Open Arch SF 2017: A Look Back

Not that anybody needs a reminder, but 2016 was a LONG YEAR! So long in fact we welcomed it under a different name. During the period when the Open Architecture Collaborative identified itself, built a board of directors, and quietly secured a 501(c)3, the “San Francisco Chapter” had its own rebuilding to do.

Facing the burnout and busy-ness of a post-recession veteran leadership team, we elected to streamline operations for the year, cast a wide net for projects, and attempt to build a fresh volunteer base and new resources for our work. Twelve-plus months later, assembling everyone’s efforts, we were stunned by what had resulted – measured not so much by a volume of our impact, as by the connections and manifestations that a constellation of small achievements can produce.

  1. Portola Neighborhood Pocket Park – Renderings and local collaboration secured municipal funding and instruct installation by SFDPW.
  2. City of Oakland Civic Design Lab – Design/build (and build, and build) to tear down collaboration-stifling silos in City Hall.
  3. Emerging Leaders Lecture: Build Lightly Studio – An old friend was in town.
  4. CCA Privilege & Power Workshop – A maturing social impact design movement demands we understand our own inherent biases, or risk doing more harm than good.
  5. TransForm Summit Community Engagement – Demonstration engagement kiosk polls Silicon Valley transit advocates. A finite commitment that brought around new participants from our newsletter network.
  6. EBALDC Design Dash – Charrette facilitation leads to consulting for a small scale community build.
  7. SPARC-It-Place Plantings – A bit of remote design specification.
  8. San Francisco Design Week/Anderson Anderson Architecture Community Engaged Design Workshop – We were surprised by how many different kinds of design professionals were not aware of CED practices – and were happy to turn them into guinnea pigs in a simultaneous-designer-community charrette around SF POPOS.
  9. Code for SF POPOS Mapp – A partnership with our techiequivalents to build a tool to stimulate use of overlooked “public” parks in downtown San Francisco.
  10. Parties – Self care takes many forms.

I consider OASF’s 2016 work to represent a good menu of what a new, small group of designers-for-good can accomplish with the resources and networks they have close to hand. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that some of the work strays in focus, but believe it all has proven essential to our development. 2016 has offered guidance and strengthened our understanding of the local social and professional landscape from which we can launch a new and more profound effort this year.

And we’re fortunate to have this modest amount of wisdom – something tells me 2017 will be an even longer odyssey.

– Karl Johnson, Interim Director

Full presentation on slideshare



Thornton Pocket Park Schematic Design and Presentation Renderings

The Portola Neighborhood Association (PNA) asked OASF to develop schematic designs and presentation renderings for a half-block street conversion. The site is an under-utilized dead end off a commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Portola district. Adjacent businesses include a grocery/produce market and a longstanding local eatery, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The initial design was considered too toned down. An after-work re-design charrette was organized involving Chapter members and members of PNA. The re-design (which includes a playground and preserve a loading zone for the market) was then outsourced to the Chapter volunteer community for modeling and rendering support. The final articulated product (3 views) helped the City of San Francisco organize the relocation of a bus stop and identify project funding.

Status: The project has moved into the City’s hands, who will ultimately build it. It is in “SFMTA approval purgatory.”


  • Community Ownership. The PNA has been a wonderfully supportive and involved community partner, but has gaps in community representation. More outreach could have achieved broader neighborhood feedback and buy-in. OASF can leverage its free labor to introduce such outreach into projects.
  • Metabolism & Management. Slow pace projects have repercussions on volunteer involvement, especially considering our format. This was a doing-more-work-after-work project (ie, renderers were asked to render things), and managing a large volunteer effort was taxing.


Oakland Civic Design Lab Design/Build

Oakland City Hall 9th Floor asked OASF to work from schematic plans detail and fabricate a light-intervention refab of underused floorspace into a lively coworking environment. Previously a cubicle graveyard, the City envisioned this main floor space as an asset for interdepartmental innovation and breaking down bureaucratic silos.

The project grew from an initial charrette with members of the floor and initial schematic design by local architects Blink!LAB. The project was made possible with its small budget due to donated labor (i.e., us).

We have been building this thing since September, on weekends. Process has involved a lot of plywood cutting and coating, painting, “poly,” sanding, involving a half dozen astonishingly dedicated volunteers and Mai Ling, the client rep, who has joined in the work at every stage. A friend offered use of shop equipment, and materials staging has been conducted on-site! Assembly is imminent. A hard deadline has been set for Citycamp on March 25, though there’s a chance work will wrap well before then.

In addition to building an exciting collaborative space for Oakland, this project will be a business card of sorts for the Chapter, and will likely introduce us to a lot of communities and projects on the City’s radar.


Emerging Leaders Lecture: Build Lightly

A Chapter member’s schoolmate with an incredible professional story was passing through San Francisco, and the member asked if she could present her work for the Chapter’s peer network. Some years earlier, the architect in question, Miriam Gee, leveraged her licensure and an allowance from her employer to launch a graduate student design-build program at the University of Hawaii. This work launched the co-founding of Build Lightly Studio, which now conducts design-build workshops across the hemisphere, from Asheville, North Carolina, to Mexico, Costa Rica, and now Guatemala, working with local organizations to realize small scale architecture within fortnight timeframes.

OASF coordinated with Miriam on the presentation of her work, reserved an evening at SPUR, and conducted outreach to Bay Area design organizations, including BAYA. Some 50 attendees came out for a great time. Coffee can donations fully covered venue rental.

As a result of the lecture, David Baker Architects joined Build Lightly’s January 2017 workshop in Guatemala and promoted the project’s progress on Instagram. Connections!


  • Lectures are pretty low-lift, high-impact affairs. Within our collected network we could organize one or a few unique, valuable events we know could be self-financed – lectures, salons, or a Pecha Kucha.


Privilege & Power Workshop

OASF organized a half-day workshop uncovering inherent power dynamics of typical designers working with under-advantaged communities and clients. Workshop contents were a trial project of Shalini Agrawal, CCA’s director of the Center for Art and Public Life; OASF network became a proud test subject for workshop refinement.

Themes included introducing designers as gatekeepers to the built environment – we need to be reflective of how to conduct our work appropriately and sensitively. The workshop “went deep,” and specific exercises can’t exactly be described – you have to experience them.


  • Event promotion, including posting on the BAYA Facebook Group wall, brought out new faces, including a young Silicon Valley mother who committed this day to her personal development.
  • Shalini is open and excited to conduct this again. Garrett is considering introducing all OAC chapters to the course.

Let’s Get Moving Silicon Valley Kiosk Community Engagement

Public transit advocacy nonprofitTransForm approached OASF to introduce engagement exercises to their annual summit, held this year at Microsoft Mountain View, and involving 100+ participants, mostly area politicians and municipal department heads. Kiosks displayed two “dot exercises,” facilitation sheets for notes and a “what you love” prompt, and donated plots of OASF projects.

  • Voting Exercise – participants given three dots to select highest priority small-scale interventions for their neighborhoods, from 12 options
  • Geography Exercise – participants given four different color dots to identify locations of food, safety, information, and recreation deserts in Silicon Valley

The exercises engaged around 30 people, and were meant to be demonstrative, not going for accuracy of data. A full recap is posted to the OASF blog.


  • This event also brought out a couple new volunteer faces, who willingly drove down from San Francisco and Mill Valley to participate in a finite project. OASF oriented them to an “intercept” style of community engagement, as well as the rules of the exercises. Both volunteers found the experience very rewarding.


EBALDC Design Dash Charrette Facilitation/Family Playground Design Support

OASF recruited designers from their network to help facilitate a community Design Dash charrette and build project organized by EBALDC. The charrette generated an idea for a “Multigenerational Family Playground” on an empty lot beside the California Hotel, in Oakland. Separate teams were assigned different foci for the project: interventions to be built within 3 months for $1000.

Lucia’s team, tasked to “encourage play, recreation and exercise in neighbors of all ages (especially kids!),” inspired her to continue volunteering after the charrette, to assist the design conversation with her professional wisdom. Her complete blog was featured on the Open Architecture Collaborative web page in December.


SPARC-it-Place Plantings Specifications

EBALDC tapped the OASF network for volunteer landscape architects to supply plant specifications for their SPARC-it-Place urban acupuncture project in West Oakland.


  • This comparatively small task was conducted entirely online. The volunteer designer felt out of touch and didn’t personally meet the project manager until our January 2017 meeting! Circumstances were extraordinary, and the timeline rapid, so this effort was impacted by larger project forces.


San Francisco Design Week – Workshop / Charrette / Mobile App

Early last year a conversation began between OASF and Anderson Anderson Architecture who wanted to support the Chapter any way the could, and together applied to host some sort of collaborative introduction to Community Engaged Design (CED) for San Francisco Design Week (SFDW). Longtime residents of SF’s South of Market(SOMA) District, the Andersons suggested we address SF POPOS, a downtown phenomenon of infrequently used, and often withheld, “public” park spaces.

The day-long SFDW workshop yielded a turnout of about 20 designers with no prior awareness of CED. OASF began with a round of introductions and donuts, and a slideshow, followed by a tour of area POPOS, and returned to charrette solutions to further activate, promote, and permit these spaces. The nature of this charrette, demonstrating a popular technique of CED, had participants role-play as both designer and community member / end user of the designs.

Meanwhile, OASF took its research to Code for America San Francisco Brigade (basically us but coders) Civic Hack Night, presented, and recruited interest in developing a POPOS mobile application. One attendee happened to have a personal passion for SF POPOS, and eagerly built out a map that re-utilized data from a very inflexible City map, onto a Google platform, creating the first mobile-responsive map of SF POPOS.

The full story has been told here, again on the OASF blog.


  • Tremendous momentum was built by the SFDW workshop – and not nearly enough follow up was conducted. “Life got in the way,” and opportunities were lost from the best possible outcomes.
  • That said, the Chapter felt itself at capacity, and the project lead had to return to Cypress, which greatly affected momentum and morale.
  • It’s worth noting, and is common knowledge among Cypriots, that “popos” is Greek for “butt.” This tidbit worked its way into a larger conversation on branding at the Charrette.



We’d be remiss if we overlooked our efforts to gather and celebrate volunteers with lightly-programmed fun times.

We kicked off the year by joining an open house by Public Architecture and Gehl Studio. (Yes, that thing was less than a year ago!) The turnout was of course impressive – OASF sold out of its allotment of tickets – and presented a good opportunity to network and connect with sympathetic organizations.

We closed out the year with an intimate volunteer appreciation potluck. This was another low-lift effort thanks to an OASF member’s ability to reserve her building’s basement community room. It was a good size and brought out core members, a newbie (who came back for the January meeting!), a follower from Sacramento, and an LA Chapter member who was in town.


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