The Design Process behind La Kretz Innovation Campus
Alice Kimm, FAIA, Provides the Inside Story of a Cleantech Incubator
Reception area at LKIC. Photo: Benny Chan, Fotoworks
In the heart of Los Angeles’ Arts District, the La Kretz Innovation Campus (LKIC) has drawn interest from tech entrepreneurs and city officials from as far afield as Africa. Designed by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, LKIC is a 3.2 acre interdisciplinary hub where entrepreneurs, engineers, community activists, and policymakers innovate to support Los Angeles’ green economy. Its tenants already include such environmental and urban leaders as 2015 Latrobe Prize winner the Arid Lands Institute, USGBC and CicLAvia.
When we asked Alice Kimm, FAIA, about the firm’s process for the commission, we discovered that LKIC’s story is as unique as some of the innovative work of its incubator tenants.
AIA|LA: What was the biggest challenge on the La Kretz project?
Alice Kimm, FAIA: It’s kind of a miracle that this project got built, actually. There were more than a few major challenges:
The first was that the initial project manager, the CRA/LA, was disbanded during the development process. When that happened, it threw all of the funding sources into array. However, with the support of the Mayor’s office, both mayors – Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor Eric Garcetti (who thankfully continued to support the project) as well as continued hard work by former CRA individuals, and the LADWP (which replaced the CRA, institutionally), the project stayed alive. Each of the many [I believe it was over 12] funding sources fell into place slowly, one by one.
This challenge wasn’t about the architecture per se. Instead, JFAK performed additional activities to keep [clients, funders and city officials] convinced of the worth of the project – both with respect to financial viability and its ability to become a true community hub based on the strength of design. In this project more than with many others, JFAK was an integral member of the overall project team that kept the thing alive. Our role was more than designer -- we were a facilitator as much as any other member of the team.
LKIC offers a full menu of laboratories and shops. Wet and dry labs, biology and chemistry labs, mechanical shops, model prototyping, etc. Though LKIC tenants receive priority, outside start-ups may also use the labs. Photo: AIA|LA staff, on the fly. (Apologies to Mr. Chan)
The second thing is: Programming was a challenge. There aren’t too many precedents for this kind of public-private partnership facility, or for the type of incubator / community facility to use as role models. Additionally, in terms of programming and this ties back into the client change above, after the LADWP jumped in for the CRA/LA, the department realized they needed to occupy a portion of the space themselves.
So, our JFAK team was more than normally involved in generating actual program elements -- and the program remained a moving target even into construction.
Finally, it goes without saying that, because this was a Public Low Bid Project, execution was very challenging. That’s another whole discussion unto itself and an ongoing challenge with public projects.
A shop at LKIC. Photo: AIA|LA staff, on the fly.
AIA|LA: You said there weren’t many precedents and incubator models for this kind of public-private partnership facility. Why was that? What type of incubator models are missing, meaning, what makes this one so special and unique?
AK: Many of the "incubators" or "research labs" or even "work hubs" out there are private enterprises -- corporations, creative industry companies, schools. But La Kretz is interesting because it is a true partnership of LADWP, the City of LA, and LA Cleantech Incubator.
The campus really sees itself as part of the city, as part of the arts district, as part of the neighborhood, and, as a result, the tenants that LACI is attracting include companies such as RiverLA, Arid Lands Institute, CicLAvia, USGBC -- as well as the "tech" startups you would expect.
Open plan and enclosed offices, as well as conference rooms, occupy one half of the warehouse and are organized around the village concept. Throughout, JFAK brought in natural light and maintained a relationship to the Arts District. Photo: AIALA staff on the fly.
On top of that, there are always community activists, entrepreneurs, local artists, etc. moving through the facility. The central corridor of the campus is becoming a kind of community art gallery. Government has a presence; the local council district, the mayor's office, and other governmental entities move through the campus, hold events there, have their voices heard there.
So the activities going on at the campus are fluid, surprising, and collaborative in the most interesting and unexpected ways that one can imagine. There are LADWP personnel moving through the campus and at the LACI all the time; and vice versa. It's a place where the local community can really, firsthand, become educated about utilities, sustainability, and technology - and how they can affect (not just be affected by) them, push things forward for their own good.
The public-private partnership has catalyzed very unique and creative movement. The architecture supports this by having the right mix of openness, transparency, and feeling of community.
A conference room. Photo: AIALA staff on the fly.
AIA|LA: What was the firm’s approach?
AK: To remain nimble, flexible, and to be ready for change and surprise at every turn. It was not easy -- when you have to change drawing sets, submittals, etc., and it’s all public low-bid, it becomes very difficult to remain flexible. It’s not like a house (!), but we took care of major design changes during construction, and found creative ways of making design changes work for everyone.
With respect to the architecture, as with all public low-bid projects, we used simple off-the-shelf materials for the most part, and kept constructibility in mind always. We had to design to the very economical budget and capability of the public low-bid contract and contractor.
AIA|LA: What did you learn about Cleantech industries that surprised you or that you didn’t know before.
AK: It wasn’t new, but it brought home, how inextricably tied technology and community and culture really are nowadays. Technology drives culture (social media is the prime example). Technology is also all about performance. Sustainability (and cleantech/greentech) is all about performance. Put together: technology+performance=contemporary culture – which is an equation that we at JFAK have been thinking about a lot and that I have been looking at with students in my design seminars/studios at USC.
Because LKIC is a very unusual embodiment of a public-private partnership, it is an interesting case study in how all this plays out. It may be the only place where you’ll see solar companies working with community groups such as CicLAvia, for instance. It’s really interesting in that sense – truly interdisciplinary and the idea of public-private is much less segmented – it is much more fluid. The architecture of JFAK at LKIC serves to support this interdisciplinary interaction--an interaction which is social as much as intellectual and political. So – it brings home that clean tech is tied to the social. A new social technology, I suppose one can say. We are using that phrase a bit-- I haven’t looked at whether it exists already or not.
AIA|LA: One of the things that interested me was your variation of space. Open work plan and then more private space. How did this come about and are we moving away from open plan offices? When are each of these types used and how are companies balancing them?
AK: I would say that there is definitely a bit of a reaction or pushback against fully-open office space going on – but it’s not really a rejection of open plan: it’s simply an acknowledgement that, with the new mobilities provided by laptops and devices etc., you don’t need to be completely open OR closed or fixed.
You can move freely between all types of spaces and work modes and work spaces. So that gives rise to nice hierarchies to exist even in the most open work plan. And, of course, acoustics still matters and privacy for certain types of interactions/conversations. To us, it was very logical that there would be a need for a variety of spaces – from private to fully open. Each company probably uses the full range of these spaces, even the companies that are one or two people only. They may be renting out an open area with a few desks, but they can sign up for a conference room, or what we call a “phone booth,” or private small office, whenever they want. And they can host an event in the main event space. And of course, they can go take selfies with their clients in front of the green wall at the waiting area next to reception. That’s become the go-to place to take pictures and say, “hey, here I am at LACI / LKIC!”
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