Q+A: Paul Woolford, Director of Design in HOK’s San Francisco Studio

After stops in New York, London, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Paul Woolford, AIA, IIDA, LEED BD+C, is back in San Francisco for the third time, and this time he has found a home.

Paul arrived in HOK’s San Francisco office in 1997. He spent two years mentoring under then-HOK president Bill Valentine before heading east to direct design in the firm’s new Atlanta office. In 2006, he returned to the West Coast to lead the San Francisco studio.

Paul lives in the Twin Peaks neighborhood, on the city’s tallest hill, in a Bauhaus-influenced early modernist house he shares with his partner, Rick Freeman, and their dog, Georgia.

“How can you not love the natural beauty that surrounds us in San Francisco?” he asks. “We can be drinking a cup of coffee and walking Georgia on the beach in the morning and walking on the Embarcadero with friends in the evening.”

But Paul’s affection for the Golden State transcends the scenery. “Being a Californian is a state of mind as much as it is a place,” he says. “Throughout history, many creative, adventurous people have chosen to leave behind the familiar and come here to embark on new ventures. That feeling is infectious.”

HOK’s San Francisco studio is designing an array of high-profile local and global projects, including airports, hospitals, laboratories, courts, high-tech office and research campuses, a high-rise tower, a museum, a government headquarters, a convention center and a public safety building. “You can’t ask for more,” he says.


Landbank Campus, Sunnyvale, Calif.

Take me through a typical day.

PW: I know there will be a wonderful surprise every day. It could be a client opportunity, a design revelation, a project breakthrough or a discovery that one of our young people has an extraordinary talent. No two days are like. That variety is something I love.

What else do you love about being architect?

I am paid to think and create. I get to mix it up with clients and teams at our One Bush Street studio all day. It is invigorating. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I get to do this job.

How do you get your design ideas?

Some architects have a special physical or spiritual place they go to create – a place where they have to be alone. I’m not that architect. Things are moving so quickly that we have to be able to constantly produce new ideas. I thrive by being in the midst of the design studio, moving from one team or individual to another. The best ideas come from that creative exchange.

Who or what inspires you?

I find the opportunity to be around other creative types – whether they be architects, artists, writers, musicians, or dancers – invigorating. It feeds my own creative juices.

The work our people have done with Biomimicry 3.8, including creating the Genius of Biome report, deeply inspires me. We are looking at our natural environment and drawing from life’s principles to inform our design work. This is a phenomenal gift for our design studio. We have an opportunity to take this unique language that we share with Biomimicry 3.8 and create beautiful, resilient places.

What is great architecture?

The difference between a building and a work of architecture is that a building is a construction of materials, and architecture is a construction of ideas. Many architects and firms are associated with a specific style. What differentiates HOK’s practice – and the reason we have been thriving for nearly 60 years – is that our design is based on enduring ideas. Rather than trying to reflect the fashion of the moment, our work is considered and thoughtful. In addition to looking around us, it looks ahead.

How did you develop your approach to architecture?

A project that I did as a young architect, before I joined HOK, had a huge impact on my approach to design.

I was the designer for a large multimodal station, with a variety of transportation programs stacked vertically and horizontally, at the San Francisco International Airport. What was deeply satisfying about this project was that I was able to work closely with the structural and mechanical engineers as well as an environmental artist named Ned Kahn. We used a highly integrated approach to create a kinetic portal into San Francisco.

The experience collaborating with other disciplines and that fine artist deeply influenced my approach toward architecture. I realized that architects could provide a guiding vision that unites all the design disciplines.

Tell me about your team’s project for the NOAA in Hawaii.

Our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Regional Center project is in Honolulu on Oahu’s Ford Island, where the Pearl Harbor attacks occurred.

When it opens this fall, all the administrative functions that NOAA requires to monitor the weather across the Pacific Ocean will be headquartered here. The facility includes offices and labs, a tsunami warning center, the national marine sanctuaries, national monuments under the sea and state parks.


NOAA Pacific Regional Center, Honolulu

The project is renovating and adapting two giant World War II-era aircraft hangars and constructing a new building between them on a national historic landmark site. The hangars were designed by Albert Kahn and built for the war effort.

To inspire the design, we looked to the mission of the NOAA, which is responsible for monitoring climate, weather, oceans and coasts. This led to design ideas featuring air, light and water.

We repurposed and restored the hangars with a design that treats them as a giant shed, or shell, that is three stories tall, 700 feet long, 250 feet wide and open inside. A simple glass-and-steel pavilion unites these two historic structures and mediates the open space between them. The new architecture is distinct from the historic buildings while providing a quiet complement.

(Read more about the biomimicry-inspired design of NOAA’s new campus here.)

Describe your design for the adaptive reuse of the 19th-century Old Mint building in San Francisco.

For the San Francisco Museum at the Mint project, we have a vision for helping our client create the most environmentally innovative historic landmark and museum in the US.

This once was a working metal factory that produced gold and silver bars and coins. There also was a public function where people exchanged gold or silver dust for coins and bars.

To organize the building program, we swept away all the unfortunate interventions that had altered the building since the federal government stopped using it as a mint in the 1930s. To understand how the renovated building should function, we looked back to how Alfred Mullett, the original architect, had organized the public and factory spaces.

Next, we approached the renovation design as a model for sustainable innovation. Our design calls for a net zero energy and zero water building.

(Read more about the biomimicry-inspired design of the San Francisco Museum at the Mint here.)

Describe the project to modernize the Moscone Center.

Thirty years after designing the Moscone Center, HOK was hired with Populous to design the Moscone Center renovation. Our architects, engineers and interior designers in the San Francisco studio helped create the first convention center on the West Coast to earn LEED Gold certification for an existing building.


Moscone Center, San Francisco

We updated the facility in a phenomenal, sustainable way, creating an interior that is completely focused on enhancing the customer experience. Our client, Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, had a clear vision for bringing a sense of the wonders and culture of the Bay Area into this 1.2-million-square-foot convention center.

In its past state, Moscone Center, which is underground, gave conference attendees very little sense that they were in San Francisco. A big part of this renovation was incorporating recognizable colors like the Golden Gate Bridge’s international orange and integrating the city’s iconic images into public spaces and meeting rooms. We used a smart graphic toolkit and wayfinding system to tell the stories of the Bay Area’s special people and places.

We were fortunate to work with a client that was so passionate and clear about their beliefs. Together, we were able to create this sustainable, uplifting environment on schedule and within budget. It was a wonderful experience.

What are the highlights of your design for the new San Francisco Public Safety Building?

We are proud to be part of the team designing the 264,000-square-foot San Francisco Public Safety Building, which is the city’s administration building and police headquarters. It is the first major civic building the city has built in more than a decade. We are the lead architect working with Mark Cavagnero Associates and a highly collaborative team of local designers and engineers.


San Francisco Public Safety Building, San Francisco

We conceived the project as both a campus and a building. The first two stories of the building are in a plinth that opens to the street and helps secure the building. Straddling that plinth is a glass structure shrouded in a large zinc screen that speaks to the architecture’s monumentality and civic quality. A very simple, beautifully detailed zinc architrave spans over these glass boxes. Above the entire building are living roofs and a crown of photovoltaic panels. We are designing the building for LEED Gold certification.

What’s your advice for young designers?

First, I would advise young architects and designers to always listen. The second piece of advice is to be generous.

Bill Valentine, who hired and mentored me at HOK, retired as our chairman last year after 50 years. I learned my greatest lesson by watching Bill’s generosity with clients, team members and our people.

Bill taught me that there are two types of architects. There are architects who speak in a magical architectural language that non-architects often can’t comprehend. This empowers these architects at the expense of those who don’t understand them.

Bill is the other type of architect. He speaks in a warm, friendly way that is incredibly clear and understandable. This enriches everyone around him and creates a welcoming feeling. My advice to young architects is to emulate Bill’s generosity.


Paul Woolford and WSP’s Todd See presenting “NOAA Pacific: Preserving the Past, Sustaining the Future” for the AIA’s DESIGN[realized] webinar on July 23, 2013.

2 Comments
  1. August 13th, 2013 - 10:30 am
    Allison said:

    Many of the challenges we face in our environmental struggles have already been addressed by nature, and the idea is to use the natural world as a blueprint and resource for inspiration.The website for Rethink Sustain has some really great information on biomimicry. http://rethinksustain.weebly.com/biomimicry.html

  2. September 3rd, 2013 - 9:47 am

    How true that we need the Type 2 Architect – One who is “Warm,Friendly and speaks in an incredibly clear and understandable way.”
    Many Architects do not communicate successfully and I would strive myself each day to be the one with a clear communication with my Clients.

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