The Sunny Side

A solar-panel manufacturer finds a way to build a beautiful new office space in difficult times.

Valerio Dewalt Train


San Jose, California

Along California’s I-880 corridor, between San Jose and Berkeley, there’s a series of buildings that bear the logo of the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, but no longer contain its products, its employees, or even its marketing materials. The company’s operations have been suspended since 2011, to “evaluate reorganization options.” It’s the cautionary tale to which SunPower, a solar-panel company based in San Jose, paid attention.

SunPower needed to expand its office space, but its president and CEO, Tom Werner, was wary of the poor economy. “Tom’s mindset was, ‘We don’t want to jinx the business by doing what Solyndra did,’ ” says Joe Valerio, of the Chicago architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train. Instead of just hiring a large, high-profile design firm like Solyndra had done, SunPower’s vice president, Doug Richards, used a rather traditional hiring process to pick the architects. “I think what got his attention was that we didn’t come to the assignment with a ‘here is what you need’ idea. Instead, our plan was to discover what they needed,” Valerio says.

They got the project in late 2009, but SunPower was reluctant to invest in land. Several months later, when the lease on the company’s 1980s-era office expired, they showed Valerio Dewalt Train three dilapidated buildings on Rio Robles in San Jose. “I walked in, and Doug and Tom were literally sitting at a card table in the middle of a 66,000-square-foot space,” Valerio says of their first design meeting. That scale made his proposal—to focus almost entirely on the ceiling, punching holes into it to create skylights that bring sunlight right down into the offices—even more powerful.

The new, 185,000-square-foot work space, which is slated to achieve LEED Gold certification, was designed and built at $80 per square foot—remarkably inexpensive for Class A office space. The trick lay in using corkboard as ceiling and wall panels, and in exaggerating the effect of the six-foot-wide acrylic skylights. Twelve-foot-diameter cones connect the dropped ceiling to the roof, making the skylights look much bigger and bringing a tremendous amount of light into the space. Massive photographs of the company’s projects line the walls. The detailed carpeting—made up of hundreds of multicolored panels—creates visual interest on the floor, with pools of gray among patches of green. Low cubicle partitions, furniture clusters, and open collaborative areas provide settings for “random encounters,” a big buzzword in office design. But here, Valerio says, those encounters actually happen, and the creative solutions that result will keep SunPower going strong.

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