tsui design and research inc.
architecture city and regional planning clothing industrial design upcoming lectures
eugene tsui in the media home research contact us

back to architecture

Tsui Design & Research Inc., Headquarters
Emeryville, California USA

Owner: Eugene Tsui
Location: Emeryville, California USA
Date: 1991 and 1992 (Phase I) 1996 and 1998 (Phase II)
Cost: Initial Building: $285,000.00; Phase I Build-out: $40,000.00; Phase II Build-out: $80,000.00

Construction Materials: Recycled styrene and concrete blocks, wood, metal, Polygal plastic, glass, steel cables, recycled newspaper, formed conduit pipe, formed copper pipe, spray-on cellulose, Structolite plaster, nontoxic paint, waterproofing made from water-based glue and paper, recycled tin cans and trucker's rope.

Special Features: Suspension cable suspended floors, 20 foot high entrance waterfall, self-invented waterproof materials, recycled granite and broken mirror countertops, recycled water heating system, plant and water-based water recycling systems, plant-based interior temperature and humidity control, solar and hydrogen gas power systems.

Owner requirements: Completely self-sufficient office environment using plant life for interior environmental control. Building countenance must express and implement the principles of Evolutionary Architecture. Plan must accommodate an interdisciplinary use of space affording an adventuresome spirit in the interaction of people, yet convey a sense of self-reflection and mystery. Spaces must contain the incubus of the sacred with a vision of the far-reaching.

Ecological Requirements: Every aspect of design, construction and the finished building utilize the utmost in energy conservation, materials conservation and nontoxic materials use. Wherever possible the building itself shall be an educative experience in understanding the nature-based technology, structure and aesthetic experience.

View of the kitchen area, and the geodesic dome computer workstation.


This 700 square meter office currently contains two levels of office and laboratory facilities. Completed construction will add another 1250 square meters of space with four storeys. When completed the entranceway features a 7 meter high waterfall through which visitors enter into the "wave wall" reception area. Floor elevations change with a series of ramps leading to work stations, a full circular kitchen, conference area and countertop storage areas. A driveway ramp leads to a loading area and many tension cable shelves line the space for library and reference books. A central 200 square meter open space accommodates exhibitions, structural model experiments, parties and lecture gatherings. Two specially designed full baths feature recycled granite and marble countertops, swirling cement bas reliefs, translucent walls with seashells, circular tile and glass marbles and a waterfall tub and multi-person shower area. A special stair design of structural plate steel leads to the second level and a 6 meter diameter geodesic sphere houses the computer office. All second level structures are suspended by stainless steel cables for safety in event of an earthquake. The suspended levels will "float" over earthquake tremors and remain flexible. A 6 meter by 8 meter reinforced concrete vault is an archival room and wind tunnel testing facility. Most of the interior walls are made from "Rastrablock" recycled styrene and cement blocks and spray-on cellulose to provide acoustic insulation and a kind of soft, human feel to the walls. The cellulose is sprayed over a galvanized mesh which acts as a structural frame. The upper third floor level is more office space and a gallery for small displays. The roof contains a recreation garden area which culminates in a circular swimming pool. Photovotaic panels are attached to opening and closing transparent panels that let in breeze and a "Living Machine" recycled water system is positioned around the periphery of the roof deck.

General Background: In 1988 having finished his Doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Eugene Tsui was looking for a suitable place to begin his architecture practice, design facility and educational center. It had to be centrally located in the San Francisco Bay area yet be able to contain at least 5000 square feet of enclosed space. Open land was preferable but none was found to have easy access by automobile and be affordably priced. The alternative was to find an existing building which could be modified to accommodate the needs of an office, workshop and school. A strategic area of the San Francisco Bay is a tiny town called Emeryville. Just one square mile in area the city is a central hub to major cities in all directions. A 5500 square foot building was purchased and retrofitting was begun immediately with the first phase build-out implemented primarily by voluntary apprentices and intern architects. During this first phase process many new structural systems and materials were explored and developed through trial and error. The general design was initiated in 1990 and modified several times to the present.

The building plan was developed to accommodate a multipurpose use of space. An exhibition/performance area could seat up to 350 people for music performances, lectures, poetry readings, seminars and workshops. To the south are located the main suspended drafting tables and built-in cabinets. The east-facing entrance is a twenty foot high waterfall with two crescent-shaped doors as pass-through walkways. This leads into the reception area which features a large bas-relief monochromatic mural of turbulent ocean waves and a brilliant sun peering through. At your feet are desert flagstones forming plateaus and ramps throughout the principal workspace. The machine shop is located just behind the front roll-up door and is completely enclosed by recycled styrene and cement block walls and structural plastic (Polygal) clerestory window panels.

Further west into the plan are two unusual bathroom structures made of bent plywood and stucco cement, moss rock, reinforced concrete recycled white and brown granite, ceramic tile and glass rocks (solid glass chunks). The upside-down truncated cone of bathroom I gives an expansive feeling to an otherwise confined space. The interior walls are made of hand-sculpted plaster bas-relief design surrounded on the upper edge by a continuous band of light. Indoor plants hang from this light well. The truncated cone shape is an excellent form for earthquake resistance. It is economical in its use of materials, has a high strength to weight ratio and is simple to erect.

Bathroom II features a solid wall made of moss rock which becomes a seven foot waterfall that plunges into the granite, rock and ceramic tile bathtub/pond. A multi-person shower room connects with the main tub/pond and the whole is covered by a steel reinforced wall with tranluscent sheets of clear plastic coated with nontoxic sealant to give a dynamic, aquatic ambiance. The experience is as if you are in the underside of a giant cresting wave, "shooting the tube" in surfer terminology, and the wave is suddenly frozen in action. All materials are waterproof. To enter the shower/bathing area one pivots a colored glass mural from the toilet and sink area.

Much of the floor, at ground level, is painted a sky blue to express a sense of expansiveness. In-floor glass blocks are lit by hidden bulbs. The floor design is formally integrated with the overall scheme. Just as all of nature's creatures and their habitats are a continuous whole so the individual elements of human design are essential as constituent parts of a structural whole. Every structural element of the Tsui Design and Research building is a continuous extension of those parts that support or are supported by it. In other words, the four story building acts as an integrated unit dispersing stress and strain loads and transferring them uniformly around the entire structure rather than to static points. Structurally speaking the building behaves like a living, dynamic organism instead of a static, geometric box.

Aerial view of the TDR Inc. Headquarters model showing the roof plan.

All interior walls are made of galvanized, 3.4 rib-lathe sprayed with a cellulose (recycled newspaper) and water-based glue compound. The labor savings using this method are tremendous. 5000 square feet of compound curved surfaces and fluctuating arcs where covered in 2 days. Such a task would require at least six to eight weeks using common troweled-and-floated plastering methods. Conservative estimates approximate the cost savings by up to two-thirds of conventional bids. Added benefits include the acoustical and insulative value of the cellulose material. Three inches of cellulose attains an R value of 16+. Three inches of the same material has a decibel absorption rating of many decibels higher than plaster. The material does not ignite and retains its strength after being thoroughly soaked by water. Some areas are again coated with a durable protectant.

The Tsui Design and Research facility is a self-sufficient prototype for office/school environments and a forum for experiments in structure, materials and methods of construction. The overall plan is previously designed but the specific materials and construction methods are purposefully left open to the implementation of new ideas and developing materials that may just have been discovered. This spontaneous decision-making process allows for the most effective applications of new materials. It readily accommodates the acquisition of new information without the customary rigidity and obligations normally involved in construction documents and the in-field building process.

One of the most dramatic and striking features of the office design is the south and north-facing opening roof panels and retractable membrane (tent) structure which encompasses the east and west side of the building. The desire here was to liberate the inner sanctum of space and infuse it with a profusion of sunlight--bring the heavens into the building and let the building reach upward and outward to the surrounding cosmos. This is created by the use of translucent, hinged panels made of marine-grade fiberglass treated with a ultraviolet coating. The hinged panels are manually operated through a mechanism of gears. The panels act as deflectors of breeze and help dissipate stagnant heat by offering a way of escape from the interior. Simultaneously they also function as sun visors to help regulate sun and heat buildup.

Northwest aerial view of the TDR Inc. Headquarters model.

The retractable roof structure acts in much the same way that a convertible car roof acts upon the passengers of an automobile. The desired effect is simply that of opening the interior workings of the building to expose everything to the great warmth of sunlight. In this way the internal spaces become expansive like the great outdoors, illuminated with great draughts of space and brilliance. At times sunglasses become a standard tool of choice and the office as actively invigorating as any sun-drenched beach.

The frontal conference cocoon serves as the all-pervasive "eye" of the street. This aerodynamic structure cantilevers prominently over the street below. The structure is assembled with a series of curved trusses which, in unison, form the outward shape of the room. Made of reinforced, lightweight concrete with an interior spray-on cellulose material for insulation, the room's upward inclined walls lend a gracious sense of expansiveness and security. A walkway bridge leads from the helical stairway of the exhibition area to the entrance landing of the conference structure. Directly above this form rises the swimming deck and the retractable membrane roof. During the hot summer months this tent canopy is raised by a series of pulleys to let sunlight directly bath the lower workroom area and the upper patio deck.

The exterior walls of the building give the countenance of an exploding star cluster expanding outward from the central 20 foot waterfall immersed over a curved sheet of reinforced glass. This waterfall is recycled throughout the entire building. A series of parabolic reflecting mirrors at roof level focus intense sunlight on a small diameter clear tube with water running through it. The heat kills the bacteria in the water as it passes through the tube. The water then is gravity fed down the various levels of use; toilet water, running tap water, plant water, etc. finally reaching the east waterfall to begin the cycle again.

This integrated water system is an example of seeing the architecture as a living organism. Knowing that a strong environment of biodiversity is essential to continued vigor in an ecological system the selection of water habitats, plants, fish, vegetation and trees linked to the interior and exterior environment of the office would become, in theory, a self-governing life replenishing system of its own.

back to top
© 2005 tsui design and research, inc.
no content displayed on this site can be used or copied
without written permission from tsui design & research, inc.
Contact the Webmaster