Special Focus-Adventures in Space and Time-September 2011

Special Focus-Adventures in Space and Time-September 2011

Three remodeling projects celebrate the clean lines of old buildings.

The future of Twin Cities commercial spaces is, apparently, the future. All three of these remodeling projects lean toward a modern aesthetic and an uncomplicated sense of space. They take advantage of vintage building stock from eras when, much like today, clean lines were the order of the day. One additional advantage of these streamlined spaces is that clients were able to move in quickly and get down to business. 

Let There Be Light 

For Minneapolis marketing and design firm Knock, Inc., the first look at the building on Glenwood Avenue that became its new office was an uninspiring one. In fact, the president of the company, Lili Hall, had trouble stomaching the appearance of the derelict 1960s brick rectangle.

“She said she hated it,” recalls Matt Kreilich, design principal at Julie Snow Architects, Inc., in Minneapolis. “She hated the brick. She thought it was just godawful. I have to admit that when we saw it, I sort of had the same feeling. It was definitely a teardown building. But she bought the building because I think she realized that there was potential to transform it.”

The first order of business was to create a new facade. Before, Knock had always been a tenant, so it was stuck with a shared lobby and elevator. It was unable to create an entry experience that echoed its brand. Here, it could build an iconic structure that shouted its name loud and clear. That structure took the form of a 300-square-foot wood-paneled box entry on the front of the building.

“Anywhere you see Knock’s brand, from its Web site to its business cards, there is typically a woodgrain element,” Kreilich explains. “So this was inspired by their brand. It’s pretty subtle, but it completely transforms the look and feel of the building. On the inside, the box is their main conference room, so it’s a very communal space for the firm, but it’s also where clients get their first impression.”

The box was the only structure Kreilich and his colleagues added; the rest of the project was mostly a process of taking things away. “We completely gutted the interior, minus a few structural walls that we had to maintain,” he says. “The daylighting in the existing space was pretty awful, so we carved new windows around the perimeter and then increased the height of all the existing windows. Every office has operable windows. Then, we penetrated the roof with 26 SolaTubes. They’re like skylights, but the technology of them creates 10 times the amount of light that a skylight does. So during the day, they don’t need to turn a single light on in the workspace. Anywhere people are working, they have natural daylight, whether it’s coming from above or the sides.”

Knock is a collaborative company, so the most prominent feature of the build is a large open workroom. Its floor-to-ceiling glass windows face out onto Glenwood Avenue, so passersby can see employees working, gathering, and comparing ideas on an enormous pinup wall. There are numerous other collaborative spaces as well, ranging from a formal critique space to a kitchen and dining room with an 18-foot-long table.

Of course, some employees need to be able to talk on the phone in relative privacy and quiet. But Kreilich didn’t want to impede the light or the feeling of community. “All the offices that line the perimeter of the space have floor-to-ceiling glass along the corridor,” he says. “So there’s still an openness, a transparency, a shared daylight that’s coming through the offices into the inner core of the building.”

The biggest challenge the building presented was its foundation. Bassett Creek runs nearby, and there is a lot of water below ground. So the building was built on a massive structural slab atop concrete pilings.

“When you don’t have walls to run power and data through, you need to do it below grade,” Kreilich says. “So we had to bring in the same type of diggers that Xcel Energy and the gas companies use when they are tunneling wiring and conduit. Getting the network routed through in a straightforward way was a little trickier due to the existing conditions in the building.”

From an outside perspective, Kreilich wanted to design the building to take full advantage of its neighborhood, which boasts a quirky mix of commercial and residential buildings.

“Glenwood, to me, is one of the most interesting avenues coming out of downtown that’s still kind of untouched,” he says. “There’s a lot of 1950s and 1960s building stock. It almost feels sort of like L.A., with all its single-story office and industrial complexes. But if you go down just two or three buildings from theirs, you have residential homes.” Kreilich added a patio and deck to the back of the building so employees can participate in the neighborhood and take advantage of the site’s spectacular view of downtown. “It’s a neighborhood that’s in transition,” he says. “And I think the idea of having an urban life and presence, not just in the building, but around it, is really important.” 

A Blank Canvas 

The pristine white space that houses the offices of furniture company Blu Dot was used to assemble airplane wings during World War II. It is a warehouse that boasts lofty 60-foot ceilings, large clerestory windows, and . . . not much else.

“As a company, our taste in architecture is that less is more,” says CEO John Christakos. “I think that’s naturally our aesthetic, you know? We design furniture the same way. Often our process is to figure out what we can take away, as opposed to what we can add. So we decided to let the building speak for itself. We don’t need to show our hand much.”

Of course, the space didn’t look quite so promising when Christakos first visited it. Northeast Minneapolis’s Crown Center commercial development, which opened in 2008, was created from the old Crown Iron Works. The space was, in Christakos’s words, grungy. Half the windows were broken out. “Well, we’re creative people,” he shrugs. “The space is really dramatic. We could see the potential for it, even in that condition.”

Once Blu Dot signed the lease, Hillcrest Development, LLLP, cleaned up the building and got it operational, refinishing the concrete floors, painting the walls, power-washing the exposed wood ceiling, and adding restrooms. The remainder of the interior design was left to Blu Dot and its longtime friends and subletters, the architecture firm Kampa Studio. To prevent the buildout from competing with the drama of the space, Kampa built minimalist freestanding storage walls lined with cubicles. The low walls serve as a way to get power and data to the center of the room. Natural wood elements warm up the otherwise cool palette. 

The sense of space was what Christakos liked best about the building, but he had doubts about it, too. “We were really concerned with how it would feel to work in that space, because the ceilings are so high,” he admits. “Would you feel kind of alone in this vast space? We were concerned that when you’re sitting at a desk out in the open space, you’d feel kind of naked. We were also concerned about noise, potentially—what would it sound like out there?” 

Initially, Blu Dot planned to install stretched fabric panels below the ceiling as acoustical baffles. But as employees started to occupy the office, they found that it was comfortable after all. If anything, it was a little too library-quiet. Christakos suspects it’s because the ceiling is so far away that sound waves ricochet up there and never return. 

Along the edges of the warehouse, there were open bays with 25-foot ceilings, like the transepts of a church. Blu Dot glassed these in and made them into offices for upper management. The rooms are large enough to accommodate meeting tables, sofas, and chairs, too, so they can do double duty as conference rooms. “After all, we’re in most meetings,” Christakos chuckles. 

To a great extent, Blu Dot populated its office with its own modern furniture. For instance, the desks in the cubicles are by Blu Dot. But other designers were fair game, too. Ikea Expedit shelves serve as storage units and dividers in the cubicle area, and Herman Miller ergonomic chairs keep employees comfortable. Blu Dot picked these pieces because it didn’t make anything that fit the bill, and they matched the company’s stripped-down aesthetic. 

Because of its size and neutral color scheme, the Blu Dot office ended up being an ideal makeshift gallery for Christakos’s personal art collection. He has brought in pieces that he had in storage, including many that were too large for his house. By employee request, the art is labeled with placards—something Christakos worries is a little pretentious, but which has the distinct advantage of introducing people to artists and works they didn’t know before. 

“I’m just a lover of contemporary art,” he says. “This is a great way for me to enjoy art at work and also at home.”  

Grace Under Pressure 

Minneapolis-based Caterpillar Paving Products knew it could count on design firm Nelson to turn a project around quickly. In the summer of 2010, Caterpillar’s marketing division had signed a two-year lease on a suite at the 45-yard-line at the Metrodome. The company called on the local office of Nelson to gut the space and transform it into a heavily branded, high-tech haven before the Vikings’ first kickoff of the season. 

“We finished it at the end of August [last year],” says Rick Sutton, managing principal at Nelson’s Minneapolis office. “At that time, they were also in the process of starting a turnkey development for a new marketing facility up in Maple Grove. Because we had been able to pull together the Metrodome project so quickly and successfully in their eyes, they wanted us to help.” 

Caterpillar envisioned the new space as a world-class showroom for its road construction machinery. It was a first for the company: It hoped to take the high-end look of some of its distributors’ dealerships and do it one better. No longer were Caterpillar’s customers just boots-on-the-ground contractors; now, its clientele included wealthy businesspeople from Asia, South America, and elsewhere. Caterpillar needed a place where it could bring international prospects and immerse them in the brand. 

At the time, the Maple Grove facility wasn’t much to look at. It was large and open—important for a company that makes construction machinery—but characterless. It helped that the owner, First Industrial Realty Trust, sprang for an eye-catching new glass entryway, but there was still a lot to do to bring it from a C-level warehouse to an A-minus-level warehouse, office, and showroom. 

The 117-square-foot warehouse area was the easy part. Nelson polished the floors, painted the walls and ceilings, and added some light fixtures. Done. 

The 58,000-square-foot showroom was more complicated. First was the question of whether to keep an awkward mezzanine level with its unusually low ceilings. “At seven feet, six inches tall, the mezzanine was almost something you wouldn’t think to reuse, because no one would want to be in that space,” says Nelson design director Scott Hierlinger. 

Nevertheless, it had potential, Sutton says. “We ended up removing the ceilings to expose the joists, redoing the mechanical systems, and then adding a special kind of ceiling treatment to improve the acoustics,” he explains. “Then there’s some indirect lighting that shines upwards, making the whole space feel higher than it is. It’s now offices and training rooms.” 

Nelson also built a high-end conference room with what Sutton describes as “European clean design,” using high-end finishes and a technology-inspired palette of silver, white, and charcoal. A large lounge-cum-breakroom is outfitted with custom Caterpillar-branded dishes and flatware. 

In the main area of the showroom, Caterpillar’s brand is even more apparent. First there are the products, which are larger than life: At any given time, there are 10 to 20 pieces of paving machinery on display. Then there is the iconic Caterpillar yellow. 

“The color appears in an architectural element outside the entryway, and it goes throughout the facility in different fabrics, wall coverings, and soffit treatments,” Sutton says. “We’re also using a lot of graphics. There are posters of a bunch of their projects and products, along with 10-by-10 and 10-by-20 walls that show their products in various settings around the world—for instance, a grading machine in front of the Coliseum in Rome.” 

How long did it all take? Well, that was the fun part, Hierlinger says. The design work was completed within a five-week period, and the construction was finished in a breathtaking three months. 

“It seems to be a pattern,” Hierlinger says, joking that Nelson’s Minneapolis office has probably gotten itself a reputation for speedy work that will haunt it for years to come