Like many former industrial neighbourhoods in America’s cities, the Slabtown district of Portland is undergoing a dramatic transformation, as factories, warehouses and lumber mills are replaced by offices and apartments. When local creative agency Swift was given an opportunity to convert a disused awning factory on a prime site into a workplace and studio, it was determined to ensure its new headquarters retained the building’s industrial character.
The site on the corner of Northwest 17th Avenue is owned by Portland real estate developer Project^, which engaged local architectural firm Beebe Skidmore to refurbish the building’s exterior. When Swift proposed leasing the entire floor area, it sought to achieve consistency by appointing the same firm to design the interior spaces. “Often in commercial construction, one architect designs the outside and then the tenant hires their own architect, so there’s no real relationship between the exterior and interior,” suggests architect Heidi Beebe. “The fact that Swift hired us to do the inside as well allows it to be a complete project.”
Beebe and her partner Doug Skidmore worked alongside a small team from Swift to develop a design for the workspace that reflects the company’s identity, as well as respecting the fabric of the existing building. The agency’s chief creative officer Alicia McVey, who cofounded Swift with chief executive officer Liz Valentine in 2006, was involved throughout the design process, and insists this was key to achieving a solution that is tailored to the agency’s needs. “First and foremost, we wanted the space to be beautiful and inspiring for the people who work here, as well as for clients,” says McVey. “We loved the opportunity to really craft a space and bring it into line with our brand.”
Having grown from two to more than 120 employees in just a few years, a key objective of the move was to provide additional desk spaces, but without losing the intimate feel that has contributed to Swift’s success and seen it become an important creative collaborator for brands such as Starbucks, Google, Nestlé and Adidas. This was achieved primarily by accommodating the company’s entire workforce on a single level, which facilitates and promotes cross-collaboration between teams.
There are no individual offices anywhere in the building, but a large proportion of the floor area is dedicated to meeting and breakout spaces that provide opportunities for collaborative working. The sense of connectivity and flow is enhanced by sightlines extending across the building and up to mezzanines overlooking the main floor. “We responded to Swift’s wish to stay unified by creating these diagonal views that enable you to see all the different teams,” explains Beebe. The open plan and use of glass partitions also ensures plenty of natural light reaches central areas.
A need to improve daylight within the interior led to the addition and enlargement of a series of saw-tooth sections incorporating dormer windows. Double-height openings in the facades allow even more natural light to enter and create a visual connection between the interior and the surrounding neighbourhood.
The floorplan of the former factory is loosely divided into quadrants containing the workspaces, with circulation in between converging at a sunken spiral-shaped seating area called the Colony. This element offers a place where the whole company can come together for meetings and presentations, or where staff can congregate for impromptu conversations and coffee breaks. A kitchen next to the Colony provides another popular social space, and is a focal point for weekly community lunches.
According to McVey, the social areas – and the kitchen in particular – play a vital role in helping Swift to achieve an informal and familial company culture. “We want to make work life as comfortable as home life,” she says, “and at home people usually congregate in the kitchen. It creates a really lovely environment that’s welcoming, warm and inviting.” Other homely touches are provided by several large living plant installations and lounge-like furniture in the breakout spaces.
Another benefit of taking over the 2,800sq m space was the opportunity it provided for Swift to install a large in-house content studio. This five-bay production area allows the agency to conduct several photo or video shoots simultaneously in a bright and minimally decorated environment that is flooded with daylight.
Throughout the offices, a simple palette of black, white and occasional bursts of cobalt provides a neutral backdrop that allows the company’s creative work to be the focus of attention. Traces of the building’s past are visible in details such as the exposed blockwork surfaces, while contemporary interventions including the whitewashed juniper floorboards and marble countertop in the kitchen add sophisticated modern touches. Much of the furniture was custom-made by local workshop The Good Mod, including a monumental white oak conference table and a black resin picnic table situated in the entrance courtyard.
Swift was also pleased to be able to include some subtle references to its status as a female-founded company, in the form of a criss-crossing staircase and a pair of X-shaped light fittings that hang above the reception. The firm has sought to promote equality as one of its core values, and McVey is proud that around 60% of employees and 50% of people at leadership level are women. “I think it has allowed us to attract really great talent,” she claims. “People want to work in an environment where they feel respected and know there are equal opportunities for everyone.”
The refurbishment process overseen by Swift and Beebe Skidmore had to fulfil a diverse set of criteria – providing a bright and comfortable environment with a creative edge that retains the original building’s character while incorporating plentiful spaces for working and socialising. According to Beebe, the project’s success is down to the way the factory’s heritage is translated into a space ideally suited to its new function as a place of creative industry. “You can still see pieces of the old building and there’s a roughness to it, mixed with little moments of precision,” she points out. “Although it’s modern it doesn’t feel heavy handed or restrictive. It feels free, which I think is nice for a workplace environment.”
With Beebe Skidmore, the architect behind its warehouse HQ, the firm converted the interior of this former disused awning factory into a workplace and studio