“The community here in Oakland is fantastic. From just a half mile of where we are right now, I can think of at least a half dozen fabrication shops that we can turn to for help. If we need something, we know exactly who we can go and talk to. And we really believe in the future of Oakland as a manufacturing place and as a place where people can do really interesting things with technology.” — Jeffrey McGrew, Co-founder and Co-owner of Because We Can
Because We Can is a West Oakland-based design studio, and it’s so named because of its unofficial studio slogan, “We do these things because we can.”
Led by husband-and-wife team Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup, Because We Can is more specifically an architectural design-build studio — a full-service studio made up of a small but mighty staff of six makers with backgrounds in architecture, product design, interior design, graphic design, and building/tinkering.
Because We Can differs from a typical architectural or design firm in that the studio also builds the projects that it’s designed, thus investing in client projects from concept to completion. The studio is home to two computer numerical control (CNC) machines that produce many of the architectural and design components created by the studio in-house.
CNC equipment encompasses a family of manufacturing tools that enable the precise cutting, drilling, or carving of objects from all kinds of materials. Designs are created on computer software and then loaded into a CNC machine, which follows the design specifications to cut or drill the design into the material of choice.
Up until a couple of decades ago, CNC equipment was prohibitively expensive for anyone but the largest of companies, certainly for individual builders and makers. But then a company called ShopBot, founded in 1996, began making entry- and mid-level CNC equipment available for a range between $5,000 and $30,000. McGrew and Northrup — both creatives with combined skills in architecture, graphic design, and photography — were inspired by designers who were incorporating CNC equipment into their work, like Manhattan-based ShoP Architects. Though they themselves had never previously used CNC equipment, the couple figured it couldn’t too hard to figure out; so they saved up, bought a CNC machine of their very own, and moved it into the live/work space that they were renting in West Oakland.
McGrew and Northrup were right about being able to figure out how to work CNC equipment. Since founding Because We Can in 2007, the studio has since tackled dozens of projects with the help of their original CNC machine, dubbed “Frank,” and a newly acquired second CNC machine dubbed “New Frank” or “Frank 2.” Most recently, some of Because We Can’s projects have included the design and buildout of the intricate, breathtaking salon space at San Francisco-based The Long Now Foundation; an eye-popping steampunk-themed event space at a children’s zoo in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and color-changing LED lightboxes to be installed as ambient lighting in the ceiling of Oakland’s Julia Morgan School for Girls.
“I think we’re pretty fearless when it comes to color and themes and doing crazier things,” McGrew said, “where a lot of other architecture firms are much more in the minimalist, modern kind of mindset.”
The studio is also currently involved in one of its biggest projects to date: the design and architecture of BlueSprout, a 60,000-square-foot combination tech factory, industrial co-working space, and live/work units that is slated to open in Oakland around October of this year.
According to McGrew, utilizing a vertical approach, in which the same studio designs and builds all of the components of a project, allows for invaluable flexibility and agility. “The same drawings and 3D models that we’re doing to design the project is the same work we’re doing to get the building permit and to show the client what it’s going to look like, is the same work we’re using to make the thing on the CNC machine,” McGrew said. “We’re able to make stuff very quickly and easily, and we don’t have to struggle through what most architects have to do around outsourcing all of the steps to other firms and contractors.”
Because We Can, in brief:
LOCATION: West Oakland
OFFICE VIBE: Casual, fun, tight-knit, collaborative. In the words of McGrew when asked about office culture, “We feed everybody lunch every day…? And we use it as a working meeting, where we all check in where we’re all coordinating who’s where with what.”
WHAT THEY DO, IN ONE SENTENCE: “We make great things.” — Jeffrey McGrew
SERVICES OFFERED: Architectural design and buildout, interior design and buildout, furniture design and fabrication, product design and fabrication