Designer Q&A: The Repositioning of Santa Monica’s Water Garden Office Park

Designer Q&A: The Repositioning of Santa Monica’s Water Garden Office Park

HLW writer Colette Taber sat down with Senior Technical Designer Erin Gallagher to talk about her work on The Water Garden project in Santa Monica, California. Erin played a key role in developing the concept behind the transformation of the 17-acre site into an office environment appealing to the creative media tenant market. The corporate office park re-design involved reimagining how to reposition and use the site’s many public spaces and amenities, both inside and outside, including a large artificial lake situated in the interior portion of the large campus.

CT: Why focus on technology tenants and other creative industries? Did you see something in the sprawling Water Garden site with its grand, although somewhat dated, architecture that you thought could ultimately be appealing to this tenant base?

EG: As an architect you see the raw potential of a property or site. In contrast, a prospective tenant often sees a reflection (or not) of themselves. The old Water Garden’s large, voluminous, empty spaces, with nowhere to linger, and the hard, shiny interior surfaces spoke to a potentially more conservative tenant. We knew that we needed to tap into today’s vibrant, more casual, and sometimes unorthodox, but always authentic, workplace culture. Design solutions needed to be true to the location, market, and local community vibe. The Water Garden is no longer serving hierarchical top-down companies. Rather, we needed to create a variety of human-scaled spaces (spaces with individual voices and personalities!), which lend themselves to more intimate, collaborative activities.

CT: How did you accomplish this repositioning of such a large property to a more “human scale”?

EG: Our space planning strategy involved breaking down the site, including the large interior public spaces, into smaller activity zones. Consistent with the creative and tech company culture, the interior and exterior spaces, the many amenities, everything…is valued according to how well it supports individuals in working. You make space “human” again by making it again about humans. Everything has a purpose. Gone are the days of the big, empty lobbies. These spaces now serve as alternate places to meet, touch down, grab a coffee, or meet with team members and clients.

CT: How was this approach transferred to the design of the outdoor amenities?

EG: Actually, the transition from the interior to the exterior space concept was seamless and all about overlapping and fluid functions. This is very Southern California—to not label or rigorously designate a space as for this or for that. As with the interior program, the Water Garden campus is designed to be flexible and to facilitate user control and self-determination. WiFi is accessible throughout the 17 acres, and individuals have many, many seating and gathering options supportive of different work styles. People can be private introverts when needed and visit the garden rooms or the Natural River Walk where the environment is amenable to focusing, reflecting, and digesting information. Or, if desired, the Central Plaza provides innumerable opportunities to be collaborative and highly visible.

CT: And that iconic water feature, The Water Garden’s large artificial lake? How did you see this site element fitting into your design approach?

EG: We reduced considerably the lake’s footprint, ultimately increasing the overall usable square footage of the site, while cutting annual water consumption in half from the current 5.5 million gallons per year. As a complementary sustainable strategy, turf was reduced from 50% of the site to only 5%, allowing for a significant reduction in irrigation. Although reduced water consumption and the use of drought-tolerant materials were certainly central to the owner’s and project team’s objectives, this approach was more than just “green;” these design choices were also about authenticity. We succeeded in preserving the iconic identity of The Water Garden campus by retaining the lake, but it is now a refreshed, more relevant version of the lake—less artificial, more functional, and in line with the historically low water levels that Southern California is experiencing now. In short, our design solution was a response to contemporary human needs.

CT: How is achieving these smaller, more “human” spaces appealing to the creative or tech sector tenants?

EG: Banishing the “one-size-fits-all” mentality from your design vocabulary is a good starting point. Consider the degrees of privacy available at the Winter Garden; the campus will now have enclosed, shaded, and open seating options. Specific to the Tech/Creative discussion, having those quiet, non-distracting workspaces, in addition to areas for collaboration and flexible teaming is absolutely critical. Perhaps even more important, the environments that we are building for these very innovative people are reminiscent of a collegiate atmosphere. So many good ideas and positive relationships can be traced back to the college years, so why change what works? The fields of college and workplace planning and design routinely intertwine, especially, as people strive to create spaces that encapsulate learning, teaching, and working in one place.