Why This Architecture Firm Has Staked Its Claim In Oakland
For Ken Lowney, architecture is not about the glory of creating an iconic building, but about improving communities and making cities better. Lowney, founder and principal of Lowney Architecture, is doing just that in Oakland, where he and his staff are designing a number of high-profile projects.
Lowney Architecture has designed some of Oakland’s smallest housing units and its tallest buildings. The firm's latest project, a 440-foot tower on Harrison Street, is among the current projects that excite Lowney the most. The mixed-use high-rise will create 185 residential units, 120K SF of office and a community market on the ground floor and will become the city’s tallest building.
Lowney’s desire to improve communities through architecture was sparked by his travels in Europe, where he and his dad, an engineer, spent time looking at different types of buildings. His travels made him more aware of the impact buildings have on society.
“Collections of buildings make cities,” he said.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Occidental College, Lowney considered going into law, but his real interest was in what makes society. He found architecture was a way to combine his interests.
Lowney’s first job was at a big firm with 80 people where he would copy blueprints. At night, Lowney took drafting classes, and after six or nine months, he took a chance and asked his bosses if he could work on drafting and they told him he could. After a couple of years of drafting, he went back to school to get his master's degree in architecture at Southern California Institute of Architecture, which is known for testing the limits of design.
After designing single-family homes in the Hollywood Hills, Lowney moved to New York City to work for Gensler, where he worked on office tenant improvements. He eventually transferred to the San Francisco Gensler office, where he was able to design office buildings and hotels and campuses. After the first tech bust occurred, he was laid off.
Lowney decided to go out on his own instead of joining another firm. He had always thought of having his own office since his dad owned an engineering firm, Lowney Associates.
“I thought there would be more freedom [starting my own firm], but it is a lot of work and responsibility,” Lowney said. “Sometimes that is good and sometimes that is bad.”
Lowney Architecture has been in Oakland for 15 years, growing significantly in the last seven years. It has been expanding its portfolio to include all parts of the Bay Area and Hawaii. Lowney said he plans to increase the firm's San Jose portfolio in 2018.
Why Lowney Architecture Loves Oakland
Lowney’s decision to work in Oakland was originally a matter of convenience. While at Gensler, Lowney lived in Oakland and commuted into San Francisco. When he started his own firm, he liked the idea of working where he lived. Today, Lowney Architecture’s Oakland portfolio is within blocks of its office in Downtown Oakland.
“So much of our work is just right here,” Lowney said. “We can walk to it and ride our bikes to it and pass by our sites.”
Lowney Architecture Project Manager Eric Price was Lowney’s first employee and worked on the firm’s first project, which was to redevelop the Cox Cadillac dealership into a Whole Foods. The project increased density North of Grand Avenue and brought in a much-needed large grocery store.
“It was exciting to be part of something that represented change at a rather high level,” Price said. “Grocery is a very interesting project type because it is cool and serves a lot of people.”
Price said Lowney is driven to make Oakland better and there are plenty of opportunities to improve Oakland.
“He’s great to work with,” Price said. “He is a positive figure and he is optimistic.”
What is most attractive about working at Lowney Architecture is the collaboration and comaraderie, Price said. Unlike other firms where work is done top down with a couple of people in charge of projects and other doing the design grunt work, everyone is involved in the design process at Lowney Architecture, according to Price.
The staff will combine their design ideas and sketches and come up with the best solutions, Price said.
Oakland itself has provided a great landscape for growth and change, and Lowney Associates has been a big part of the city’s recent evolution.
The firm started out doing the bulk of its work in retail, but now does more work in housing and other projects with a handful of retail, according to Lowney. The projects Lowney Architecture is working on include a Moxy Hotel at West Grand and Telegraph and a 1,000-unit housing complex in West Oakland with Panoramic Interests.
“Oakland is undergoing a very positive transformation, adding more people and more housing,” Lowney said. “It’s getting more interesting and exciting to be living here.”
The most interesting and challenging project Lowney worked on in Oakland was the redevelopment of the Safeway shopping center on College Avenue. The project went through five years of entitlements, and community interaction and engagement.
Lowney said he learned about what works and what makes people angry. Community engagement got everyone involved and there was a better outcome and better building that works for the community, he said.
Oakland’s Economic Boom Is Creating New Problems, Opportunities
“Homelessness is a terrible shadow side to all this great growth we’re experiencing,” Lowney said.
Oakland declared a shelter crisis in 2015, which freed up the planning process to make it possible to build cheaper, faster homes for the homeless. But not much as been done since then. The most tangible effort made is Panoramic Interests’ development of micro-pad modular units that could be used to house the homeless, according to Lowney.
Lowney said he is particularly passionate about the work his firm has done on modular housing because it can help solve the housing crisis and provide housing options for homeless people. Modular housing can create housing at 20% of the cost and decrease construction time up to 40%, he said. His firm has done five modular projects so far throughout the Bay Area.
While fixing homelessness is a complex problem, Lowney said it is cheaper to put people in houses than leaving them on the street, where cities have to use police and medical resources to respond to a crisis.
“We have to at a certain point stop pushing people around and recognize their humanity and fix the problem,” Lowney said.
Find out more about Lowney Architecture and the latest on Oakland at Bisnow’s upcoming Oakland State of the Market event Feb. 2.