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February 2, 2000

Project of the Month: Old Ford plant gets a new engine

Jury Comments: “We appreciate the commitment on the part of the owner to the integrity of the original building, even with a program that is dramatically divergent. The exterior circulation at each of the floors allows the illusion that the building accommodates the human need for light even in the storage floors.”

Special to the Journal

Shurgard offices
Shurgard discreetly occupies the old Ford Assembly Building in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
Sometimes it seems like South Lake Union has become a tight grid of new construction, with the exception of a few isolated pockets just waiting for some biotech or high-tech enterprise to call it home. But there is one distinguished reminder of the area’s industrial heritage. After a long wait for a key to the new century, the old Ford Assembly Building gleams with renewed confidence.

This is the international headquarters of Shurgard, a rapidly expanding storage company with facilities all over the United States and Europe. Storage is the kind of use most of us associate with suburban office parks, light industrial areas and commercial strips -- not a historic downtown building.

“It’s a unique piece of real estate,” said Shurgard Chairman Charles Barbo.

The handsome, five-story 1913 brick structure was designed by Seattle architect John Graham Sr. as a light truck plant for Ford, and was most recently the home of Craftsman Press. Now, with the help of Fuller/Sears Architects, it has a new life as a corporate home.

“We didn’t want to go out into the suburbs for our national headquarters,” said Barbo. Nor did he want to occupy an executive suite and hold meetings in a downtown office tower. For Barbo and his company’s employees, bold industrial architecture and a casual atmosphere make it just right.

The conference room at Shurgard corporate headquarters opens out to the reception area through garage doors.
Including a basement, the headquarters of Shurgard has three floors of -- you guessed it -- storage. The ground floor is for parking, and the top two hold the company’s corporate offices.

The entrance and bases of the facades were reconfigured to resemble the original Ford Assembly Building, with removable metal awnings allowed by the Seattle Landmarks Board and a new entrance anchoring the corner of the building. The glass and metal of the expansive original windows, typical of industrial buildings of the era, were all faithfully restored.

Project overview

Shurgard Headquarters
1155 Valley St.


Fuller/Sears Architects

Project type:
Building renovation and office interior

Completion date:
September 1998

110,000 square feet

Structural engineer:
Coughlin Porter Lundeen

Civil engineer:

Consulting project manager:
The Justen Co.

Builder and primary contractor:
McCarthy Construction

The restoration stops just inside the outer walls of the building, and a circulation pattern around the perimeter of each floor preserves the building's historic transparency from the street, with the added advantage of well-distributed views for the occupants.

For Shurgard, there is an exciting and thoroughly new reception space in the center of the building. A clerestory “lighthouse,” a part of the company’s logo, pops through the roof to light the two-story reception area. A circle of metal columns grips the floor and recedes in a cone to the daylight far above. On one side, a wide staircase flanked by stadium seating rises toward the fifth floor and more daylight from a window wall above. And on the other side, a large table fills a conference room behind windows in what appears to be stock roll-up panels.

“We’re in the business of garage doors,” explains Barbo. “The whole point of being located in a storage facility is to remind ourselves all the time that we’re in the storage business.”

Around the table are people dressed in Friday-style clothes. That’s fine. Barbo said managers love coming here. Meetings can spill out into the reception space by opening the garage doors, and there is plenty of seating. The reception desk rolls away for large parties.

In addition to the abstract symbolism of the lighthouse, there are reminders everywhere of the nature of the business. The shapes of stacked boxes and slats are design elements in the partitions and cabinetry, and the materials of the storage yard -- corrugated metal, galvanized fixtures and industrial lighting -- are everywhere.

“It’s the client that makes the exceptional project,” said Fuller/Sears principal Bill Fuller, “not the building type.”

Principal and project designer Steven Johnson, added, “They were willing to take some chances.”

Shuregard facade
New detachable hardware invigorates the facade of this city landmark.
The plan and office layout of the top two floors reflect the loose, egalitarian structure of a progressive company. In the corner that points to the lake shore, with its 180-degree city and water views, is the employee lunch room. Barbo, who most recently occupied a typical corporate office in Washington Mutual Tower, now has his desk in one corner of the many office quads on the fourth floor of the building. He is visible to everyone who walks through the office -- just like every staffer -- and obviously likes it that way. Four rolling tables in each quad can be pushed together for impromptu conferences.

“We come together here, in the middle,” said Barbo. “And it happens a lot.”

The whole arrangement resembles the floor plan and cultural feel of a high-tech business. Storage is not a new industry, but Shurgard is gaining momentum in a world where people accumulate things -- and move around -- at an ever faster rate.

In this corporate office, there are a lot of ways for people to communicate, horizontally and vertically. In addition to the dramatic stairway, there is the light well that pierces the top floor. At the edges of the open plan, small stand-alone rooms with slanted walls punctuate the space. Inside are well-appointed private offices available to anyone who needs to use them for a meeting or a phone call or just some quiet, undisturbed time. But nobody lives there. For intensive gatherings, there are project rooms where a team of staffers and managers might be sequestered for a week at a time.

Fuller, Sears, Barbo & Johnson
From left to right, Fuller/Sears principal Bill Fuller, principal-in-charge Steve Sears, Shurgard chairman Charles Barbo and project designer Steven Johnson.
The team of Shurgard, contractor McCarthy and architect Fuller/Sears worked closely with the Seattle Landmarks Board to make sure restoration met the highest design standards.

“We like to do projects in difficult jurisdictions,” said principal-in-charge Steve Sears.

It was a partnership born of pride. Shurgard’s corporate newsletter tells the story of the Ford Assembly Plant.

When the construction crew discovered a railroad oil tanker buried far under the small parking lot on the south side of the building, they were surprised. When they found that it was filled with waste oil, they were astounded, but not put off. The inside of the tank was emptied, scoured and refilled with sand, and the renovation went on, becoming part of the history of the place.

The Project of the Month feature is sponsored by Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce and the American Institute of Architects, Seattle Chapter. Design categories include all types of construction with the exception of single family houses. Projects are selected for the feature with the participation of architects and other members of the arts and design communities as well as representatives of client groups. The Project of the Month for February, Shurgard Headquarters, was selected with the assistance of architect Clint Pehrson and architect Patrick Gordon. For more information about participation in the program, please contact Peter Sackett at AIA Seattle, (206) 448-4938.

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