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Expensify's relocation to a 1915 bank building remodeled by ZGF, is a triumph of Bay Area values in Portland.

COURTESY: GARRET ROWLAND / EXPENSIFY - The installations are suspended steel and glass meeting rooms designed to break into the space as radically as an art installation. Construction workers had to dismantle the staircase to get the 100 tons of steel in. On top sit two crows nest working areas, the better to make use of the tall atrium.

Expensify makes an app that makes it easy to do your expenses.

Its logo is the symbols for a taxi, a meal and a flight, making it clear that road warriors who pack their wallets with receipts can have an easier time making the monthly tally. Most Expensify customers use the app with the buy-in of their work, meaning taking a picture of a bar bill sends it straight to accounting. Freelancers can use it too, in advance of sending invoices to a client.

It might seem unlikely then that this paperless San Francisco company would relocate to Portland to a building built as a bank in 1915. But that's how it worked out with the help of Portland architecture firm ZGF.

The 1915 First National Bank building is solid and stately, with a four-story atrium topped with skylights, lots of brass, marble and gold leaf, and solid vaults that have been turned into meeting rooms (locks disabled).

The result of the two-phase remodel of the white building on the Fifth Avenue bus mall is visible now. In fact, the client, Expensify, stressed to ZGF that they wanted to be good neighbors and have the building open to the community. That's not quite happening right now — the street doors are pass activated — but ZGF principal Alan Gerencer recently took the Business Tribune on a tour of the space.

Floating world

On entering the view upward is of two floating work pods that resemble glass-walled shipping containers. These are no corner offices: like every seat, they can be used by anyone. On top of their flat roofs is more space with tables and chairs, and a handrail, so people can work or take meetings. These crow's nests were the idea of the Expensify CEO. They give an eye-level view of the huge marble and gold leaf analog clock, and the original chandeliers still hang beneath the glass roof.

"The client wanted something sculptural that connected all the floors and provided a view of space from different levels," Gerencer told the Business Tribune.

New staircases link the first floor with the mezzanine and second floors. When it was a bank, the public were allowed on the ground level but not expected to come upstairs. Now staff are invited to fill the whole space. The previous tenants, a bank, had glassed in the balconies because code says that in a fire, smoke must be contained. Behind the glass is a kitchen with the usual free snacks, one large monitor and an IKEA cubby for storing personal belongings. The views inward to the atrium are generous.

Walk inside and the space is impressive, having a European-style boldness in the way it adapts conservative architecture.

Gerencer explained that in the early 20th Century, bank buildings gained credibility by appearing as secure as possible. They really did guard cash, gold and jewelry, and had to seem impenetrable while allowing the public inside.

The vision for the space came from the brief Expensify submitted.

"We don't have a playbook," he says. "We design for people. Our ideas and inspiration come from the client's desires, vision, budget and schedule. Expensify were trying to form a culture in Portland as they moved here from San Francisco."

There are other expenses apps. For example, Concur, Zoho Expense, Certify, Xpenditure, BizXpense Tracker and ExpenseBot. They opened their Portland office so staff could leave San Francisco for somewhere more affordable and with arguably a better quality of life.

Women at the table

ZGF, led by designers Gabriella Caldwell, Alan Gerencer and Franco Rosete, took cues from the existing building and integrated them in a way that would work best for the client.

Expensify calls its seating policy "choose-your-own-adventure." ZGF calls it 100 percent agile seating. In 1993, Los Angeles ad agency Chiat/Day called it hot desking. To the layperson it just means sit where you want, first come, first served.

There are no tablets mounted outside the conference rooms for reserving them — workers have to use their eyes and talk to each other.

There is a wide range of seating styles, from ottomans and benches to nooks and a swinging bed. There are also seats at what staff call the L.A.T. — the long ass table. This is a custom 41-foot wood and brass inlaid table, a hefty version of what is common in modern software companies. On a recent visit before the 4th of July holiday four people were sitting at it, working on laptops, two in noise cancelling headphones.

Expensify's managers wanted to keep the vibe of the company's origins when its founders worked out of coffee shops. There is soft music. The atrium has no acoustic damping, that is saved for the meeting rooms.

ZGF trumpets how "the boardroom channels a modern Mad Men aesthetic, and a speakeasy-style salon with mirror-clad walls is located through a set of hidden doors." There are stuffed leather chairs and couches and dark wood paneling inlaid with brass zig zags.

It seems very masculine, but Gerencer pointed out that the design and Expensify teams were gender balanced.

Tiny offices

The third floor has what they call an "oak wood village" reminiscent of Scandinavian building techniques and style. These soundproof sheds provide more private space for meetings and phone calls. The gabled structures could be seaside cabanas, garden sheds or even tiny homes. Caldwell took the proportions — a square with an equilateral triangle on top — from the triangular pattern of the railings and security bars of the original bank.

Gerencer calls the large, glass meeting rooms the "installation," since the client wanted it to look like an art installation. They also wanted staff to have a place where they were excited to come in to work every day, even though many of them could work anywhere with a laptop and a phone.

ZGF calls the remodel "reminiscent of Grand Central Station or scenes from The Great Gatsby."

Only the exterior of the building is on the National Historic Register. But ZGF wanted to "enhance not destroy" the interior.

The gold leaf has not been touched up, but it's sufficiently bright to capture the spirit of our current second gilded age. The boardroom table — a big, solid piece of furniture, sits on a gold carpet made of silk and wool. Another small meeting room is hidden behind wood paneling a space to take a phone call during a meeting. The bar is also hidden behind a panel with no door handle,

No one from Expensify was available to comment, and Gerencer would not disclose the budget for the remodel. He pointed out that the mechanical and electrical had all been upgraded by the last tenant, Bank of the West, so that expense was spared. "Usually in a tenant improvement a lot is spent on infrastructure and the shell."

He pointed to the chairs from Room & Board and Naught One as places where money was saved.

In this case, the building had more than good bones.

"We found a bunch of unused marble in the basement and cut it into round table tops," says Caldwell on the tour.

Expensify is a 100 percent paperless office, which means space normally taken up by copiers and paper supplies can be used for seating. Caldwell says that, for the first time, they had to think in terms of seats rather than desks.

Inevitably, the pristine surfaces are prone to clutter. In the village offices, there are fabric cubes in which staff store charging cables. "We thought people would bring their cables with them, but they don't," she says with a shrug. Caldwell accepts that in the end, a designer has to let go of the ideal image and accept that the people who use the space adapt it in their own way.

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