By Jack Stubbs
Much of the development and project activity in the region is focused on the city of Seattle and the Eastside cities, in particular the downtown cores of these metropolitan areas. However, projects in other cities throughout the state continue to shape the commercial real estate industry across Washington, as well.
The Washington Fruit & Produce Company, a packing and shipping company that is one of the largest in the state, has a new headquarters in Yakima in east Washington. The 16,500 square foot office building designed by Seattle-based Graham Baba Architects on May 23rd was awarded a 2018 National Institute Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The award is the profession’s highest recognition of works that exemplify excellence in architecture, interior architecture and urban design, according to AIA’s web site. Along with 16 other recipients located throughout the world, Graham Baba will be honored with the award at the AIA Conference on Architecture in June 2018 in New York City.
Along with Graham Baba Architects, the team for the Washington Fruit & Produce Company headquarters also includes Artisan Construction, MA Wright LLC (structural engineer), The Berger Partnership (landscape architect), Brian Hood Lighting Design, Arup (MEP engineer), Meier Engineering (civil engineer), Stusser Woodworks (custom furniture), Interior Motiv LLC (interior design) and Kevin Scott (photography).
The office building sits in the heart of Yakima, which along with Wenatchee is one of the two major fruit-producing cities in Washington. Home to the family-owned Washington Fruit & Produce Company, the design of the building looks to capitalize on the agricultural and industrial character of Yakima, according to Graham Baba’s web site, where the combination of volcanic soil, sunny days and irrigation from the Yakima River supports the region’s many fruit orchards.
The company’s facilities in the area occupy 90 acres of industrial land, and the contemporary design and programming of the project is meant to reflect the environment of which it is a part, according to Brett Baba, co-founder of the architecture firm. Tall windows and a south-facing clerestory increase visibility to the exterior agricultural landscape, and the building is surrounded by earth mounds and a site wall so that views from the building’s exterior are directed towards the basalt hills of Yakima Valley.
Whereas historically fruit packagers and producers had to be closer to transportation lines, modern transportation methods have enabled a wide evolution throughout the industry, according to Baba. “The industry is changing a bit in that initially, towns really started when these fruit-packing warehouses [were] along the railroads. But they don’t have to be located there anymore, because the fruit is mostly shipped by truck,” he said.
Washington Fruit & Produce, too, adjusted accordingly and moved from the center of Yakima to a more peripheral location along the highway where the company expanded its operations. “Washington Fruit moved its operations from the center of the city to more of a peripheral location, where it’s close to the highway, and there’s more land. They needed a lot of land to build their state-of-the-art facility for sorting and packing,” Baba said. The new building, which will provide room for 60 employees, is located on flat, river-bed industrial land bordered by a major freeway. The L-shaped structure, which is oriented around a landscaped courtyard garden, includes 12 private offices, two conference rooms, open workspace for more than 50 employees and a lunch room with seating for thirty.
One of the main considerations with the project was how to differentiate it from the existing buildings in the area, according to Baba. The fruit-processing facilities in the area are concrete tilt-up boxes surrounded by acres of pavement, trucks and refrigeration equipment—and the idea with office headquarters was to provide employees of Washington Fruit with a refuge from the surrounding industrial and agricultural landscape. “If you look at the buildings, they’re basically concrete boxes with flat roofs; they’re windowless, the utilities are exposed, and they’re surrounded by a sea of asphalt, because of all the trucking that has to happen,” he said. “We wanted a warmer and more pleasant environment for people to work in.”
From a design perspective, the overarching goal of the project was to create a building that both reflected the environmental context of the Yakima Valley and provided an efficient workplace environment. One example of this intersection is the building’s lunch room, which provides a gathering space for weekly meals when field staff come in from the orchards, allowing people who grow the fruit to mingle with those who sell it.
Leaders at Washington Fruit & Produce requested an office building with warmer materials, little to no concrete, non-boxlike forms, and visual protection from the adjacent freeway. An old wooden barn on the edge of Yakima served as a design template for the project, and the new building was in part constructed with recycled barn wood.
The design inspiration of the project—the goal of which was to create an inward-looking oasis—was a single abandoned wooden barn on the outskirts of Yakima. “I was taken on a drive to a more rural location on the outskirts of town and shown this barn, which was in a state of decay,” Baba said. One of the main results of this comparison was the design team’s emphasis on the architectural expression of the new office building. “The take-away that I got was that it had a gabled roof, which is a classic barn-like feature; the structure of the building involves a lot of the diagonal E-braces that you see in barns,” he said. “When you look at the structure of those buildings, you can really see how the structural elements are exposed.” In the design of the office building, the project team worked on exposing the wooden diagonal structural beams; the outer shell of the building is clad in 16,000 square feet of locally reclaimed barn wood.
Programmatically, the building was designed to capitalize on the specific geographical characteristics of Yakima, according to Baba. “The building is a lot about [increasing] daylight to the interior. In Yakima, you really want to control the sun, because it’s a really bright, warm environment and gets about 300 days of sunshine per year,” he said. In various places, parts of the simple gable structure on the exterior were removed and replaced with glass to increase transparency with the natural environment. “The building wraps around, so that the views from where you’re sitting inside the building are very carefully curated,” Baba said. “It’s very much about curating those views and the outlook of the building, which blends right into the landscape,” he added.
More broadly, the Washington Fruit & Company headquarters represents an intersection of place-making and curating an efficient workplace environment. The design of the building was heavily influenced by this two-part strategy, according to Baba. “One of the pieces [of the project] is how the building fits into the landscape. The building fits into the landscape with its form and the nod to the agrarian and agricultural surroundings; and the other is how it creates an environment for the people,” he said. “The materials really reflect the landscape around Eastern Washington; and when you sink the building into the ground and allow the plants and earth to grow up and over the top of it, the building has the rolling feeling of the area.”