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Architecture as Product

The first time I heard architecture referred to as “product” I was thrown back. We were meeting with our client, the developer of Station House (construction photo above). Various architectural design options we produced were referred to by our client as “products”. My natural impulse toward this classification was revulsion: How could our thoughtful, carefully crafted designs be demeaned by such a marketing term?

The classic Monty Python skit where the Architect presents a rather gruesome apartment building

Of course this position, to imagine a speculative housing development as something other than product, was somewhat naive. Architects are frequently substituting the economic reality of their projects with conceptual metaphors, drawings, formal studies, obsessions with parametrically designed building skins, etc. Speaking for myself, I have frequently passed over economics as simply the nitty-gritty, the uninteresting realities of getting stuff built. Whether or not the architect recognizes the nature of her design as product internally, the outward expression of architecture as product is seldom embraced.

Consider the above site drawing for the Station House project. We came up with concepts for the various buildings on the site, and sought to differentiate the architecture based upon metaphors such as Move, The Frame, The Engine, Stitch, etc. Each of these concepts encompassed both a visual language and a performance that we desired for the building. Along Wood Street, for example, we sought to make the building “stitch” into the surrounding neighborhood with raised porches and projections and proportions which more closely resembled the existing residential fabric.

These metaphors are useful for generating architectural form, but the reality of how our developer client saw the project was far different. I imagine the developer focused much more on the above site plan, which shows the units and the green spaces more matter-of-factly, and augmented this view with a spread sheet or pro forma. Our set of concepts had a purpose, but the underlying order of the project was not based on an architectural concept or a metaphorical “engine” It was based on an actual engine, an economic engine, which churns out housing – or products. Does that not make the architecture somewhat irrelevant?

What happens when the architect begins to see the built environment through the developers eyes and align her practice around producing products? This mode of practice stands in contrast to a service-based practice, where the architect responds to client needs and designs a building as one tailors a suit, fit to the exact need and size of the patron.

Nick and Diane giving a presentation to UC Berkeley graduate students

I recently posed this question at a real estate, design, and development seminar at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. I presented Baran Studio’s work on mini lot and infill housing in Oakland within the framework of this idea that the architecture we make is about taking a generalized product such as a 3 -bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom single family home, and adapting that product to different sites around the city. We looked at our earlier single unit developments and scaled up to look at our medium density housing infill projects.

Louise Street, 6 new units in West Oakland

One project we spent some time looking at is the Louise Street mini-lot development, six units set to come on the market this spring. The product adapts to the varying site conditions of front, middle, and back, as well as north vs. south exposure, open space, and privacy.

We moved on to a larger product, Gallot Lofts, which is under construction in the Jingletown neighborhood of Oakland. In this case, the standard double-loaded corridor is split to create a courtyard between the units. The product faces Chapman Avenue with large viewing and ventilation openings, and then turns a more reserved face toward the courtyard.

Gallot Lofts, a new 41-unit project under construction in Oakland

Gallot Lofts courtyard

Let there be no mistake: we are still architects providing a design service, and the traditional role of architect in relation to client and contractor is not changed. However, we do work with the builder closely, and the builder and developer are more of a single entity though they are separate companies. Developer, contractor, and architect are all working to produce the best product, one which will create a community that thrives and contributes to its surroundings. The product also has to make money for the developer and their investors, or else there wouldn’t be this sort of density happening to begin with.

The next step is to start proposing products which differ from the 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bathroom model. Markets will get saturated, and a successful product-based practice must continue to evolve and adapt to the changing market. Moving beyond housing, we have recently finished an innovative retail and office building near MacArthur Bart in Oakland called the MacArthur Annex. The container itself stands out as a “product” but the unique thing here is not so much the container as it is the size of the space: approximately 7 feet by 20 feet. These boxes contain any number of uses, from a florist to a graphic design studio to a record shop.

Mac Arthur Annex – office and retail space constrained to a container’s dimensions

A product-based architecture pracitce is about putting a unique product out on the market, then seeing what bites. The more risk the architect is willing to take, the greater our ability is to innovate. We do not design in a vacuum, but rather the opposite. Thinking of buildings as products forces us to listen to everything out there, looking critically at what is being offered for people to buy, where people are able to live, what projects are better at building community, and how the value of what we design is actually experienced. Product makers must be excellent listeners.

Special thanks to Chris Calott for inviting us to give the talk at UC Berkeley.

Also posted in Academic, Construction, Design, Observations

Supercool

Our 60th Street house is in the news today. Check out the write up on SF Gate here

Baran Studio Architecture Designs in the Wall Street Journal

Our designs for Station House and Westhaus 10 were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. The story is about Oakland and the rising cost of living through the lens of the city’s recent transformation. It also speaks to new assets as well as the old problems that continue to plague a number of areas that haven’t seen the benefits of the changes. You can check out the full article here.

Station House

 

Westhaus10

 

Station House Construction Update

The office took a tour of the Station House yesterday, and it’s very exciting to see a project of this scale coming together. Models of several of the units have opened, and the exteriors that contain the models are nearing completion. Because of the phased nature of the project, you can see the different stages of construction throughout the site, as though the buildings are emerging from the ground.

  

  

They are a reverse ruin of sort. The slabs are poured, and awaiting the frames. In other places, the frames are up, but have not received windows and doors. These look like hollowed out shells, the contrast of the openings against the exposed OSB have a highly graphic appearance. The next set of buildings has the initial layer of weatherproofing, along with doors and windows. These present more of a monolithic representation of the form. The few that are nearing completion have the intended expression on them, highlighting the intersecting volumes.

Stay tuned for more updates…

Johansson Projects Gallery: Cody Hoyt

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As lovers of both art and architecture, we are proud to announce that a Brooklyn-based ceramicist and close-friend of Baran Studio, Cody Hoyt is featured in Johansson Projects Gallery in Downtown Oakland. The opening is this Saturday October 22nd from 3 to 5 pm.  Cody will be showing with painter and drawer, Alexander Kori Girard who also happens to be the grandson of the late architect and textile designer, Alexander Girard.

To see more of Cody’s work, or learn more about the show, click on the links below:

http://johanssonprojects.com/portfolio/cody-hoyt-alexander-kori-girard/

http://codyhoyt.tumblr.com/

Inside the Office

A photosphere of the office interior. Lately we’ve been thinking about how technology can assist in conveying space. Views like this, experienced through a VR headset, are powerful tools that can help our clients understand the spaces we have designed in the past, and the spaces that are currently being designed. Check back for updates on implementation of next steps.

 

 

Steel Building

We have been assisting Import Tile in Berkeley with replacing a roof to one of their warehouses damaged by fire. It was quite a thrill to see the roof come up. We worked closely with a metal building company based in Missouri, as well as the installer, Park Avenue Customs.

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Steel being set with purlins going. Photo by Park Avenue Customs

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photo by Park Avenue Customs

Import Tile new roof under construction

Import Tile new roof under construction

A metal building, which has exacting requirements, and by its nature is essentially a fully prefabricated building, comes into interesting intersections with the site. The roof is grafted onto the existing concrete shell, adapting to the slight shifts in plan and the seismic bracing requirements necessitated by the structural engineer.

Graft of steel to concrete. Photo by Nick Sowers

Metal Building Interior

Metal Building Interior

 

A metal building provides an infinitely reconfigurable interior. The solution makes sense for the purpose of storing tile on palettes, but what other uses could we find under metal roofs?

 

We’re Not Berkeley Enough

In the spirit of the Baran Studio split Los Angeles / Bay Area personality:

Baran Studio Architecture selected as Architizer A+ Awards finalist 

We have been selected as a finalist in the Architizer A+ Awards. You can help us by voting for Zero Streets in the Unbuilt Transportation category here.

 

 

Making with Machines

This is a guest post by Nick Sowers, Registered Architect™.

Baran Studio Architecture is located in a creative light-industrial pocket in North Oakland. I find it inspiring to be amidst people making things at all scales. In our building alone we have a furniture maker, a hula-hoop fabricator, an installation artist, a 3D sound artist, a jewelry maker, and a stop-motion animation studio. Up the street from us there is a hacker space called Ace Monster Toys, of which I have been a member for 3+ years. I have been using the CNC mill to design and construct a number of plywood creations.

The CNC router in operation at Ace Monster Toys

CNC closeup

The CNC wood router at Ace Monster Toys

Through a process of quick iterations and testing ideas, I have learned the nuances of using the CNC machine. The design files output tool paths which the machine reads and translates into its three axes of motion. When the din of the router cuts out and the sawdust settles, there’s a certain excitement in a raw sheet of plywood transformed into an array of parts. I brought the cut pieces to our recently opened Annex space, and assembled them with our team.

Behold Baran Studio’s new conference table:

The Finished Conference Table

The Finished Conference Table.

 

The finished table is made from 2 1/2 sheets of plywood, costing $140 total.

The finished table is made from 2 1/2 sheets of plywood, costing $140 total.

I am especially interested in the process of making using simple inexpensive materials and my own labor and abilities to transform them. The machine is an essential component of this process, extending my hands to shape materials. The design itself is guided by this process, knowing what the machine can and can’t do. Plywood, for example, works very well notched together. Grooves can be cut with such a precision by the machine that joined pieces are held together with friction. These sorts of joints are achievable by master woodworkers without computers and advanced tools, to be sure. But doing it by machine and being able to do it yourself vastly expands the world of what is possible for designers and thinkers.

What I am suggesting is that an interesting form of collaboration between groups of people and groups of machines are becoming possible. The open desk project is one such example, which takes designs by the community and makes them available as open source. You can cut them yourself, or have a local fabricator make the design of your choosing. It’s a similar synergy of people, machines, and design ideas that exists here in North Oakland. Keep following to see what else we are making.