Designing for the Design District

Mission Bell and David Baker Architects build the feel of history into 855 Brannan

The San Francisco neighborhood known as the Design District is undergoing a transformation, with hundreds of new apartments being built in an effort to make it a more pedestrian-friendly and sustainable place to live. One of the newest gems in the neighborhood is 855 Brannan, a 449-unit apartment complex occupying nearly 4.5 acres of land, featuring a majestic courtyard planted with mature redwoods and common space designed to foster a sense of community among residents. It was designed by David Baker Architects and built by Balfour Beatty. One of the most prominent features you notice when walking into the main common areas is the beautiful woodwork: the building features 10,000 feet of repurposed Douglas fir timber left over from the site’s previous building, the San Francisco Train Depot. Transformed by Mission Bell into paneling, accents and furniture, the repurposed timber provides a sense of warmth and continuity to the site.

Leading the Field in Reclaimed Lumber

Mission Bell has a long and impressive track record of building custom millwork for commercial projects. Founded in 1959 in Santa Clara, California, the company added sourcing reclaimed wood to its custom manufacturing business in 2012. In recent years Mission Bell has reclaimed lumber from such iconic sites as Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and Moffett Field, the former naval airfield that’s now used by NASA and home to some of the largest freestanding wood buildings in the world. Leveraging their strong past with a 21st-century attitude, the company uses cutting-edge technology to implement the designs their customers dream up.

That’s the reason why Chelsea Johnson, the lead architect for 855 Brannan, called in Mission Bell when demolition began on the former building on the site, the San Francisco Train Depot. Built by Western Pacific at the beginning of the 20th century, the abandoned depot contained a treasure trove of beautiful wood that Johnson hoped could be salvaged for use in the apartment complex. Mike Bilinski, who specialized in preconstruction and design assist at Mission Bell and has since become a consultant for the company, came down to show the demo team what could be salvaged on such a tight schedule. Then, Johnson, Bilinski and their respective teams worked closely together to see how Johnson’s vision for beautiful milled lumber could be put into action.

Modern Amenities of Historical Proportions

The end product features beautifully milled design elements. When entering the building from the garage, residents are greeted by the address, 855, engraved on a massive wooden wall hanging, which is striking for its refined elegance. The mailroom features mailboxes of metal and wood that evoke an old-fashioned post office, and divider walls throughout the lobby and recreation areas are outfitted with wooden slat shutters, giving a sense of intimacy and history to the generous spaces. In the kitchen, there’s a gorgeous walnut slab table built from wood taken from shade trees planted in the 1930s on San Benito County, California, farms. Together, David Baker Architects and Mission Bell have brought new meaning to the expression “farm to table,” and have imbued a thoroughly modern project with a sense of continuity and sustainability.