When Kent Royle began his tenure with Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, Berkeley, Calif., 22 years ago, he couldn’t have anticipated the types of buildings for which he would serve as project architect—nor could he imagine the unique, high-tech intellectual property and goods that would be conjured inside these buildings. Pier 70 in San Francisco, which consists of approximately 300,000 square feet of historic waterfront buildings once used to build steel-hull ships by Union Iron Works and then Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., is case in point.
Royle’s firm entered its work on 120,000 square feet of Pier 70—Buildings 113 through 116—into retrofit’s inaugural Metamorphosis Awards program and won in the Historic category. The design team, in close collaboration with James Madsen, Will Johnson and Eddie Orton of Orton Development Inc. (ODI), Emeryville, Calif., carefully transformed these dilapidated pier buildings into the Uber Advanced Technology Group Research and Development Center while maintaining the historic fabric of the structures, which earned accolades from the awards judges. A division of the same Uber that brought us ride-sharing, Uber ATG focuses on advances in transportation, including self-driving vehicles and even flying cars. Its new digs in Pier 70 not only are a beautiful testament to the buildings’ illustrious past but also the perfect home for Uber’s pioneering future.
AFTER PHOTOS: Billy Hustace Photography; BEFORE PHOTOS: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects
Working with ODI and Historic Preservation Consultant Mark Hulbert, Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects has earned a reputation in the San Francisco Bay area for inventive restoration of immense historic properties. These firms teamed up on the 517,000-square-foot Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant renovation in Richmond, Calif. The plant’s Oil House became the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center featured in retrofit’s September-October 2014 issue. “We spent probably eight years working with ODI and Mark Hulbert on that project through tenant improvements, all the design and entitlements phases, so by the time the Pier 70 project came up we made a very good team,” Royle recalls. “The Ford building had many of the challenges this project did, so it was a very collaborative effort from the beginning.”
Among Pier 70’s challenges were the sheer size—and consequently cost—of bringing the buildings back to life. “On Pier 70, if you spend a dollar a square foot, every dollar a square foot is a third of a million dollars!” Royle notes. “You have to be very strategic in how you approach these projects because the cost can spiral out of control if you’re not maximizing the value and leveraging everything to get a space to do multiple things.”
So why would Uber ATG be interested in spending this kind of money to retrofit late 19th-, early 20th-century buildings in disrepair—one of which was red-tagged for fear of seismic collapse by the city? According to Royle, the decision was made because of Pier 70’s proximity to the talent pool. Although nearby Silicon Valley still is home to the likes of Google and Apple, Millennials are seeking more of an urban experience than can be found in Silicon Valley. “In the last 10 years, the talent pool of young workers has been living in San Francisco and the companies in the Silicon Valley were busing people down,” Royle notes. “However, more startups are attracted to San Francisco because that’s where the concentration of talent is. As a consequence, real-estate availability and prices spiked. There’s an extremely tight, competitive market for leasing, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for this type and size of property.”
Uber ATG is in good company in San Francisco’s southeast waterfront, which is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In addition to a new hospital complex in the area, the Golden State Warriors stadium recently opened nearby. Despite the new construction, the Port of San Francisco, which owns the piers, is keen on preserving key pieces of the waterfront history. “The Pier 70 area had this beautifully intact historic core. The buildings were really spectacular, but they had been deteriorating for years and were falling into extreme disrepair,” Royle explains. “Pier 70 creates a gateway to an area in which extensive redevelopment is happening but the Port of San Francisco wanted the historic buildings to really set the tone for all the new development there.”
ODI and the Port of San Francisco partnered to bring Pier 70’s core and shell back to a condition in which a tenant could do its own improvements, and, Royle says, that work was well underway when Uber ATG picked buildings 113 to 116 for its research and development center.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
When Royle and the design team were in the first stages of planning, they weren’t sure whether Pier 70’s buildings would have six tenants or one. Regardless, the port’s historic reviewer required the redesigned buildings be experienced spatially in the same way as the originals. “For example, they want you to sort of perceive the huge volumes of these buildings, which is kind of a challenge when you have multiple-tenant buildings,” Royle remarks. “Uber has taken about half of Building 113 and then all of 114, 115, 116. Building 113 alone takes up basically two city blocks; it was two brick warehouses that were built in the 19th century, connected with a concrete building. The concrete connector piece we’re using as a public atrium, but then we had to come up with a way to demise this 50-foot-high open space on either side of the public atrium as you walk in.”
The design team proposed several ways to demise Building 113 to the Port of San Francisco; State Historic Preservation Officer; and, ultimately, the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., which had to approve the plans because federal tax credits were involved. “As part of the review process, historic reviewers were adamant that the demising walls in these areas had to be fully transparent,” Royle recalls. “It’s a challenge to make a 50-foot- high glass wall fully transparent. We probably redesigned this wall numerous times to find the most beautiful but affordable way to demise
the space. In the end, ODI hired a glazing contractor onto their staff to help come up with a way of attaching the glass that probably cost a third of what the original full-glass demising wall was projected to cost.”
In addition, the team had to make openings in the glass wall tall and wide enough for large lifts to drive through to complete routine maintenance in the building. “We had to install a specialty sliding door that was developed for car dealerships,” Royle explains. “The frameless glass doors allow people to enter, but those two double-door sections—one slides to the left and one slides to the right—create about a 14-foot-wide by 14-foot-high opening for access by lifts and trucks.”
To maintain the large, open volumes, the team crafted enclosed rooms with glass and tucked these spaces under second-floor decks. In addition, much of the new structure, required for seismic bracing, is hidden behind the existing structure, which was left untouched.
When Uber ATG moved in at the beginning of 2018, a few items required fine-tuning. For example, exhaust fans are currently being removed and replaced with quieter fans that include acoustic dampening.
In addition, Buildings 113 and 114 rely on a radiant heating system embedded in the polished concrete floors. Because of San Fran- cisco’s moderate climate, the team intended to naturally cool and ventilate the facility. “The comfort studies showed it could work, but it’s turned out that how Uber needs to use the building is different than what the mechanical engineer had originally planned in terms of opening all the windows,” Royle mentions. “If you’re a high-tech, advanced-technology company, visual privacy and potential industrial espionage are considerations. Having the windows open is not realistic.”
Two-inch foam insulation has been added to the roof, which Royle states has minimized the radiant heat. Currently, air conditioning is being added throughout the offices to cool them.
To maintain Pier 70’s shipbuilding legacy, industrial artifacts, such as cranes, have been seismically braced in place. On the exterior of Building 113, ODI had the name of a previous tenant, Pacific Coast Steel Corporation, repainted on the building.
As factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the buildings were well daylit, so the design team accentuated natural daylight. Perimeter windows have been restored where possible and replicated with custom windows where deteriorated. Original ventilation louvers throughout the facility’s roof structure were replaced with glazed panels to bring as much light inside as possible.
Royle first looked at Building 113 in 2003 as a possible place for a National Park Service archive facility. “At that time, you could see it was a beautiful building, but it was kind of crumbling,” he recalls. “It had only deteriorated more when we got invited to look at this with ODI. It also had been vandalized and stripped and had numerous roof leaks that were really crumbling the interior brick. It just was sad to see beautiful old buildings continue to deteriorate. It’s gratifying to bring them back to a bit of their former glory and having them used in a way that is really vibrant.”
When Uber ATG’s space opened, San Francisco Heritage, a non-profit whose mission is to preserve and enhance San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity, hosted its annual party within the public spaces. This gave experienced preservationists, who may have the most critical eyes, an up-close view. “In San Francisco there’s nothing that is not controversial—and that’s probably an understatement,” Royle remarks. “But these renovations were done in a way that kept so much of the existing buildings intact and recognizable that it was very warmly embraced by the preservation community and the community at large.”
DEVELOPER: Orton Development Inc., Emeryville, Calif.
ARCHITECT and METAMORPHOSIS AWARDS WINNER: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, Berkeley, Calif.
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Nabih Youssef Associates, San Francisco
CIVIL ENGINEER: Sherwood Design Associates, San Francisco
MECHANICAL ENGINEER: Engineering 350, San Francisco
HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE CONSULTANT: Mark Hulbert Preservation Architecture, Oakland, Calif.
CODE CONSULTANT: ARS, San Francisco
FIRE, LIFE SAFETY CONSULTANT: The Fire Consultants Inc., Walnut Creek, Calif.
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Architecture & Light, San Francisco
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: GLS Landscape, San Francisco
BIKE RACK: Ultra Space Saver from Dero
FAN: Powerfoil 8 from Big Ass Fans
OFFICE PARTITION, GLASS WALL SYSTEM, DETEX BATTERY ALARM, BLUMCRAFT HARDWARE AND ELEPHANT DOORS: C.R. Laurence Co. Inc.
DOORS FOR LARGE OPENINGS: Fleetwood
HISTORIC WINDOW REPLACEMENT: Winco
POLYCARBONATE PARTITION: Plazit Polygal
LAVATORIES, WATER CLOSETS: Toto
BATHROOM TILE: Graniti Fiandre
HIGH-BAY LED LIGHTING: Lithonia Lighting
SUSPENDED LINEAR LED: Fluxwerx
SUSPENDED CYLINDER DOWNLIGHT: Lindsley Lighting
TAPE LED AMBER LIGHT AT CRANE: Aion LED
RECESSED LINEAR LED DOWNLIGHT: Finelite
MX ADJUSTABLE ROUND DOWNLIGHT: Intense Lighting
LED SURFACE UTILITY STRIP: Philips Daybrite
WALL-MOUNTED LED: Axis Twin Beam
UNDER-CABINET LED STRIP: Luminii Easy Link
INTERIOR PAINT, WALLS: Benjamin Moore
INTERIOR PAINT, STEEL: Kelly Moore
CARPET TILE: New Basics from Mohawk