David Baker Architects

DBA_WORKSHOP

Behind the Scenes at DBA_Workshop


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by Barrett Karber, DBA_Workshop Lead

Image: Michelle Park Photography

I run DBA Workshop, David Baker Architect’s full-service wood and metal shop. We provide support for the firm’s architectural design projects, including prototyping our own furniture and casework ideas in house.

The creative staff at DBA are architects and architectural designers. I provide a compatible but very different perspective on design, fabrication, and materials that we have found to be super-valuable to our practice. Here's a little about what I do, as well as our design process and how we've integrated the shop into our practice.

Back Story 

I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, welding and doing cement work—in the world I grew up in, you need to do everything yourself. After college, I worked for my cousin’s construction firm. In school, I had studied zoology and biomedical sciences and was planning to go on to be a doctor. My sister, an architect who was working at DBA at the time, encouraged me to join her in California while I was studying for medical school. She lined up a job for me building furniture in San Francisco, and out I came. 
 

Grinding the frame for a Summit Table. Image: David Baker Architects

Getting Started 

About the same time, David Baker was looking for someone to work with him in the woodshop he had set up at his house, Zero Cottage. He invited me to build desks for his office. David had a design for desks that he already liked. At my previous firm, I had built desks for him using that design, so I was familiar with it—and I had ideas for improving it.
 
We sat down together, and we kept tweaking the design. Each desk I made got a little bit better, and David loved being able to incrementally alter a design physically.  That was when I really fell in love with this kind of work, and that experience helped us realize how we could integrate me into the firm. That was more than three years ago, and my role in the firm has slowly grown and evolved from there. 

 

Crank-operated plyboo desk tucked into the corner office at Zero Cottage. Image: Matthew Millman

Installing the massive barn door at h2hotel. Image: David Baker Architects

The sliding barn door elegantly hides the presentation screen in the event room at h2hotel. Image: Paul Dyer

Diving into DBA

The first project I did for one of DBA’s designs was a massive 6-foot by 12-foot door for the community room of the h2hotel in Healdsburg. The shop where I built it was only about 20 feet long—the door took up almost the entire space.

DBA_Workshop's Fractal Tables. Image: Matt Edge

After that, I jumped into creating furniture for the common rooms at Bayview Hill Gardens, which is housing for formerly homeless families in San Francisco. The common spaces there were beautiful, but the tight budget had left them feeling a little spare. We decided to build colorful custom furniture to really make the spaces feel special. 

Custom tables and casework in the TV lounge at Bayview Hill Gardens. Image: Matt Edge

Another collaboration happened at 855 Brannan, which is under construction in San Francisco. It’s a 432-unit mixed-use building on the former site of the Concourse exhibition center, which was originally built as a freight depot in 1909.

We started by doing a quick overview of the plan and identifying areas where we potentially could utilize materials salvaged from the original structure. We then sat down with Kim Coleman Interiors, the interior design firm for the project, and discussed how we could repurpose the Concourse’s huge beams of old-growth Douglas fir. We added several standing bars and counters in common spaces. We also designed a wall cladding to add warmth to the space. The final use of the salvaged material came in the mailroom, where we repurposed the fir for a mailbox surround, a sorting table, and a bench.

Incremental Iterative Improvement

 
We established DBA_Workshop as a defined part of our practice, moved into an expanded space in Oakland, and brought in a shop assistant: Kevin Neilan is a woodworker with an architecture background that really strengthens the bridge between the architects and the shop.  
 
I’m building relationships with welders and other craftspeople and focusing more on the administrative side—I can manage a lot more work than I can physically carry out myself. For example, we had an opportunity to refresh all the guest rooms at one of DBA’s previous hotel projects, Hotel Healdsburg. We designed and built a prototype room and then found a fabricator to build those pieces for the 55 rooms. I was able to supervise that production while working on other custom designs.  

Image: David Baker Architects

Image: Paul Dyer

DBA_Workshop has become really integrated into the firm’s practice. Our close relationship has changed the way the architects think about building. It's common for architects to be somewhat disconnected from the people who build what they design. Because I’m right here, they get to interact with me much more than is typical. We can collaborate and figure out together how to make something that’s more functional while still being true to the original idea.

For example, we recently designed and built massive freestanding mailbox banks for Foundry Commons, a market-rate apartment building in San Jose. The architects and I went back and forth to create a base for the mailboxes that would look streamlined yet be strong enough to support such a heavy load in earthquake country. Together we were able to find the point of perfect balance.

Image: Michelle Park Photography

Community Table at the Foundry. Image: Michelle Park Photography

Next Steps

We’re currently cataloging a lot of our original designs that have worked well so we can really refine them and make them available for other projects. As we increase the volume of work we do and make the shop self sufficient, we’ll bring in shop staff with an even wider range of skills to provide a broader range of offerings for our clients. Right now we’re experimenting with CNC capabilities to expand production, and creating more custom built-in pieces. We are basically only limited by our imagination.

Barrett Karber and Kevin Neilan of DBA_Workshop. Image: Michelle Park Photography

Crank-operated plyboo desk tucked into the corner office at Zero Cottage. Image: Matthew Millman

Image: David Baker Architects

Image: Paul Dyer

Image: Paul Dyer

Installing the massive barn door at h2hotel. Image: David Baker Architects

The sliding barn door elegantly hides the presentation screen in the event room at h2hotel. Image: Paul Dyer

Custom tables and casework in the TV lounge at Bayview Hill Gardens. Image: Matt Edge

Image: Matt Edge

DBA_Workshop's Fractal Tables. Image: Matt Edge

Grinding the frame for a Summit Table. Image: David Baker Architects

Angled leg detail, Summit Table. Image: David Baker Architects

Corner detail, Summit Table. Image: David Baker Architects

Image: David Baker Architects

Detail, Mayfield Table. Image: David Baker Architects

CNC'd panels in the custom coffee carts made for Saint Clare at SPUR in San Francisco. Image: Brett Randall Jones

Community Table at the Foundry. Image: Michelle Park Photography

Image: Michelle Park Photography

Image: Michelle Park Photography

Image: Michelle Park Photography

Julie de Jesus and Akima Brackeen of DBA_Inside, our Interiors Group, at work on the Annex Table, custom built for this sharply angled corner by DBA_Workshop from oak and marble. Image: Anne Hamersky

Image: Michelle Park Photography

Barrett Karber and Kevin Neilan of DBA_Workshop. Image: Michelle Park Photography