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Silicon Valley's Blandest Architecture Finally Gets a Reboot

Lamar Anderson | April 14, 2017 | Story News and Features National

Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories about the future of the metropolis that our sister magazine, San Francisco, is publishing over the next month as part of the April 2017 Urban Design Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Silicon Valley, known for having no particular architectural identity, does have a vernacular of sorts: the concrete tilt-up. One of the easiest buildings to erect as tech hardware companies grew in the pre-Internet era, the tilt-up takes its name from its speedy mode of construction: Concrete building frames are poured onsite and “tilted up” by crane. “Most of them were built in the ’80s and early ’90s, and that property is prime right now for a facelift,” says Kevin Bates, president and owner of Sharp Development Company. Even today, as giants like Apple and Google commission architectural showpieces from the Norman Fosters and Bjarke Ingelses of the world, those trophies will take their place in a landscape still dominated by tilt-ups—low-slung, timeworn, unsexy.

But now a handful of architects and speculative developers are seeing the lowly tilt-up with fresh eyes. From Mountain View to Sunnyvale to San Jose, they’ve undertaken inspired renovations that are turning tilt-ups into trophies in their own right. Think light-filled, energy-efficient oases tricked out with patios and green walls: places where today’s techies actually want to come to work. So how does a forgettable suburban box transform into an architectural breath of fresh air? Drawing on five standout renovations by local developers and architects, we break the process down into five surefire, if not exactly simple, steps.

How to Overhaul a Tilt-Up in Five Steps

1. Excavate
In their natural state, tilt-ups are badly insulated boxes made slightly more habitable with drop ceilings and office partitions. The low window counts and mazes of interior spaces pretty much guarantee a dark interior. When architects Noll & Tam got into the two-story tilt-up they renovated for semiconductor company Xilinx in San Jose last year, “the inside was just awful,” recalls principal Chris Noll. “It went on for hundreds of feet, this sea of high cubicles and very low lighting. It felt like this awful cave system you couldn’t find your way around.” Noll & Tam stripped out all the partitions and drop ceilings to start from zero. Seth Orgain, an architect at Gensler’s Oakland office, is a fan of the raw tilt-up. “Once you peel off the superfluous pieces, you have a simple, honest warehouse-type building,” he says

2. Perforate
Built as a racquetball court in the early ’70s, 415 North Mathilda Avenue in Sunnyvale had almost no glass in it when Sharp Development’s Kevin Bates began an overhaul with the help of Integral Group engineers and Hillhouse Construction. The trio—who are basically the Property Brothers of tilt-ups—punched 86 windows in the structure. “It’s a ridiculously large number of windows, says architect Tim Barnes, of Studio G Architects. To add that much glass without compromising the building’s structural integrity, the team ran a new shear wall through the interior and covered it with a green wall, among other measures. Skylights bring light down into a central atrium. Before the building was even completed in 2015, the payments company Clover snapped up the lease.

3. Insulate
Concrete walls are really inefficient if they’re not insulated. But add a layer of insulation to the exterior and suddenly the thermal mass of the concrete is working with you, not against you—trapping cool air on a hot day and warm air on a cold day. That’s the strategy architects AP+I Design used when they renovated their own office in Mountain View in 2015, with the help of Bates and his team of consultants. They insulated the facade with a layer of foam composite. “From the exterior, you don’t even know it’s concrete,” says principal Carol Sandman. And the facelift paid off, even before the windows went in. “When we were doing construction and there were just window openings and no air-conditioning, it was one of those 100-degree days,” Sandman recalls. “After I went about 10 feet in, the building was very cool.”

4. Automate
Part of Bates’s formula for tilt-up overhauls is achieving net zero energy—that is, making the project capable of producing enough solar energy to offset the cost of what it consumes. To pull it off, reducing overall energy use is key. That’s where building management software comes in. At 380 North Pastoria Avenue in Sunnyvale, a speculative office renovation completed last fall with WRNS Studio, the software controls the windows, lights, and air-conditioning to favor daylight and natural ventilation as much as possible. The level of automation takes tenants some getting used to. “When our algorithm tells them to, the windows open, the skylights open, the fans go on,” Bates explains. “All these things are going on, and nobody in the building’s doing anything.”

5. Iterate
Most revamped tilt-ups still look like tilt-ups—just with nicer facades. But Gensler is pushing the tilt-up into new territory in a speculative office renovation about to start construction in North San Jose. Dubbed Assembly at North First, the project will transform the old LAM Research campus into an idyllic cluster of shedlike structures that recall Santa Clara Valley’s agrarian roots. The design preserves the original concrete buildings but extends them with a thin band of new wood-and-steel construction that introduces sawtooth roofs and clerestory windows. “When you combine some of the vernacular building forms with the industrial DNA of these buildings,” Orgain says, “you get a really interesting mix of big-volume spaces with light that comes in in ways that we just don’t get enough of in office spaces.”

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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