as our desire to be environmentally friendly. The impressive design embodies our values in workplace by maximizing views, transparency, and daylight, while creating an inspirational working environment,” expresses Ruthann Cambra, operations manager of Babcock & Brown.
Although Babcock’s original vision presented some obstacles for the SmithGroup design team, the project successfully juxtaposes an Eastern old world vibe with a forward-thinking Western design philosophy focused on the future.