Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects, ‘Uber Advanced Technologies Group R&D Center’, San Francisco, California, US

Uber Advanced Technologies Group is a self-driving technology engineering team, Research and Development Center of which is housed within San Francisco’s historic Pier 70. Four massive buildings, constructed between 1885 and 1937 for ship repair, now extend the site’s legacy of transportation endeavours into the 21st century.

The project’s seven-acre site in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighbourhood housed one of the largest ship-repair yards on the west coast, and arguably the most intact 19th-century industrial complexes west of the Mississippi River. The contiguous buildings 113, 114, 115 and 116 not only originated in different decades, but are of widely varying construction types and materials, including unreinforced masonry, reinforced concrete, and wood or steel trusses. To that end, the design approach uses a (new)-building-within-an-(old)-building concept to preserve the historic perimeter walls, while retaining the lofty volumes of the industrially  scaled spaces.

A major challenge in earthquake zones is the structural deficiency of older buildings, especially of unreinforced masonry. The new retrofit system is designed to resist a 500-year-recurrence seismic event; steel columns and braces are strategically located along the existing building structure to minimise visual impact. New concrete mezzanines not only add leasable area, but also brace the historic brick walls at mid-height. Full-height walls have upper portions sheathed in clear, multiwall polycarbonate to maintain the original sightlines.

Historic facades and suspended cranes frame cavernous industrial spaces, while lab, shop and kitchen spaces are located under mezzanines, allowing for sound  isolation, temperature control and dust containment. Notably, the existing structural columns, beams and trusses were not coated with opaque paints, but left natural or protected with transparent coatings when needed. New structural and architectural elements clearly stand in compatible contrast to the historic ones.

The site’s history as a shipyard, interconnected with the commerce, technology and transport of that time period, make it a fitting home for Uber. This legacy  created structures that, once adapted, serve Uber’s specific needs for industrial, research and office spaces under one roof, or several connected roofs. The company needed industrial space to bear the considerable weight of its fleets of vehicles and large-scale machinery. Built before reliable interior lighting, the buildings provided excellent components for healthy and stimulating workspaces, such as abundant natural light and ventilation. While revitalising a crumbling and unsafe shipyard facility into a vibrant place for work, the design team also created spaces for public gathering in a rejuvenated historic setting.