Reinvigorated for Design

The Austin offices of the graphic design firm FD2S are a study in juxtaposition—raw against refined, openness versus enclosure, monochromatic tones highlighted by saturated color. The offices, housed in a converted 1920s oil storage warehouse in east Austin, were designed by Stern and Bucek Architects of Houston.

Both architect and client (FD2S partner Larry Paul Fuller is a former editor of Texas Architect and partner Herman Dyal is an architect) wanted to respect the integrity of the building while inserting the modern amenities the firm needed. A tight budget meant that every dollar had to count. Fortunately, the building fabric was essentially intact with the exception of an unfortunate exterior paint job and the loss of some of the steel sash windows. The paint was removable and identical replacement windows were acquired when an adjacent, similar building was remodeled.

The 10,000-square-foot space was divided into a light-filled main floor with exposed steel trusses and a partially below-grade second floor with low ceilings and little access to natural light. The biggest challenge, says architect William F. Stern, FAIA, was addressing the disparity between the two levels. The solution was suggested by an implied grid created by brick columns that scribed a 1,000-square-foot rectangle at the center of the space. The wood floor on the main level was cut out to the edges of the column grid and a large freight elevator was removed. The result is a central well that extends nearly 30 feet from the ground floor to the lantern-like roof monitor, washing the entire volume with natural light while also tying the levels together and relieving the lower floor of its claustrophobic gloom.

Removing the building core provided a clear guide for organization of the functional areas. Most public areas are on the spacious upper level while the remaining low ceilings on the lower level provided an opportunity for more enclosed, intimate spaces.

One priority was placement of a kitchen and eating area in a prominent position rather than hidden in a back corner. The kitchen, which overlooks the central well on the main floor, has become both a social and work center. “It’s just like a kitchen at home, the place where people want to be,” FD2S partner Dyal says, and has helped foster a more personal relationship not only among the 35 employees but also with clients.

In addition, FD2S requested a place where employees could go when they needed distance from the office bustle. Stern quickly arrived at the notion of a platform floating above the central well. A grid of steel grating was suspended from the roof trusses, accessed by stairs that zigzag up from the lower level. The emphatic angles of the stair are echoed in the strong diagonal lines of the restored planks of pine flooring and, more subtly, in the slightly skewed walls on the main level. This slight divergence from the building’s orthogonal geometry animates the space, opening circulation areas and alleviating them of corridor-like severity. A combination of eight- and six-foot-tall walls divide the main level into meeting rooms of various sizes as well as small offices along the back wall.

Another blow at the oppression of parallel lines is the reception cube. The cube, clad in sleek stainless steel panels, is set into the reddish brick of the western exterior wall at a 45-degree angle. Concerns about security and the need to monitor visitors dictated a space with views onto the porch-like deck and entry ramp as well as across the parking lot.

On the lower level, the perimeter area with its 7-foot 10-inch ceilings, was given over to enclosed offices, as well as a library and other support spaces, while the open well houses a studio, with a long work surface surrounded by several workstations. These stations were originally mostly open (the offices were completed about two years ago) but have since been partially enclosed with low walls after some employees complained about the distraction of traffic along perimeter circulation zones.

The palette of materials and colors does not compete for attention with the drama of the open volume. Partition walls are a uniform white, while sliding barn doors and cabinetry are pale birch. Existing concrete, brick, and pine were cleaned and left raw. Mechanical systems are exposed. The exception to this pared-down aesthetic is the assertive yellowish green of handrails and stair, which resonates against the neutral tones like an exclamation point.

The only other color appears on the exterior, in the vivid blue of the metal awning over the front deck. That entry area, which faces west, away from the street, is separated from a small parking lot by a layered garden of native grasses and trees that mediates between the outer world and the inner life of a reinvigorated building.

Originally published in the July/Aug 2002 issue of Texas Architect .