Staff Reporter

At the Santa Monica offices of software design firm Westmark Harris Advisors, a black Labrador Retriever named Ivy pads over to the front door to greet visitors, then settles down for a nap on the concrete floor.

The firm's offices a converted hardware store have a dozen or so desks arrayed at the center of the space, while the few private offices are set along a mustard-yellow wall with sliding glass doors.

A boat-shaped conference room clad in fiberglass and plywood protrudes from one corner. The stairwell railings are fashioned from metal cables.

Welcome to the world of unconventional office space a world that has been evolving mainly on the Westside for more than a decade, but which is now spreading to other areas of town.

It is a trend being driven by who else? young, creative workers whose idea of dressing up is well-worn khakis and a freshly laundered shirt.

"People want space that's more relaxed and stimulating for their employees," said David Wilson, president of commercial brokerage Lee & Associates and one of the first brokers of L.A. creative space. "They're always looking for high ceilings, skylights and natural materials."

Whether minimalist or avant-garde, L.A.'s growing portfolio of nontraditional offices are distinct from the institutional, corporate high-rises that long have dominated the commercial real estate market.

There's more than a million square feet of converted industrial space on the Westside alone, said Ian Strano, a senior vice president at First Property Realty Corp. the type of space being used for these new brands of office exotica.

"It's gaining more steam than ever," he said.

The phenomenon is actually just one aspect of a larger trend in which companies with informal business cultures seek to create whimsical workplaces, and thereby attract and retain the most talented workers.

At the South Park production studio in Marina del Rey, home of the popular animated series by Comedy Central, there is a recording studio with an adobe roof and an animation area with a thatched grass roof.

"The South Park people are so off-center that it kind of works," said Steven Drucker, vice-president at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum Inc., the Santa Monica design firm that helped create the office space.

Mark Friedman, founder of software design firm Westmark Harris and a former real estate broker, said he had no desire to keep working in a high-rise glass box.

"The environment here is not conservative. It's fun and creative," he said. "We have a stereo in the office. We feed (the employees)."

More often than not, these workplaces are crafted inside old warehouses and manufacturing buildings from the 1920s-1950s. The structures are typically gutted and sandblasted down to their original shell. Ducts, beams, trusses and brick walls are laid bare. Skylights are either installed or uncovered, allowing sunlight to stream in from the high ceilings; operable windows allow fresh air to flow in.

"It's light, it's airy and there's a use of natural materials," said David Wilson of Lee & Associates.

But these industrial-style elements are only part of the picture. Juxtaposing the gritty components are slick modern touches. Designer lights dangle from above. Sculptural elements such as spoke-like pods, geometric forms or undulating partitions break up the space.

In response to the popularity of such conversions, commercial developers are beginning to incorporate many of those creative elements into their new, more traditional office projects.

The Arboretum projects, the MTV building and several other small office buildings in Santa Monica offer operable windows and higher ceilings as well as the comforts and convenience of a traditional office building.

"We felt the type of tenant that wants to go in here is creative, high-tech users who want that look, but want a building that's functional. They can do creative space but in a building that's state-of-the-art and efficient," said Bill Hammerstein, a partner in the Arboretum Gateway, a new office project slated for completion in October.

The demand for nontraditional offices is being driven in large part by the growth of entertainment, advertising, and more recently, tech-related tenants. Such environments, they say, are far superior to the traditional enclosed offices, with sealed windows and drop ceilings.

"Office buildings are kind of boring to me. This has character," said Lee Pisarski, owner of Lee+Lou Productions, an agency that represents photographers. Pisarski's offices are in a converted warehouse in Culver City that has a front wall of glass, door handles of rebar, as well as the usual skylights and exposed beams.

Creative spaces are also a reflection of those who work there. Employees of L.A.'s nontraditional offices tend to be young and prefer jeans to suits. When they're not hunched over their computers, they may be taking an impromptu meeting at the kitchen bar, sipping a cappuccino, or maybe shooting hoops at an adjacent basketball court.

Denizens of such environments say they foster creativity and communication.

"We have two kinds of space shared, communal space and working space," said Richard Titus, managing director of the Web design and digital communications company Razorfish, which has offices in the Binoculars building in Venice. "People communicate better, and it's got a great energy to it. It's aesthetically pleasing, yet there are nooks and crannies to go and hide."

Razorfish's working space is cubicle-free, with cardboard cutouts of "Star Wars" characters scattered about. Techies and designers sit side-by-side to facilitate the sharing of ideas.

Friedman said a fun environment means employees are not in a rush to "get out of here at the end of the day."

"If they're hard workers, they don't mind being here as long," he said.

Besides giving employees a more open, creative environment, these kinds of offices help to cultivate an edgy image. And that helps the company attract and retain employees and make an impression on clients.

"A lot of our clients come into this space and say, 'This is what we want.' It's balanced and clean, but there's enough of a creative edge. It doesn't feel corporate," said Michael White, a partner at HLW International, which designed Westmark Harris' and Razorfish's spaces, among others.

There are certain drawbacks that come with creative space.

The offices can be less energy-efficient because of the high ceilings and sparse insulation. Also, it's harder for a growing company to expand in a converted buildings. "You can't move up to the next floor or down (like in a high-rise)," said John Tronson, a principal at brokerage Ramsey-Shilling Co.

Since the offices are often located in sparse, industrial districts, nearby restaurants or other amenities tend to be in short supply. So are views. Often, parking is a problem, since warehouse buildings weren't designed with large parking lots or subterranean structures.

Open offices also mean less privacy and quiet, with workers' voices and other sounds bouncing off the exposed walls. "These are giant open boxes, where the sound vibrates," said Jeffrey Palmer, a principal at PMI Properties, which has developed five warehouse conversions.

And then there are the dogs. While allowing employees to bring their pets to work sounds like the ultra-cool office perk, it's not so wild for those who are allergic or, for that matter, those who simply don't consider a dog to be an appropriate workplace partner.

"If you have customers coming in, it's not a good idea. But if it's a backroom operation, I can understand it," said Eric Bender, who manages several office buildings downtown for Mas Asset Management Corp. "You have the distraction of the dog running through the space and making a mess or odors. They don't really belong in the workplace."

L.A.'s movement toward creative office space dates back to the 1970s and '80s, when developers Perloff/Webster and Sewell/Webster converted old warehouse buildings in Venice and Santa Monica for artists, architects and galleries. That's also around the time that portions of New York and San Francisco were similarly transformed.

"They went into warehouses not only because they were cool spaces, but they were also inexpensive," Palmer said.

The trend gained steam during the early '90s, as entertainment firms were thriving and started to take an interest in the Westside. "They liked the look, and the look began to take off," Palmer said. "Everyone wanted those spaces. They wanted something that didn't have fluorescent lights and drop ceilings."

Around 1990, commercial TV producer Bedford Falls-Partners USA inked the first of what would be a string of creative space deals when it moved into a 65-year-old, former Chrysler showroom on Second Street in Santa Monica.

The building has 35-foot-high ceilings enough space for the company to string an actual World War II airplane from the rafters. Upon visiting Bedford Falls' offices, other creative types wanted similar digs. "It was like schools of fish," Wilson said.

Additional candidates for conversion were identified in downtown Santa Monica. Then came the industrial areas, where warehouse buildings met the height and electrical requirements of post-production companies.

Santa Monica architect Steven Ehrlich said one factor helping drive the demand for creative space is computer use. "(Computers) are very isolating and there's still a need for synergy and people talking to each other and pockets where people can gather," said Ehrlich, whose office is in a converted mortuary. "We have an atelier work spirit. All of us work in one big room."

Yet the appetite has yet to extend into the corporate world. With few exceptions, law, finance and accounting firms have generally stuck with traditional offices.

"The market itself for warehouse-industrial space is not as deep as people think. There's only so much of those types of tenants," Palmer said. "Certain people like it, and some still want the comforts and luxuries of an office environment."

Warehouses are still being converted, but less so in Santa Monica, where values have shot up. "The price of warehouse buildings is high and there's a limited supply. There's not a lot of conversion going on (there) anymore," Palmer said.

But in some more-affordable Westside areas, conversions are being pursued aggressively.

"We believe in the Marina del Rey area and parts of Culver City and other outlying areas," said Lawry Meister, president of Steaven Jones Development, which has built numerous creative office projects on the Westside.

Hollywood is another hot spot. "We've got a lot of industrial product and a significant portion has not been converted to creative office," Tronson said. "The rental rates justify the (cost of) conversion. I see the trend continuing."

At some point, enough office tenants may adopt creative workspaces so that it no longer is considered edgy, but merely the norm. Developer Roger Webster says that point has already arrived. "Non-traditional has become traditional," he said.

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