A Workplace for the Times

RiverRock’s new headquarters is a study in hybrid workplace design, creating open, collaborative spaces that give the company’s ‘RockStars’ a reason to go back to the office.

The design process for RiverRock Real Estate Group’s new headquarters in Orange County, California, was just beginning when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing a rethink of every aspect of the company’s workplace. As COVID surged and ebbed, LPA designers and the RiverRock team explored the commercial real estate firm’s culture, work habits and long-term goals, looking for new ways to keep the workplace relevant, safe and supportive long after COVID fades.

“This project was started during COVID. It was completed during COVID. And now it is being occupied during COVID,” says LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato. “This design is really a manifestation of this time.”

The completed renovation of the 40-year building provides a model for a hybrid workplace, tailored for RiverRock’s specific values and philosophy. The open layout allows social distancing, while providing an array of collaborative spaces and flexibility in how and where people work. There are fewer workstations than employees; lockers are provided to store work materials. The space is open to the outdoors, creating natural ventilation and a healthy environment. The design also carves out two spaces for lease, which can be expanded or contracted depending on the company’s future needs.

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A spacious central area allows for respite and collaboration.

“The design process was inspiring and helped us understand where we needed to go and a vision of how to get there,” RiverRock founder and principal John Combs says. “In so many ways, we didn’t know what we wanted, and LPA helped us figure that out.”

RiverRock had ambitious goals for its new workplace, and those goals didn’t change during the pandemic. The company calls employees “RockStars” and prioritizes an environment that nurtures and supports staff and clients.

“We wanted a workspace that embraces a culture that cares about our people, which is the core of our whole company,” Combs says. “It’s all about having an environment where people are happy and want to come to work.”

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Sliding glass doors provide entry into the round lobby, dubbed the “rotunda.”

The free-standing, single-story building next to the 405 Freeway was once home to Entrepreneur magazine and SunCal, a real estate development company. A dark, closed-off building with a nondescript interior and no connection to the outdoors, it had been largely untouched for 30 years. But it had good bones, including skylights that brought abundant natural light into the interior space.

“Our first intention with the building was to let it breathe,” D’Amato says. “We wanted to open it up and embrace what it was as a piece of architecture.”

One full wall was replaced with a glass wall, bringing natural light into collaborative spaces. Sliding glass doors connect the spaces to the exterior, expanding the workspace. Enclosed spaces were moved away from the existing skylights to allow the natural light into gathering areas. A round lobby, dubbed the “rotunda,” was added to create a transition between the outdoors and the entrance to RiverRock’s world.

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The spacious “touchless” kitchen opens to the outdoors.

In the open floor plan, workstations are separated to give everyone a sense of space and security, while creating a central area for the “RockStars” to gather and work. “The objective was to bring the company together around this collaborative social space,” D”Amato says.

From the start, the layout was designed for flexibility, with the recognition that the firm’s work habits may change. The lease spaces can be expanded or decreased, depending on need. “The floor plan has the ability to shift and change as it needs to in the future,” D’Amato says.

As the design developed, it increasingly reflected RiverRock’s specific preferences and approach to work. A “touchless” kitchen was moved to the perimeter and opened to the outdoors. Multipurpose spaces, conference rooms, touchdown spaces and patio seating were added. Original paintings and murals are spotlighted throughout.

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Employees can move seamlessly from the kitchen to an outdoor patio.

“The design process was inspiring and helped us understand where we needed to go and a vision of how to get there. In so many ways, we didn’t know what we wanted, and LPA helped us figure that out.” - John Combs, RiverRock Founder & Principal

RiverRock employees were involved at every step of the design process. “I learned that RiverRock really cares about their RockStars,” says Austin Brown, the new office’s operations manager. “They truly put a lot of effort into thinking how the space was going to work for each and every person in each and every department.”

Early in the process, LPA lighting designers were engaged to help define spaces and highlight art and different activity zones. Fixtures were integrated into the design to aid wayfinding, draw people through the space and create a rhythm to the different zones. Lighting pulls attention to the art, the materiality of the walls and the social areas, supplementing and accenting the natural light.

“The lighting draws users through the space, starting at the front entry where we highlighted the exterior fins, and then brings you into the space by highlighting the artwork,” says LPA Senior Lighting Designer Rebecca Ceballos.

At each step of the process, designers considered ways to reduce the project’s carbon footprint. Wherever possible, the building’s existing elements were reused. Private offices were maintained on the edges of the space. Furniture from the previous office was repurposed. Materials were carefully selected to reduce embedded carbon and to accent environments.

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A gabion portal ushers RiverRock’s “RockStars” and visitors into the conference room.

“RiverRock really gave us a lot of freedom to bring ideas to the table,” says LPA Project Designer Lindsay Votel. “They wouldn’t always accept our first ideas, but it became a collaborative iterative process, which was a lot of fun. They challenged us to think outside the box.”

The new space reflects the times by creating a healthy, safe environment, while recognizing that people will work differently in the future. At the same time, it creates opportunities for people to come together, grow and work better as a unit.

“This space is a great example of answering the why: Why should people go back to the office?” D’Amato says.

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The exterior patio flows into the kitchen and other gathering spaces.

The space has already changed RiverRock. On any given day, people can be found working in the shared areas or staging impromptu meetings in the kitchen. RockStars use an app to reserve workstations and configure working groups.

On a personal level, Combs says the new headquarters is fulfilling his goal of creating a fun, collaborative environment that makes people happy to come to work.

“Every day, I walk in here, and I’m just so excited that this is our space,” Combs says. “It reinforces our culture and our people and who we are.”