Renowned architecture firm Olson Kundig occupies three floors of a 19th-century loft building in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. Built in 1891, and dubbed the Washington Shoe Building, it’s a building that wears its age gracefully. Like many buildings in Seattle that survive from that time, it is framed with heavy Pacific Northwest timbers and sheathed in red brick.
Watch the office’s hydraulic-powered skylight open up for ventilation:
Olson Kundig first took up residence in the building 15 years ago, and at the time made few alterations to the space, opting instead to preserve the building’s industrial patina, but it was time to remodel. "We had gotten larger," says Kirsten R. Murray, owner and principal of Olson Kundig. "None of the spaces and rooms we had were really large enough to gather in."
Murray, who led the redesign, also notes that since the firm first moved into the Pioneer Square office, the work process has changed drastically. Back then, paper was the primary medium of architecture, and employees needed large workstations to accommodate files and drafting tables. Today, like most firms, Olson Kundig is much more reliant on digital media. "People wanted more open areas—more physical collaboration and gathering zones," she says.
The expansion also provides easy access to the prototyping, fabrication, and model-making resources that Murray says are essential to the firm’s design process: "That physical testing had been relegated by necessity to corners and places in the office that weren’t visible, and we wanted to pull that work and those tools more into the center of the space." On the sixth floor, which is the office’s entry floor, a wood shop and prototyping facilities have replaced workstations, and a main area is filled with movable furniture that can be converted from tables for collaboration to bleachers for lectures and presentations—or cleared out completely to display large mock-ups.
Murray compares the space she and her team have made for themselves to a laboratory. "What a laboratory does is it puts you in contact with your tools and gives you an optimal space to do what you need to do," she tells Dwell. "In a laboratory, you have your Bunsen burner and your test tubes. You need water, and you need heat. It’s a little bit like that even at a firm; you need access to the shop, you need a place to lay something out, a place to put something large, or a place to pin up, or a place to go have a virtual reality session."
In designing their own office, the firm’s employees had opportunities at every turn to participate in the process and provide input on what they would like to see in their new space. "We opened up a think tank process to the staff," says Murray. "A lot of those ideas about reorganizing the space, opening up the shop, extending those areas, really came from a process that took about 6 months of just analyzing the firm and self critique. I think it was a fun and empowering thing to do."
A crucial concern was opening the office up to more natural light; a staircase that cuts through the office’s three levels was added underneath the central skylight. In addition to moving people from the sixth-floor entry to workspaces on the lower levels, the open stair brings light from the skylight, installed by Olson Kundig in 2004, into the rest of the space.
"People love the skylight, and just kind of gather under it," says Murray. "Seattle is a rainy, gray place most of the year, and having that filtered daylight is so important to us. It’s amazing how luminous and pleasant the space can be when it’s receiving even a small amount of light." The skylight can be opened and closed to allow for natural ventilation, and mild temperatures make year-round use possible. In order to open and close the massive panel, the architects at Olson Kundig developed a hydraulic lift system cobbled together out of pieces of steam pipe fittings, a legacy from the building’s industrial past.
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Video: Andrew Pogue