May 22, 2017

Lighting for every neighborhood in Dropbox’s hashtag-shaped city

By Samantha Schwirck

Lighting for every neighborhood in Dropbox's hashtag-shaped city. Photos: Eric Laignel
Coders prefer to work in the deep-focus suite, where ring-shaped pendants dim to levels between 1 and 2 footcandles. Photo: Eric Laignel

It doesn’t matter if you’re an intern, associate, manager or CEO, you won’t have an office—or even a cubicle—at Dropbox’s new headquarters in San Francisco. You will, however, have a neighborhood to work in amongst like-minded community members, and you’ll likely cross through an intersection to get there. To foster collaboration and socialization, the 260,000-sq ft office is set up like a city, with a grid connecting neighborhoods that support different employee needs. Navigating the Dropbox streets doesn’t require a map though—for the tech company’s staff, the grid’s hashtag shape is all but second nature.

It was the job of San Francisco-based design firm Rapt Studio to combine Dropbox’s neighboring six-story office buildings into one, which involved cutting openings to join each level. The new building accommodates 1,800 employees ranging from quiet engineers to social marketers. To design an office that would suit everyone’s needs, Dropbox management first asked for input from employees, who indicated a preference for variety—different settings depending on what they’re doing as well as how they’re feeling.

Enter the hashtag floor plan. A mix of public, semi-public and private spaces support departmental needs; rhythmic corridors and visual landmarks encourage movement and collaboration; and strategic spaces cater to specific moods. “The interior design team developed a ‘sensory score card’ ranking a hierarchy of sensory themes in each space, including visual, tactile, taste and auditory,” explains Faith Jewell, senior associate at HLB Lighting Design, the San Francisco-based firm behind the lighting plan. “We implemented a lighting design that supports the unique sensory experiences within the spaces, providing the appropriate illumination for work tasks and taking into account the visual comfort of the occupants, while maintaining an environmental and energy-conscious design.”


#Workstations. Photo: Eric Laignel
Workstations. Photo: Eric Laignel

Although each neighborhood has a distinct style based on the group of users it serves, they all contain open work areas, conference rooms, meeting rooms and breakout spaces. By the same token, similar fixtures provide illumination in all the neighborhoods, which eased installation—a major consideration for HLB. “Dropbox was eager to occupy the space quickly,” Jewell says. “The lighting process from design to occupancy was less than a year, so we deployed several strategies to keep the lighting design synchronized with the aggressive schedule.” Selecting fixtures with attention to lead times and ease and speed of installation also eliminated the need to value engineer and makes the system easier to maintain going forward.

General diffused ambient illumination for work areas comes from 2-in. aperture linear direct/indirect LED fixtures which are organized in long runs and pendant-mounted diagonally to the workstations, reinforcing the hashtag layout. A recessed version of the 3500K linear fixture appears in both open and enclosed conference and meeting areas, but smoke-tinted glass differentiates enclosed spaces. “It creates the illusion of 3000K lighting from the outside of the space to soften the visual presence of the lighting and add variety to the visual experience of the open floor plan,” Jewell explains.

Divider screens made of woven leather strips—illuminated by a series of 3-in. (diameter) stem-mounted accent light—accomplish a similar goal, establishing boundaries around workstation areas. Need a change of scenery? Strolling between neighborhoods reveals a slew of spaces that accommodate everyone from the introvert to the social butterfly.


#Intersections. Photo: Eric Laignel
Intersections. Photo: Eric Laignel

In corridors, recessed downlights organized in pairs “create a sense of rhythm to lead you through the space,” Jewell says. Follow that rhythm and you’ll land at an intersection. Large, circular wagon wheel-like meeting areas with 16-ft (diameter) backlit white-fabric ceilings double as visual landmarks and promote impromptu collaboration among colleagues passing through. Design features in the lounge-like spaces—some contain statement art pieces and perimeter banquette seating, others centralized, plush furniture—are highlighted by 3500K illumination from the ceiling, and secondary niches are accented by perimeter wall slots.


#Library. Photo: Eric Laignel
Library. Photo: Eric Laignel

The library and the deep-focus suite were both designed for quiet productivity, but each caters to a different crowd. The library—a rose-colored, airy space below ribbon-like archways—is open but intimate, encouraging both independent and small-group activity. Walnut shelving and a long, walnut table recall a collegial environment. “Lighting is intended to bring attention to the lush, tactile materials in the space,” Jewell says, so the fixtures are concealed. Accent lights in arches highlight wood and carpet surfaces; linear LEDs in front of shelves accentuate the texture of book spines; and custom task lights on the table emphasize its length.

The deep-focus suite takes quiet productivity to the next level. The windowless space is dedicated to Dropbox’s coding team, which might be rapidly responding to a software glitch or hacking attempt. Futuristic 10-ft (diameter) pendant-mounted rings over lounge and workstation seating areas utilize 1-percent dimming ballasts for light levels between 1 and 2 footcandles. Drama continues in the coders’ “War Room” conference spaces. “They’re designed to have a Stanley Kubrick-esque feel,” Jewell says. “Wall grazing on two perimeter walls enhances your perception of the height of the space and minimal pendant-mounted decorative fixtures, suspended low over the tables, give a dramatic feel.”


#Microkitchen. Photo: Eric Laignel
Microkitchen. Photo: Eric Laignel

In addition to breakout areas and intersections, employees can gather in microkitchens scattered throughout or in the café. In microkitchens, communal tables and sofas are illuminated by large oval fixtures composed of 3000K LED strips between shortened panel track blinds. The café feels more like a restaurant than a cafeteria, but light levels in certain areas needed to be high enough for working as well. Hospitality interior designer AvroKO took care of ambience with a variety of custom decorative fixtures, while HLB added the functional illumination. “Architectural track-mounted low-profile adjustable accent lighting is discreetly layered between the decorative lighting,” Jewell says. “Some of the dining areas also have narrow-beam pools of light directly over the tables so that higher light levels could be achieved without disrupting the overall feel.”


#Music Room. Photo: Eric Laignel
Music Room. Photo: Eric Laignel

Come 5 p.m., employees can de-stress in the on-site gym—linear neon-like fixtures woven through exposed ceiling pipes make the space feel less industrial—or head to the karaoke bar for a jam session. The music room is the only area besides the microkitchens where 3000K appears, in LED screw-based retrofit lamps. “Surface-mounted junction boxes with the funky, dimmable LED lamps give the room an upscale garage feel and encourage employees to pick up an instrument,” Jewell says. A recessed linear wall washer highlights the raw concrete wall in the adjacent black-box performance space, while small black adjustable LED track heads, integrated into the acoustical ceiling system, illuminate the occasional performance.

The variety of environments available to Dropbox residents has become the talk of other towns, including HLB’s. “The project represents one of the most exciting parts of being a lighting designer—creating unique experiences for the people who use our spaces,” Jewell says. “When it first opened, we joked about moving into one of the Dropbox villages because it turned out so awesome.”

Faith Jewell, Associate IALD, Member IES (2013), is a senior associate based in HLB Lighting Design’s San Francisco office.
Venna Resurreccion, Member IES (2013), is a designer for HLB.


Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »