Designing a ‘Living Office’: Q&A with the team behind Weber Thompson’s new headquarters

In December 2020, Weber Thompson moved into the second floor of the deep-green Watershed commercial office building. The new office fits snugly within the building’s green agenda: Materials are LBC Red List-compliant or reclaimed from the firm’s previous office, windows are operable, and special attention was given to lowering energy consumption, which will be displayed in real-time on a dashboard in the lobby. Find out more about the process of designing this highly-sustainable tenant improvement, and what it means for the future of the firm’s Workplace Design Studio in this Q & A with the design team. 

The building has six office floors.

Weber Thompson’s new office is located on the second floor of Watershed.

Q: Why was Watershed chosen as Weber Thompson’s new home?

Kristen Scott: Fourteen years ago, we designed the Terry Thomas as a living laboratory to demonstrate to our clients how practical and cost effective sustainable design principles can be.  The excitement it generated changed the direction of our practice—both externally and internally.  Watershed, as a Living Building Pilot project offered us a chance to hone our design skills again and reinforce our commitment to constant evolution towards a more sustainable future.

Moving to Fremont also allowed us to be part of an established neighborhood with a lively mix of retail, commercial, cultural, and residential uses.

Mark Dorsey: Put simply, it allows us to lead by example!

Q: The Weber Thompson office was designed and built entirely during the last three quarters of 2020. How did the pandemic affect the design of the space?

Kristen: While short-term considerations for social distancing and health and wellness factored into our design, our approach wasn’t fundamentally altered due to the pandemic. The space is designed to have a lifespan of 20 years. We felt a momentary response would have been shortsighted. We also shifted to bench-style workstations which allowed us to carve out more room for breakout areas for collaboration. This trend was already on the horizon, but it will support the needs of a flexible workforce in the next few years. Additionally, Watershed’s design embodies design goals that support health and wellness. These align well with the current focus on safe workplaces, for example operable windows, connections to the outdoors, lots of mechanical ventilation, healthy materials and indoor air quality, etc.

Mark Dorsey: I do think there was extra weight given to the thoughtful selection of non-porous finishes, location of appliances for easier cleaning, and specification of touchless fixtures to minimize surfaces where viruses can gather. I think we were already heading down this path, but the pandemic brought this into sharper focus.

Q: How has designing and completing this project in 2020 impacted your approach to other office tenant improvement projects?

Cody Lodi: If anything, designing our new workplace during a time when the underlying idea of work is being challenged emphasized the need for flexibility and adaptability. We have ideas about how we might work as a firm today and tomorrow, but they will always evolve and change over time, as will most client’s needs. It was important to think of creating a framework of spaces in which future needs can be accommodated without a total redesign.

Q: Because Watershed is a Living Building Pilot Project, there were strict guidelines for the tenant improvement including restrictions on materials that could specified. Can you talk about some of the challenges and lessons learned from this process?

Myer Harrell: The pace of the TI made the LBC Red List vetting process more challenging. Oftentimes we only had days (as opposed to weeks or months on a core and shell building) to gather detailed product ingredient lists and labels, discuss with manufacturers, and make decisions based on limited information; otherwise we’d have slowed down the submittal and procurement process. We learned how important it is to have all products for the project identified early, and how helpful it is to select products with Declare labels and Healthy Product Declarations. We had many fruitful conversations with manufacturers who were interested in better product labeling and transparency, and wanted to know what designers and specifiers are looking for.

Cody: Be strategic about selecting vendors and contractors. You want team players that understand the intent of the Living Building Challenge. We had a great working relationship with our contractor, Schuchart, and they were critical in helping us adhere to the schedule.

Mark: As my knowledge of the healthier materials movement evolves, I find that with each project we chip away at barriers and unlock new tools to evaluate materials and make informed consumer choices empowering us to reject toxic ingredients. I see the added benefit of this knowledge can permeate through our practice beyond Living Building pilot projects. My favorite part is that our new office space demonstrates these choices where we can share real world knowledge with clients and the community.

Q: Why do you think the investment in this new space was worth making?

Kristen: As a firm, our core values revolve around designing for the long term, improving environments at all scales from how an individual lives in an apartment, to how a building can make a lasting positive contribution to a community.  Investing in Watershed allowed us to continue this commitment and hopefully inspire our clients to do the same.

Q: Looking ahead, how do you think the space will be used in the next year, and beyond? 

Kristen: I think we’ll see a return to the office; architects are a collaborative group and much of our work is best done in person. We constantly learn from each other and from seeing the work done on projects besides our own individual ones. While working from home has increased some kinds of productivity, it has made it much more difficult to share knowledge informally and mentor new skills with others. I think there will be more flexibility about working at home for particular days or tasks, but I do expect that once we are past the pandemic, we’ll be back in the office together on the whole.

Q: This is the second office that Weber Thompson has designed for itself within a Weber Thompson-designed core and shell building. How has working as both client and designer impacted the firm’s work for other clients?

Myer: Through the design and build-out as a tenant of a Living Building, we better understand what owners/landlords are asking of their future tenants and what benefits their tenants will get from healthier, more efficient space – both aspects that impact lease-up and the business case for building deep green.

Kristen: Yes, and it also helps us guide the landlords about what issues to address in their leases.

Cody: I would also add that owning the design and budgeting process gives you an appreciation for the need to focus on the big impactful ideas and find clever ways to keep the rest of the scope and budget in line.

The materials specified are LBC Red List-free and contribute to healthier indoor air quality.

Q: How will working in Watershed be different than working at The Terry Thomas?

Myer: We’ve gone from fully natural ventilation & cooling to mechanical ventilation, which means we’ll have more thermal control of our space, while still being very energy efficient (and we’ll have access to operable windows for a connection to the outdoors). The real-time dashboard in our lobby will help us track our energy and water usage and participate in the Seattle Living Building Pilot as a tenant! The bioswales treating runoff from the Aurora bridge are right outside our windows – this visual connection tells is a great story, and connects us to the local ecology and the seasons.

Cody: A focus for me was to create a space in which we can experiment and build things. At The Terry Thomas we would take over a corner of the garage to construct installations for the Seattle Design Festival or use the courtyard to mock up detail elements. At Watershed we eliminated our physical IT infrastructure and moved to a cloud based computing model, which gave us more space for a new fabrication lab and VR enabled focus room.  It’s a modest start, but this will give us a dedicated space to test out new ideas and to create models and mock ups to better understand the physical relationships of our design work.

Q: When in-person tours are possible, what is the feature of the project you will be most excited to tell tour-goers about?

Myer:  I like pointing out the salvaged materials from the Terry Thomas that are a reminder of our journey as a firm. The entry signage is made from a reclaimed reception desk, wood ceiling panels from our previous conference room acoustic treatments, and a “Pearl Jam” wall art piece from the Terry Thomas reception area has found a new “gallery wall” in our kitchen/break room.

Kristen: I love showing people how the water is captured from the roof and the sculptural rain leaders and overflow tying into the bioswales. Also the bee hives on the roof always create a lot of excitement!

Bernadette Kelly: In addition to pointing out the salvaged materials (I LOVE that we kept the Pearl Jam wall and the blackened steel panel from our TT reception desk), I enjoy sharing lessons learned on all the materials and furniture that we used that are LBC Red List-Free or LBC compliant. Especially the pieces that we specified even though it was not required. The B/W detail photographs of Watershed are cool as well!

Cody: I am partial to our dark and mysterious Fab Lab on the ground floor (think of the Bat Cave meets maker space), but I also love seeing the undulating felt baffles above the open office space. Not only do they quiet our space and hide the systems in the ceiling, they look amazing from the street below and reference the shape and movement of water.

Mark: Don’t forget the amazing toilets flushed with captured rainwater!

Q: What are you working on now?

Kristen:  We have several exciting mass timber and office projects in the works including 3800 Latona, a lab-ready mass timber building pursuing LEED Gold, Living Stone, a mass timber office building ready to start construction in the fall and another Living Building Pilot project in the wings that we’ll be able to talk about soon!

Thank you to the following Workplace Design Studio members for sharing their insights:

  • Kristen Scott, Senior Principal & WT’s Workplace Design Studio lead
  • Myer Harrell, Principal & the firm’s Director of Sustainability
  • Cody Lodi, Design Principal in the Workplace Design Studio
  • Bernadette Kelly, Interior Design Principal
  • Mark Dorsey, Project Architect & Living Building Challenge ambassador

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