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Bisnow One-On-One: 16 Questions With Heller Manus Architects Founder Jeffrey Heller

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The Bisnow Interview series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

Heller Manus Architects founder Jeffrey Heller has not only been instrumental in changing San Francisco’s skyline, with his work on 181 Fremont and 350 Bush, but he has also designed some of the most sustainable buildings in the Bay Area and around the world. He designed the first LEED Gold office tower in San Francisco at 555 Mission St. in collaboration with KPF, and the nation’s first LEED Platinum neighborhood in Emeryville. He also has designed large-scale, sustainable master plans and offices in China.

Heller Manus President and founder Jeffrey Heller
Heller Manus President and founder Jeffrey Heller

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?

Heller: Trying to save the world through green building, designs and cities.

Bisnow:  If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do/be?

Heller: Filmmaker.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Heller: When I was in college, in architecture school, I had a summer job with a guy who had a small architecture office in NYC, and all they did was standard brick apartment buildings. Their idea of design was to put some decoration around the front door of these never-changing brick apartment buildings. The guy used to scream at us if we used too many pencils.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Heller: I was a design associate at Gensler when it was just one office in San Francisco. We won the competition to do Levi Plaza, but then Gerson Baker, the developer, put us together with HOK, so we did it jointly.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Heller: 555 Washington St. in San Francisco. I think the team was too inflexible about the height, and overconfident about getting approval.

Bisnow: How do you define “making it”?

Heller: Enjoying what you do.

181 Fremont in San Francisco
Heller Manus Architects designed 181 Fremont in San Francisco.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Heller: Politicians who do not see the big picture, and work on small, special interest issues instead of really addressing the big issues that we have to solve.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Heller: Chuck Bassett, the design partner at SOM when I was there in the 1970s. One of the best designers I ever knew.

Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?

Heller: The best professional advice I’ve ever gotten was to really understand how buildings get built. It makes you a much better designer. If I [received] bad professional advice, I’d ignore it.

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Heller: Racing a famous vintage racecar.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Heller: This is a good question. Locanda di Comacina on Lake Como in Italy.

Bisnow One-On-One: 16 Questions With Heller Manus Architects Founder Jeffrey Heller
Heller Manus President and founder Jeffrey Heller driving his prized race car

Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?

Heller: I would say, "If you do not embrace global sustainability, you will have no good legacy."

Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Heller: Leaving another partnership and starting Heller Manus from scratch.

Bisnow: Whose work do you most admire?

Heller: I can’t give one, but I can give four: Brunelleschi from Italy in the Renaissance, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, some of Frank Gehry’s work.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Heller: Everything.

Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?

Heller: Photography and vintage racing. I consider my participation in organizations like Greenbelt Alliance and Bay Area Council as part of [my] work, alongside architecture and master planning.