By Jack Stubbs
“With all of these transportation and growth issues and with lots of people coming here, everyone is always struggling to know whether they can grab that little bit of what Seattle was…because everything is so new, and it feels like it is all coming up at the same time; you don’t get some of those places that feel like they’ve been here for awhile,” said Shannon Gaffney, co-managing partner and one of the founding principals of SkB Architects.
In the current era of growth, change and densification occurring throughout Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound region, the role of architects is increasingly to strike a balance by designing buildings that meet clients’ needs and also fit the ethos of Seattle as an evolving—yet historically-grounded—city.
Along with city-specific design strategies, issues around densification and urban planning remain as pressing as ever, according to Shannon Gaffney, who expressed her concern that with all of the new development, there is a danger that the architectural character of Seattle is becoming one-dimensional in favor of increasing density. “I don’t think density is bad, with the urban village concepts and ideas about taller buildings [needing to] fit in the density. But it has gone so far; I think we’re losing perspective about the scale [in Seattle]. Older cities have a bit more variety in height and massing,” she said.
Seattle-based SkB Architects has designed for several Seattle-based companies including Ben Bridge, Wild Ginger, Gene Juarez and KEXP, among others. And while SkB’s clients like these span a wide range of sectors—retail, restaurant, spa/salon and music/media, respectively—one of the common trends is that each of the companies is striving to capitalize on the growth occurring in the city, according to Shannon Gaffney. “Any of these northwest original companies that we’re working with are all trying to take advantage of the growth and the growing population,” she said. In turn, each of the clients is looking for spaces that are designed accordingly. “They certainly know it’s to their benefit to respond to the things that feel appealing to anybody from any part of the country. It feels like we’re maybe losing that little ‘sprig of northwest,’ especially in some of the more urban areas.”
SkB has designed a number of projects throughout Seattle in recent years. Some of these include the headquarters for radio station KEXP, a 25,000 square foot project built in 2016 and located in Belltown in what was originally a temporary exhibition hall for the 1962 World’s Fair; the headquarters for clothing retailer Tommy Bahama located at 400 Fairview, Ave. N., a 349,000 square foot mixed-use office environment in South Lake Union; a 17,000 square foot salon/spa/retail space for Gene Juarez, which occupies the top floor of the Shops at Bravern in Bellevue; a new 24,000 square foot flex/office space designed for Boston Consulting Group in downtown Seattle; and the BioMed Realty-developed 700 Dexter Ave. N. project, a two-tower, 14-story development in South Lake Union undergoing design review that will include approximately 495,900 square feet of high-tech office space.
One of the common denominators impacting all of these projects is the desire of clients to occupy spaces that mirror the relaxed attitude of the Pacific Northwest, according to Kyle Gaffney, founding partner and lead designer at SkB. “Seattle and the northwest are somewhat viewed as the wild wild west…from a design standpoint I think there’s a perceived if not an actual sense of freedom and exploration out here…we think it should be about a sense of place and an environment that you want to be in for 18 hours a day,” he said. “If clients are coming from out of town, they want to pick up on that vibe; and if they’re home-grown, they understand that vibe [too].”
Another of the trends that characterizes design in the Pacific Northwest, in particular, is a deeper sense of identification with the physical spaces that clients occupy, according to Shannon Gaffney. “If humans and companies grow up in this area, they are certainly impacted by the climatic conditions [here]. There’s a desire in the northwest to have warmth, glow and tactility in these projects,” she said. “Those owners grew up here, but the companies sprouted from the northwest [in general] and Seattle in particular. Each of those designs and approaches has more tactility and warmth emitting from it.”
From an exterior standpoint—and with all of the intensive growth and activity occurring throughout the city—another of the objectives with these projects is to provide clients with a respite from all of the street-level activity that often characterizes bustling areas like the downtown core, Capitol Hill and South Lake Union. “These places sometimes feel like an oasis from all of the activity that’s going on when you go onto the sidewalk,” Shannon Gaffney said.
From a programmatic design perspective, Kyle Gaffney thinks that with new projects, more emphasis should be given to the ground-plane and how the development fits into its surrounding context and community. “So much of our development is about including or leasing X amount of square feet…usually, the ground-plane is an afterthought after a tenant has been secured for the building’s retail or commercial space,” he said. “[Some] developers understand the value of the ground-plane, not only as an urban response, but also that they’ll have a better ROI if their building becomes a destination for its tenants and outside users.”
Currently, much of the focus in Seattle is on how to successfully channel and incorporate the history of Seattle into these newer projects. The rapid growth in the city means that, relative to other cities across the nation, new design often doesn’t adequately reflect the authentic history of Seattle, according to Kyle Gaffney. “You think of Chicago, New York, San Francisco, great cities in our nation that have much longer histories than [Seattle]. These older cities in our country have new developments but also have the older neighborhoods,” he said. “Yes, we have Pioneer Square, and the Landmarks Preservation Board is doing what it can to save [these older buildings]. [But] what we’ve noticed in South Lake Union and Belltown with the rapid growth is the sense of scale…there’s so much new construction that is focused on glass, steel and concrete.”
Even though the influx of new commercial and residential developments is a net positive for the city, Kyle Gaffney still thinks that there is a market for the older, more authentic structures which in some ways better reflect the city’s history. “People put a value on informality. [So] when you come upon a small brick two-story building, chefs and restaurateurs clamor for the authenticity of something that wasn’t constructed in the last five months,” he said.