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New Tech HQs Are Getting Complex, Moving Facades That Let In Light And Fresh Air

Facade panels on a tech headquarters in Mission Bay, San Francisco

The days of simple brick or glass walls may be over.

As companies push to make their buildings greener, brighter and healthier, a new generation of corporate headquarters will boast facades that move and breathe, letting in daylight and fresh air. Using advanced materials and designs, these highly complex building skin systems are letting architects and designers run wild with their ideas, creating never-before-seen aesthetics throughout the offices. 

“Interior workplaces are becoming more dense, so architects and designers are looking to express their visions through atriums, courtyards and exterior skin,” said Pete Caputo, who oversees the Construction Technology and Innovation team at Truebeck Construction. “A facade is the first thing people see when they look at your building. If you can dream it, we can build it.”

In the last five years, Truebeck has built offices and headquarters for some of the largest tech firms in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. For these companies, inspiring architecture can be a recruiting tool, Caputo said, and the current talent arms race means working to create buildings that impress inside and out.

At a new tech headquarters in Mission Bay, Truebeck Vice President of Operations Mike Jackson has overseen the design and construction of two buildings with curtain wall systems that Truebeck believes are the first of their kind. The facades, which hang cantilevered over indoor-outdoor atriums filled with seating, staircases and balconies, are each made up of over 500 individual glass panels, framed in bronze, which fold open to let in fresh air.

“One second, you’re looking at a flat facade, then you hit a button, and suddenly the building transforms,” Caputo said. “The facade undulates in these amazing cubic patterns, and the light hits those bright metal accents. You feel pretty special to get to work in a building like that.”

The sensors and mechanical systems that operate the building’s facades track weather conditions to keep ideal thermal comfort inside the atrium. The panels work in tandem with wooden assemblies hanging inside the building: Each piece of lumber was sorted by color and handpicked to ensure the right amount of light absorption and reflection, heating and cooling the building more efficiently.

The curtain wall facade on this tech headquarters in San Francisco's Mission Bay is made up of panels that open and shut to let in light and fresh air.

For Jackson, the Mission Bay facade has been a long road. Three years ago, the Truebeck team traveled to Germany and worked with a structural glass manufacturer to build a prototype of one of the panels. The team had to ensure that the mechanical and electrical systems that control the facade could fit in the thin bronze tubing that frames each panel. More importantly, the windows would have to stand the test of time in San Francisco’s damp, blustery weather — and be able to survive a natural disaster.

“Once we had created the full-size mockup, we had it open and close constantly for six months to test the mechanicals,” Jackson said. “We then put it through hurricane-force wind and earthquake testing. None of the methods or materials we used were standard. It was all custom work, so we had to validate that our designs were durable.”

Along with the windows, Truebeck and the manufacturers put together a full-scale model of the skybridges that would connect the two buildings of the Mission Bay headquarters, many stories in the air. As construction moved to the interior, the team took a great deal of joy in seeing the bridges that they walked years ago in Germany in their final homes.

Throughout the design and testing process, Truebeck provided constant updates about pricing for the skin system and the building as a whole. Each step was a value engineering process; Truebeck evaluated 80 different kinds of bronze metal for the frames before settling on the best financial, structural and aesthetic candidate.

Truebeck often uses 3D and 4D modeling, Caputo said, laying out exactly when certain pieces of a project need to be installed. At the Mission Bay project, the installation of the cantilevered curtain wall was a delicate balancing act, as the team needed to ensure that as each panel was attached to the roof, it was supported on the other side.

Interlocking terraces, staircases, infrastructure and balconies make for a complex facade project at offices in Menlo Park, built by Truebeck.

Truebeck Project Executive Paul Cunningham has spent much of the last two years considering not just exterior walls, but exterior corners. The Menlo Park office complex he helped design and construct has an interlocking set of tree-covered terraces, balconies, offices, stairways and infrastructure housings.

“Most buildings have four corners you have to worry about,” Cunningham said. “This project has over 600.”

The architectural design gives each space within the Menlo Park office its own distinct view of the green spaces outside. But all those unique angles mean the Truebeck team had to lay out hundreds of individual building condition documents to help guide how the metal panels, glass, concrete, waterproofing and mechanical systems would all fit together.

“From a technical standpoint, it’s extremely challenging to design every unique condition,” Cunningham said. “But what makes it even more challenging is the logistics and sequencing, making sure every piece goes on at the right time, coordinating between the architect and trade partners.”

Caputo described how Truebeck oversaw the installation of a 150-foot carbon fiber roof structure over a circular theater at an office campus in Cupertino. The roof had to match up exactly to the structural glass walls of the theater — even an eighth of an inch out of place would mean the electrical and mechanical systems would not line up.

“We pre-assembled the roof off to the side of the theater, then lifted it up with a crane and lowered it down,” Caputo said. “When you think about all the crucial systems that were placed into those tiny joints in the walls, it boggles the mind. It was like putting a lid on top of the world’s most complex jar.”

The result, though, was unique: a vast lobby with 360-degree, uninterrupted views to the outside, a staircase that seems to hang in midair and a structural glass elevator to take employees to the theater below.

While these building exteriors might seem intricate, Truebeck is already in the planning stages with clients and architects on facades and exteriors that are even more complex. 

“These buildings are no longer just serving the purpose of housing office workers,” Cunningham said. “At this point, they are functional art. I don’t foresee that trend going away.” 

This article was produced in collaboration between Truebeck Construction and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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