Deanna Van Buren Has a BIG Idea

Deanna Van Buren (LF '13) has worked in a large architectural firm and in an independent practice, and she vastly prefers being her own boss, but she misses the advantages that being part of a large firm confers: infrastructure, support, and most importantly, collaboration. Now it seems she’s figured out a way to have her cake and eat it too with a project she’s calling BIG Oakland. It’s a coworking space for the AEC field (architecture, engineering, and construction), and it’s rapidly increasing in momentum.

It’s not as if Van Buren doesn’t already have enough on her plate. Her work in restorative justice design is gaining traction as the national climate has become more receptive to examining structural racism in the criminal justice system, and she is being seen as a thought leader in the field. She’s a bit dazed, “Now suddenly people are taking my calls and asking to meet with me because they see me as a content expert.” The Witness is finally being released; it’s a video game for which Van Buren designed the environment in the belief that good design in the electronic gaming industry can influence the public to demand better quality design in its physical spaces. She also launched the Designing Justice and Designing Spaces Toolkit to facilitate creating spaces of justice using the values and principles of restorative justice. So why take on a new, large-scale project with a lot of uncertainty built in?

“BIG Oakland came out of our need as small businesses for appropriate office space responsive to the way we work, the mess we make, a dedicated space with materials at hand,” Van Buren explained. “The idea is that working in the same area as other architects, we can share resources.” The “we” refers to collaborators Gean Bjork, who founded her own contracting company; Oscia Wilson, an architect and MBA who runs a small integrated project delivery firm; and Kyle Rawlins, a developer trained as an architect.

The group has benefitted from the experience of colleagues involved in other coworking spaces, of which there are many in the Bay Area, but they believe theirs would be one of the first–if not the first–in the US to combine architecture, engineering and construction. They got to work last summer to develop the concept, layout, and amenities and began to crunch numbers and assemble their pitch deck. “Our market research showed market demand; early feedback was overwhelmingly positive, which left us feeling very optimistic,” said Van Buren.

The early plan is for an open studio format that includes anchor tenants and coworking rentals for different periods and at different levels. Noise is part of the work: “The messy thing is important because we’re making real buildings, so we have real things–samples, large format design drawings–that can spill out into the main area. Plus, we’re trying to recreate the team environment for independent practitioners that enables cross pollination among people in the building industry.”

Clients hire big architecture firms for the team and the back-up resources that small firms typically can’t afford. Van Buren believes, “If you don’t have access to the tools of the profession because you’re too small, it hurts you as an architect and it hurts the profession. We want to provide an alternative to large firms and give a leg up to small firms in order to challenge the monoculture.”

To this end, BIG Oakland will house a materials library, large format and 3-D printers, software and sharing licenses, meeting rooms, model building area, and shared personnel for hospitality HR, bookkeeping, and legal services. The thirty thousand square foot and up sites they are looking at–larger than they strictly need–would enable Big Oakand to have other tenants and retail amenities, like the requisite coffee shop. “If we’re looking to be the Oakland address for small women and minority contractors, wouldn’t it make sense to have a day care right here on site?”

The BIG Oakland Kickstarter campaign that began February 5 is aimed at raising a modest amount of money and, more importantly, demonstrating market demand. Supporters at a certain level will be able to reserve space or even participate in designing the space. Since the next steps involve securing capital, the pre-leasing is designed to increase investment interest and confidence.

If the proof of concept succeeds, there potentially will be two businesses: property ownership and BIG Oakland the intellectual property. The team wants to disseminate the model by making it available to others wanting to start something similar elsewhere.

Van Buren is full of energy for the work ahead. “This can be a hub for learning and growth. We’re very intentional about creating a thriving climate that’s mutually beneficial with an office culture of collaboration rather than competition.”

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