Measure Multiple Times, Design Once by Helen Zouvelekis

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There’s an old adage among professional and do-it-yourself builders, which says, measure twice, cut once. Whether a person is building a bookshelf, installing carpet, cutting bathroom tile, framing a window, installing electric cable, etc., the thought is to make absolutely certain that the measurement for whatever needs to be cut, nailed, screwed, glued, cemented, etc. is correct because, if not, then it either means doing the job over again or settling for something that’s less than perfect.

In the realm of workplace design, I like to think of this adage, but with a twist. I like to say measure multiple times, design once. Let me explain.
 
When a company’s management team decides to design and build a new workplace there is a lot to consider. Location, size and cost per square foot are the most obvious, but a myriad of other things need to be considered as well. For example, is there a need or interest to have open space, private space and/or collaborative space and, if so, to what extent? Is there a need or interest to have amenities, such as a café, bike storage, showers, quiet rooms, reading nooks, a game area, etc.? Is corporate branding an issue and, if so, to what extent does this get reflected in the design and layout of a workplace? Is there a need or interest in work benches or standing desks? Is there a preference for certain technology to be in the workplace, as well as lighting, security, audio/visual, etc.?

As the list of design-related questions and/or considerations builds, management needs to recognize and understand that the best way to answer these questions and/or considerations is to survey the company’s employees because, after all, the majority of what’s to be placed in the workplace is for their daily use and benefit. It would also be prudent if management included some employee representatives and an architecture/design firm in the creation of the survey itself, so it can be as thorough and detailed as possible. 

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With survey responses in hand, management can then work with an architecture/design firm (and budget) to determine how best to plan, layout and construct the new workplace. From there, it’s a matter of the actual building and installation of what’s been specified and then, if all goes smoothly, the final move in.
 
For most, the assumption would be that the process stops there (i.e., measure once and design once), but it shouldn’t. As important and necessary as it is to survey employees upfront in the design process, it is just as important to survey employees post move-in. Because so much time, effort and money was put into the design and construction of a new workplace, management should make certain its extrapolating the most out of it by way of employee satisfaction, use and value. Within the first several months of being in the new workplace employees should be surveyed again and asked about their new environment and if it is meeting their expectations in a variety of categories (e.g., seating, work spaces, technology, lighting, acoustics, branding, décor, amenities, etc.). If, through this post move-in survey, all seems well, great, but if not then the appropriate changes should be made as best as possible.

But, even here, the surveying should not stop. Since so much research has pointed to the correlation between the workplace and employee engagement and productivity, as well as talent recruitment and retention, a company’s management should take an active role in making certain, over time, that the workplace is designed and fitted out as best it can be. Hence, the need to measure multiple times.  

 
 Roger Marquis

Roger Marquis

 

Not Just ANY Other Spiral by Helen Zouvelekis

My architectural curriculum included art history where I learned about the new earthwork art movement­­—taking art out of galleries and museums and engaging the audience in a more encompassing experience. I then vowed to visit Robert Smithson’s earthwork masterpiece, his 1970 ‘Spiral Jetty’ sculpture located at Raze Point in Utah’s Salt Lake.

The sculpture consists of a counterclockwise spiral made of 6,500 tons of basalt that two dump trucks and one backhoe dumped into the lake along a pattern that Smithson had staked out.

The sculpture’s seemingly isolated setting was not accidental. Close to the Golden Spike National Historic Site and in eye sight of an abandoned oil refinery, the location reminded Smithson of his home town of Passaic, NJ; a town littered with old factories, quarries, and other remnants of the industrial revolution: abandoned hopes—ruins in the making.

Golden Spike 1869

Passaic, NJ Factories

All guidebooks advise would-be visitors to fill up their gas tanks and bring gallons of water, adding explicit warnings that there would be no Internet. Born before the age of the Internet, I felt fully prepared and braced for whatever was to come our way. With great anticipation, I filled the tank of our rented SUV, stocked up on drinks and snacks, and hoped for an impromptu adventure requiring my Boy Scouts’ rescue and survival skills. Pushing ahead, road signs vanished and the landscape opened up as fences disappeared and cows roamed freely; no other cars in sight. Just the outline of the meandering gravel road lay ahead of us, a foreboding desert landscape with the early April temperature rising fast.

What was he thinking, what possessed him?

Twenty bouncy and dusty miles later, we perceived the sculpture in the far distance. “Is that all it is?” I thought disappointingly as the dirt road died in an improvised parking area.

One’s first instinct would be to rush down and explore, yet we decided to hike to the nearby mount for an exploratory picnic. From this vantage point, the sculpture became alive within the still and lifeless waters of the Salt Lake. The earthwork feels minuscule within the lake’s vast 1,699 square miles (five times the area of New York’s five boroughs) with a 27% salt content. VERY salty, I did taste it. (Note that the human body contains 0.15% of salt, the oceans 3.5%, and the Dead Sea 33%.) Under the extreme heat, life moves at a very slow pace; no trees in sight, just rocks, low brushes, shrubs, and some occasional errand seagulls. Death is omnipresent.

In contrast, spirals symbolize creation, life, ever expanding growth in geometric perfection and were used by many ancient cultures to represent cosmic energy and sweet water. They are representative of the cyclical nature of life from birth to death to rebirth and can universally be found in every ancient culture throughout the world. (Rembrandt’s Philosopher, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Höweler + Yoon Architect’s Float Lab).

Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation 1632

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night

Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Float Lab

Similarly the images of a labyrinth (combinations of circles and spirals) represent wholeness while the journey towards the center represents the journey to our own center, a metaphor for the path we walk throughout our lives. “The truth lies in the journey.”

Chartres Labyrinth

Within these opposing concepts, Smithson created the ‘Spiral Jetty’ embracing the design’s complexities and contradictions. Similarly, the sculpture is subject to the cycles of the environment. Smithson built the sculpture during a drought, fully aware of the lakes changing water level and color (at times pink or red depending on the salt and bacteria content).

Two years after completion, the sculpture totally disappeared underwater only to re-emerge twenty years later covered with salt crystals. Smithson himself anticipated that the sculpture would be subject to cycles of nature and environmental vicissitudes. With continued erosion over time, it would cease to exist, hence adhering to the concept of entropy: expression of disorder and randomness or the degradation of a system over time towards death and disorder. As such, the sculpture embodied both the spiral’s concept of life and growth, juxtaposed to entropy’s concept of destruction and disorder, all set within a mud bed of salt.

After lunch, we climbed down from our perch and made our way to the sculpture.

Just like in Gothic times, I walked the curve, round and round and round and round, feeling the push-pull of mass and void, rock vs. mud, under the hot sun of high-noon. The water’s shimmering reflections added to the site’s dizzying effect within a vast expanse of nothingness. In the sky, spiral like clouds were shaping.

The water’s shimmering reflections added to the site’s dizzying effect within a vast expanse of nothingness. In the sky, spiral like clouds are shaping.

Last time I experienced such a mesmerizing feeling of total awe was when visiting Stonehenge.

 
 Michel Franck

Michel Franck

 
 

Terra de Gotham- Architecture and Culture by Helen Zouvelekis

In 1980, the great Bossa Nova Master, Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim, released an album in collaboration with German composer Claus Ogerman entitled Terra Brasilis to re-launch some of Brazil’s most popular songs in America. Similar to prior examples of Bossa Nova in the US (João Gilberto and Stan Getz), the album brilliantly combined the carioca spirit bared by Jobim with Ogerman’s mastery of arrangement and the clear influence of the city where it was recorded, New York. It’s pretty noticeable: the city’s pulse, the multi-cultural influence, the complexity, and the cities claim over what should be a Brazil-Germany creation. It is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Terra Brasilis by Antonio Carlo Jobim

As with Terra Brasilis, my experience working as an architect and living in New York has been a constant process of expansion and revision, effecting my professional practice. Coming from an intense design experience in São Paulo, New York has brought me a depth of understanding the nature of working collectivley in a highly interdisciplinary setting; an acknowledgment of the design team beyond architecture and an embracement of the multiplicities of coordination in a more progressive manner. This is the essence of working in New York collaboratively with members of large consulting teams, as well as responding to the constant, changing demands from clients. 

 Davis Brody Bond - Collaboration

Davis Brody Bond - Collaboration

Architecture in São Paulo is more individualized. The architect develops all aspects of the design process. As cosmopolitan as São Paulo is (the most powerful city of Latin America along with Mexico City with a population of over 20 million people), many contextual factors constrain the flexibility in which construction can operate. In Brazil, the architect is a solitary figure that needs to overcome many technical limitations including low labor qualification and a ton of bureaucracies to make design a reality.

Economic power is the biggest asset of the United States over Brazil with more access to materials, human resources, technology, and capital. As one of the main converging points of the world financial market, New York has access to the science of the world and all it can generate. Also, the intense clash of culture and stimuli here creates a deeply inspiring environment where people are constantly challenged about their own absolute truths and ideologies. Skills are enhanced by ideas and expressions, collectively shared in sidewalks, parks, and subways. New York has renewed my belief in design and architecture, and proved to me that there are no unavailable options to be explored. Why can't design be more inspirational or provocative? As long as it fits the purpose culturally and programmatically, I don’t believe there is anything NYC can’t create.

São Paulo and New York City.

This is the power of New York City: to host the world’s plurality and offer the resources and perspective to empower original creations! It’s an everlasting loop of building, demolishing, transforming, and recreating. The perfect scenario for great design opportunities. This extraordinary experience in New York has certainly been a profound transformation process for me as an architect. It has integrated my own Brasilidade to its infinite diversity to produce something more powerful, full, and authentic.

  • Terra de Gotham - Land of Gotham
  • Brasilidade - a Brazilian authentic expression
  • Bossa Nova - a style of Brazilian music derived from samba, with more emphasis on the melody
  • Carioca – is a denomination used for anything that comes from Rio de Janeiro
 Pedro Pereira, Designer / Architect Davis Brody Bond   

Pedro Pereira, Designer / Architect Davis Brody Bond

 

 
 
 

 My Garden Experiment: Season 3 - Passive Design in Security  by Helen Zouvelekis

In season two of this gardening blog post, I discussed our extreme enthusiasm for having access to this hidden gem, the Bronx Community Garden. It was an incredible opportunity to grow our own organic vegetables and have a direct link from our garden bed to our kitchen table. We babied it by visiting, watering, pruning, and de-weeding daily or several times a day.

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My last post was an effort to learn how to evolve and grow better stronger plants, now that I understood the space and its environment a bit better. Having had the experience of studying for the Architectural Registration Exams, I learned all about passive design. I took those ideas and created methods for better gardening. I made a presentation to the entire Bronx community of gardeners to share these ideas in an effort to empower gardeners to dig deeper, understand their own beds and environment, and learn to evolve their techniques based on facts.

From my last post (Our Own Little Garden Experiment) you can see I reorganized my plants according to their natural growing seasons, maximum height, and need for sunlight. After studying the effects of this experiment, we ended up with a more hearty and fruitful bed of vegetables and colorful flowers. When the season of some plants ended, it was timed so that the next one was flourishing. 

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As this new growing season is beginning, I have decided to take my passive design strategies a bit further.

My experiment this season is how to deal with issues of security. I cannot afford to install cameras or other advanced methods of technology to prevent theft or curious hands, so the alternative is to look towards passive strategies.

I know the above paints a picture of flowers and vegetables galore, but not without lots of hard work and even more loss. We are lucky that our garden bed is 8' x 4’. It's a hefty amount of space for a two-person household. We had experience with theft by various means. The garden is required to be left open by the rules of the botanical garden. In those instances, people from within the community pass through and children run wild, things are picked, and plants are touched and often harmed. Another infuriating problem is gardeners themselves taking fruits. We also experienced entire plants being uprooted and taken, or rearranged because people thought they knew better.

Lastly, we have now come upon our latest and probably biggest problem: kitty cats! The garden recently had a family of cats move in. Their babies have now had babies. While our rat problem has been fully solved, we now have cats without the proper litter box, so, as you can probably imagine, our bed has fallen victim to some pungent new fertilizer. Now with all that being said, how do we passively design and arrange our garden bed to eliminate or lessen this threat? 

Having two cats myself, we have learned that they hate spicy things so much that we decided to coat everything with jalapeño juice. I also read up how they hate citrus, peppers, or prickly things. We have decided to do a few things this year: 

  1. Coat the surrounding wood frame with jalapeño juice. Sprinkle and mix red crushed pepper into the soil. Because of the high heat drying method of the manufacturing process of red crushed pepper, there is no threat of these seeds becoming plants. 
  2. Infuse the garden soil with a mixture of the natural soil we get yearly, gravel, and mulch as a cover. This will make for a prickly sensation for any animal that decides to walk on it. It also helps plants grow better and retains the moisture from watering and rain. The summer months can be rough on plants with soil typically drying out quickly. 
  3. I have a deep love and curiosity for all things cacti. I have them all over my apartment and had them as centerpieces at our wedding. They are resilient plants that surprisingly do need love and the right kind of attention. They also require lots of sun. Most people know them for having spikes or prickly things that get in our skin. I have rehoused our cacti into the garden bed for the summer season with the intention of moving them back to my apartment during the cold months.
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My apartment only maximizes natural sunlight for about 2 hours a day. This means that with the right amount of water, they will never stop growing, but they will most likely never thrive. By moving them to the garden during the peak heating months, we benefit from full access to sunlight, and (bonus) curious adults and children who decide to poke around may learn their lesson after rubbing against one. 

Our goal at the end of this season is to have learned how to eat healthier by understanding where our food came from and the hard work it took for them to get to our table. All we want is a peaceful environment with a little patch of land that is ours.

In the fall, we will see if any of this works. 

 Olga Anaya

Olga Anaya

 
 

Out On A Limb by Helen Zouvelekis

As the weather turns, the time that I spend outside is inversely proportional to the time I spent dormant inside due to the frigid temperatures. I am creature of the outdoors, always have been. And my affinity for nature was bound to cross paths with my (at most times) outlandish creativity, especially when it came to constructing things of the physical nature.

It began with a tree house I built myself in the back yard of my parents home on the outskirts of Philadelphia by taking old 2 x 4’s and nailing them to an old maple tree in our back yard to fashion a ladder. The tree itself had a perfect perch for me and my friends and needed very little upgrading for a summer of mischief.

Things got interesting when I convinced my father to help me build a zip line from a neighboring tree to connect it to the perfect perch I had found. Though blamed for multiple injuries and trips to the hospital, this zip line served us well for over a decade until it was decommissioned in our teenage years, probably for the best.

As I entered architecture school, I was continuously reverting back to dwellings and structures built in nature. It became a great source of precedent. No matter the design problem, there was always a take away in the evolution of how the human species connected to nature. This had always been one of the truest forms of balance in my eyes; each constructed element is an outsider to the vast landscape with which it cohabitates. I was drawn to how something man-made could coexist, compliment, or even disrupt these environments. 

So, I thought I would share some of my findings over the years.


The Original inspiration - The Lost Boys Tree House

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Embryo Tree House by Antony Gibbon


Worlds Tallest Tree House in Crossville, Tennessee

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The connection we establish with remote and untouched areas of the earth fascinated me as a child and always will. I will always design with nature in my mind.  My aesthetic has certainly evolved from the 2 x 4 tree house, but rest assured, the original roots are still there.

 

 Drew Miller

Drew Miller

 
 

A Layover in Athens by Helen Zouvelekis

Countless destinations require a layover that many travelers find frustrating or try to avoid all together. However, my husband and I viewed our stop in Athens as an opportunity to visit a new city on our way to Santorini for our honeymoon. We had just over 24 hours to spare and were determined to squeeze in as much culture and sightseeing as we possibly could before the relaxing week ahead. Here are some tips, tricks, and photos of how we made the best of our short time in Athens.

 Amphitheater on the Way Up to the Acropolis

Amphitheater on the Way Up to the Acropolis

The Subway

Athens is home to a number of unique Metro Stations that second as museums. It is virtually impossible to dig anywhere in the city and not run into ruins—the Metro stations were no exception and they showcase the artifacts found. Take the subway even just for fun to see the incredible cross sections through ancient Greek and Roman roads. Even on the way to a station you are likely to stumble upon some relics or historic structures. My favorite part of the city were the ruins peppered into such unexpected places. We realized that we were completely surrounded by history.

 Metro Station Artifacts

Metro Station Artifacts

 Metro Station Cross Section Through Ancient Roads

Metro Station Cross Section Through Ancient Roads

 Ruins Along the Road (The subway tried to put a vent shaft here and instead found ancient roman baths.)

Ruins Along the Road (The subway tried to put a vent shaft here and instead found ancient roman baths.)

 Mosaic Fragments in a Park

Mosaic Fragments in a Park

The Sights

With so much to see, how could you possibly visit it all? My husband prepared a meandering walking path for us to reach the Acropolis while stopping at several sights along the way. We never said no to seeing something interesting along the route. I decided early on, at the beautiful tiny church across from our hotel, that we would stop and walk through every single church we saw (I have a thing for churches, see my previous blog!). No photos were allowed inside, but these are some seriously gorgeous buildings with intricate brickwork, perfectly stained glass, and luxurious artwork. When we finally arrived at the Acropolis, we were surprised by how much of the city we had explored!

 Ekklisia Agia Dynami Church

Ekklisia Agia Dynami Church

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The Acropolis

Our last stop in the daylight was the Acropolis, knowing we would be tired if we had gone there first. One of our tricks was to buy a multi-sight ticket when we visited the Olympic Stadium earlier in the day, which had a much shorter ticket line. As a result, we were able to skip the line at the Acropolis and start walking up immediately. We took our time and stopped to sit in the amphitheater to take in the views. It’s quite the uphill climb! And wow was it worth it. You really can’t go to Athens without visiting the Acropolis, but don’t spend your entire day doing it. There’s so much more to see!

 The Erechtheion - Porch of the Carytids

The Erechtheion - Porch of the Carytids

 Amphitheater and View of the City

Amphitheater and View of the City

 Parthenon Re-Construction.

Parthenon Re-Construction.

 Olympic Stadium Columns

Olympic Stadium Columns

The Nightlife

Forget the bars, ruins look even better under the moonlight! Most cultural sights are formally closed after dark, but you are still able to observe through the fences. There’s still so much to see even if you can’t get in. We strolled around the city casually stopping every now and then for a drink or snack at the outdoor eateries.

 Gate of Athena Archegetis in the Moonlight

Gate of Athena Archegetis in the Moonlight

The Hotel

 Hotel with a View...with Wine!

Hotel with a View...with Wine!

If you’re only there for a night, why not splurge a little on that hotel with a terrace and a view of the Acropolis! We skipped the fancy dinner with a view and took a bottle of local wine back to our picturesque balcony. We sat there for hours listening to the sounds of the city after enjoying a fabulous meal at an unassuming restaurant across the street.

We loved Athens so much that we wished we'd spent less time relaxing in Santorini and more time exploring the city. So, the next time you are considering a layover, look at it as an opportunity to visit a new place. You really can do so much in 24 hours!


 Julia M. Libby

Julia M. Libby

 
 

How to Calculate Workplace ROI by Helen Zouvelekis

Return on investment (ROI) is a fundamental financial formula and/or performance metric, which is used by companies to measure the amount of return on an investment, relative to the investment’s cost.

To calculate the formula, it is often easier and more straight forward when the investment and cost amounts are known, fixed and/or based on something tangible. It becomes increasingly more difficult to calculate the formula when the investment and cost amounts are either unknown, variable and/or based on something intangible. With that said, how does a company then go about figuring out the ROI of its workplace, regardless of it being a newly designed and built workplace or an existing one that has been renovated?

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

ABC Company wants to make renovations to an existing workplace and one of the main features it wants to install is a new energy-efficient lighting system. The company can use ROI to determine if the investment in the new lighting system makes sense, because the investment and costs are known (i.e., the cost of the lighting system and the historic and projected electric bills).

Now, let's suppose ABC Company wants to design and build a brand new workplace and fit it out with plants, standing desks, brightly colored painted walls, bike storage racks and a host of other amenities. How does the company calculate ROI on items like these when only half of the formula amounts are known? Yes, the company knows the investment cost of the plants, desks, paint, racks, etc., but not the return (benefit) aspect of each.

So, now what? It’s at this point that a company needs to know about another quantifier or qualifier known as employee engagement. 

 NYC Model Agency

NYC Model Agency

Some people simply define employee engagement as happy, satisfied employees, but it really goes much deeper than that. Engagement is really defined as the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don't work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization's goals. But then one might ask, how does an employee get to this level?

 MarketAxess, UK

MarketAxess, UK

People who study and research engagement, and there are many, often site about a half dozen criteria which drive engagement, and one that stands out more often than not is value. When an organization can show it truly values its employees this is when engagement soars. Value can come in many different shapes and sizes but, in today’s business world, what seems to resonate most with employees (and talent recruits) is the workplace and what an employer is willing and/or wanting to put in that space for its employees and/or how it is designed from the onset.

Whether it’s a variety of work space options (e.g., private, collaborative, free, activity-based, etc.), lighting, acoustics, furniture, colors, textures, branding or amenities (e.g., bike racks, showers, cafeteria, napping pods, lounges, etc.), all of this has a perceived value by employees and, as it has been proven, an affect on how employees conduct and think about their work. How employees conduct their work then can be directly correlated to other factors which are closely associated with engagement, such as employee productivity, turnover and absenteeism. Essentially, one factor feeds into another.                                          

Because it is always a prudent exercise for a company to determine the ROI of an investment, strategy, idea, etc., as it relates to the workplace, a company just needs to keep in mind that ROI is only half the equation ( no pun intended).

 Roger Marquis, Business Development Director

Roger Marquis, Business Development Director

 

 

AБC by Helen Zouvelekis

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As the season of final critiques and thesis projects approaches design students this year, I decided to share some of my own work that began in school. 

During one of the sophomore studio sessions, my professor brought in a series of watercolors where he explored different patterns. The idea was to set up a grid and a series of rules to follow. However, when completed, the pattern is believed to read as random and unpredictable. In this process, the artist is completely out of control with the final results. For me the rhythmic process of counting grids and applying color became therapeutic, similar to knitting, but in a 2-D form of paper and paint. To make it more personal, the subject of the paintings I chose was the Russian alphabet.   


My first attempts had obvious grids and predictable patterns while the letter itself had its own life.  

But as time went by, I began adding more layers and playing with monochromatic color palettes, trying to capture as many different color shades as possible.

Later on, I found it to be an opportunity to hide the letter form in the pattern.

This pattern-making exercise still continues, and I am planning to complete all 33 letters in near future.

 

 Maxim Belyaev, Designer

Maxim Belyaev, Designer

 
 

The Office: A Historical Perspective by Helen Zouvelekis

The first offices can probably be traced back thousands of years to the ancient world where civilizations administered to the needs of their citizens, organized and stored growing quantities of information, and managed the daily operations of their municipalities. Many ancient civilizations had significant population centers that were hubs of political, military, and administrative infrastructures which must have been managed by sizable bureaucracies.

In the middle ages, the concept of the office as a workplace was best represented by the chancery, which was responsible for the writing of official documents. Churches, monasteries, kingdoms, and regional city-states required centralized workplaces to manage the production of these documents and the keeping of records. These medieval offices housed notaries, secretaries, and clerks that produced charters, writs, laws, and tax records.  

 Medieval Scriptorium

Medieval Scriptorium

For hundreds of years until the exploration of the New World, much of the population was involved in farming, the manual trades, and craft guilds. With the rise of colonialism, global trade, and mercantilism, the need arose to administer to new governmental and economic organizations, such as The Bank of England and The East India Company. These organizations had the first purpose-built office buildings to house their administrative employees and manage the paperwork of running a business.

Merchant Office

East India House, London

The rise of industrialism, urbanization, and world trade in the 18th and 19th centuries brought about a sea change in the development of the workplace. Factories, mills, railroads, banking, oil, shipping, and insurance companies needed an increasing amount of space to house operations, executive offices, and clerks. Technology played a major role in the development of office spaces. At the end of the 19th century, the invention of the light bulb, typewriter, dictaphone, and telephone changed how the workplace functioned. The first steel framed office towers with elevators were constructed providing multi-floor offices. However, what was happening within these buildings with regard to office design was anything but inventive. Taylorism, a scientific method of production management used for maximizing the efficiency of machines and workers espoused by industrial engineer Frederick Taylor, was universally applied to office layouts. Linear rows of desks were packed tightly to maximize efficiency and overseen by management in private offices. Little regard was given to ergonomics, acoustics, or comfort.

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Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the first modern open office environments with custom office furniture as early as 1904 in the Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY and later for Johnson Wax in Racine, WI in 1939. Although the buildings themselves were innovative, very little changed in the rigid hierarchical and regimented rational behind the office layouts that remained the norm throughout the early part of the 20th century. 

 The Larkin Building 1904 Buffalo, NY

The Larkin Building 1904 Buffalo, NY

 Johnson Wax Building 1939 Racine, WI

Johnson Wax Building 1939 Racine, WI

However, as construction technology evolved, the design of offices adapted to more generous column spacing, fluorescent lighting, electrical and telecommunications distribution, and air conditioning. The post WWII era ushered in a new emphasis on social democratic values and a more egalitarian management approach through the influence of principles called Bürolandschaft (office landscape) promoted by the German design group Quickborner. The idea was to foster a more interactive workspace with a more organic layout than endless rows of desks. Workstations would be grouped based on need and separated from each other by plants and file cabinets.

Bürolandschaft Concept 1965 Osram Sylvania, Munich

Around the same time, Robert Propst, under the direction of George Nelson at Herman Miller research, was evaluating modern office design in the 60’s. Propst consulted with behavioral psychologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians at Michigan State University. His research led to the conclusion that the open office environment actually impeded communication and negatively affected worker performance. The solution Propst conceived and George Nelson executed was called Action Office. This is the first modular, panelized, contract furniture system. The system was designed to give workers heads down privacy when needed. The flexible, semi-enclosed design consisted of 120 degree angled panels that also allowed communication with colleagues.

 Herman Miller Action Office I 1969

Herman Miller Action Office I 1969

However, the system was better suited for professional offices and subsequently Action Office II was developed to appeal to a wider range of companies. This system, commonly referred to as a cubicle, gave rise to the cubicle farm which dominated office design through the 70’s and 80’s. Corporations reaped the benefits of a cheap, modular design that maximized square footage and saved on real estate costs. Although widely popular and co-opted by other furniture manufacturers, the cubicle was derided for its dehumanizing effect and its deleterious impact on collaboration. Along with the rise of computers tethering workers to their desks and widespread adoption of email, workers now connected virtually instead of interacting face to face. The office was becoming less of a collaborative work environment and more cloistered.

Cubical Farm 1980’s

In the 90’s, the dot com boom in Silicon Valley brought about a new workplace style that borrowed from the collaborative and social nature of college life and the hacker culture. Conforming to the suburban office typology prevalent in the Silicon Valley, tech companies competed for new young talent with amenities such as foosball, pool, and ping pong tables. The campus approach became the calling card of these unconventional office environments.

 While many of these early dot coms went bust, a company culture of social interaction became a popular concept for new corporate offices. 

While many of these early dot coms went bust, a company culture of social interaction became a popular concept for new corporate offices. 

New design concepts, such as touchdown spaces, cubbies, hot desking, and hoteling, also started to emerge in more traditional companies with employees that are not in the office full time. These trends also had the intended consequences of saving on real estate costs, which were soaring. In fact, studies have shown the average square footage per worker has dropped from about 500 sf in the 1970’s to about 150 sf in 2017, and the trend is still going lower.

Bolstered by the advances in telecommunications, the internet, and faster computers, many workers became more mobile. Work could now occur at home, in a coffee shop, or in different parts of the office. Eschewing bland, confining cubicles, corporate work styles saw a change back to the open office environment of earlier eras with benching systems and open meeting areas. However, there has been a backlash against purely open environments due to the detrimental effects of noise on concentration and decreased productivity. Current design trends include providing varying work environments, such as open collaborative areas and private spaces, to meet the needs of varying work modes, and to accommodate generational differences of the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials who are all in the workforce at the same time.

 Sony Music - Red Distribution, Designed By Spacesmith

Sony Music - Red Distribution, Designed By Spacesmith

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Current office design trends include informal communal spaces, focused work areas, and collaborative meeting spaces. Sustainable design, biophilic design, and wellness initiatives, such as adjustable desking and circadian lighting, are all components of successful workplace strategy. Co-working, activity based workplace (ABW), data driven design, adaptable workspaces, and physical and psychological wellness are driving the evolution of the workplace ecosystem.

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 Abrams Books, Designed By Spacesmith

Abrams Books, Designed By Spacesmith

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What will the future bring? Judging from the past, future office design will most certainly be influenced by technology, but the needs for human social interaction will always be a principal factor in any successful office design.

 Marc Gordon, AIA, Partner

Marc Gordon, AIA, Partner

 

 

 

 

A Different Way to Think About the Workplace by Helen Zouvelekis

Ask people, how do you define your workplace, as a piece of real estate or as a communication tool, most would respond real estate. Makes sense, doesn’t it? A workplace sits within a physical building (real estate), and the building sits on a physical parcel of land (real estate), so it would stand to reason that the workplace should be defined as a piece of real estate. But, what if you looked at workplace from a different perspective?

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Day in and day out, the corporate workplace is where employees, as well as clients, prospects, talent recruits, suppliers, etc., assemble and do what more than anything else? They communicate. Look in the corner office, open workspace, conference room, lobby, hallway, cafeteria, elevator or even the rest room, from one location to another, and everywhere in between, people are writing, talking – communicating. As a communication tool, the workplace, which includes its design, furniture, equipment, décor, lighting, plants, acoustics, technology, etc., helps to shape, inform and facilitate communications between employees and others. The workplace also serves as a conduit by which a company’s brand gets communicated.  

If a company is concerned about how effectively and efficiently its employees communicate with one another, as well as with most anyone else, then from the leadership on down it must take an honest and open look at it how the workplace is designed and functions. While the workplace may physically be considered a piece of real estate, its purpose and function are much higher than that, and should be defined as such.


 Roger Marquis, AIA Associate, Business Development Director

Roger Marquis, AIA Associate, Business Development Director