O+A Designs Public Spaces for High-Tech Workers at San Francisco’s ‘Vara’ Apartment Community

MHN Interview with Studio O+A’s Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander

Vara, a multifamily development at 1880 Mission St. in San Francisco, is a new residential space for high-tech workers who want to live near where they’re employed. The name Vara harkens to the era of Spanish rule, when California land was measured in varas, a unit approximately 33 inches in length. The structure formerly occupying the site was a print shop that turned out labels for boxes of fresh California fruits and vegetables. Those labels’ colorful folk art, as well as the rich, rustic heritage of California agriculture, helped inspire the branding of the building’s lobby, bar, gym, tech shop and courtyard. Public areas are even accented with wood from the original building, helping set this expertly branded apartment community within an historic context.

The task of designing and branding Vara’s common areas was entrusted to San Francisco’s O+A Studio, which designs workplaces for organizations, many of them in the high-tech arena. MHN recently sat down with the firm’s co-founders and principals—Verda Alexander and Primo Orpilla—for a wide-ranging conversation about Vara’s design, the ways tech workers use public spaces, and the gradual merging of work and life.

MHN: How did your experience designing offices for tech workers shape your design of the public spaces for Vara?  

Verda Alexander: A lot of what we do for tech companies is create spaces that are so well designed or desirable that the workers don’t want to leave. It’s a 24-7 economy these days, and it kind of goes toward that blurring of live and work, so you can work where you live and live where you work. We’re always trying to design different types of spaces for different types of uses. That’s another strategy. And also comfortable spaces. There’s a blurring of live and work so some places in the office might look like a residence and vice versa. It seemed like a natural fit.

Primo Orpilla: A lot of these people will work in coffee shops, and other places that have a residential feel. Technology allows you to work on a couch. We created a space for them in the building that felt very much like the aesthetic of a coffee shop, and we brought it into an apartment building.

MHN: What design moves appeal to a tech worker demographic?

Orpilla: There are high tables like a bar or a coffee shop. There’s usually a communal table setting that feels like co-working space. There are finishes and details that are kind of refined, like really nice restaurants. We didn’t buy just any kind of furniture. It didn’t feel like the lobby of a W hotel. It is humble and made to feel simple, because that’s what this worker likes, a simple finish.

Alexander: Workers today want a space where they can come in and adapt it to their needs or sensibilities. The spaces may feel not quite finished, but they can complete the spaces themselves, or personalize spaces themselves.

Orpilla: Typical apartment buildings will have spaces used for events. We wanted to make the kitchen feel like an exhibition kitchen. We have prep tables, hoods, everything to make it feel like a real catering kitchen. There’s also a bar that they can open up or have totally separate, just as the kitchen can be. The spaces feel authentically like a kitchen, authentically like a bar, so that when they have events they will have an authentic feel to them.

MHN: How do tech worker types tend to use these public spaces differently from, say, an average apartment resident?

Orpilla: People in our field enjoy working in these less formal, more comfortable settings. They’re really conducive to what the worker wants today: get comfortable, put your feet up and start coding. You don’t have to work in a tiny cubicle.

Alexander: I also think that tech workers today are used to working in open office environments that encourage sociability. They will seek out those environments when they are not working. That’s why co-working environments have blossomed. They’re also embracing innovation clusters. They understand that to be creative you want to be in a creative environment with other creatives.

Orpilla: It’s not siloed work. It’s community or collaborative work, where the energy of the space itself enhances the creativity. It’s amazing that this generation of worker can put on their headphones and feel a part of a bigger community but still be working productively. That’s why I feel they’re so popular. Sometimes going to a socially active place actually frees up your mind to think.

MHN: What was the big idea behind the design for the logo and collateral materials?

Orpilla: If you look at the history of the site, it was a print shop. The print shop focused on the agricultural sector of California in the Central Valley, and printed the labels for the boxes of produce grown in the Central Valley. So it celebrates that agricultural heritage, and the Latino heritage of the neighborhood. We went through a pretty extensive logo study, going back to the 1920s and 1930s. And we took a little bit of industry meets turn-of-the-century graphics. And we came up with a crest or emblem that tied into that era.

MHN: Do you see the merging of residential and office design as part of a broader trend in multifamily development? Or is it just something related to the tech boom in San Francisco?

Alexander: We like to set trends when we can. I think the trend in general is the blurring of the office with residences across other disciplines and designs like hospitality.

Orpilla: They’re both influencing others so greatly that you can’t tell the difference these days between office and residential. They’re influencing each other so greatly that they’re blurring.

Alexander: It’s good and bad. If you love your work you’re happy to take it home with you. But, then again, you never leave it behind.