Let’s be honest, there is an expectation that the offices that architects work out of should be interesting and expertly designed environments – full of moments that demonstrate just how clever they are while enticing potential clients to hire them or get potential employees to want to be hired … or at least that’s what I think. Welcome to Ep 113: An Architect’s Office
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Organizational Structure jump to 6:41
For those of you that have been keeping score, in the last 20 years, this is the third job I’ve had, and it is also the third time I played a fairly significant role in laying out a new office for each of the places where I worked. Does this make me particularly well suited to the task at hand? Possibly, but there is something quite different about working on designing an office for 10 people versus an office capable of seating 120 people. The added challenge to designing the office this time around is that we feel like we have to address the culture of the firm and use the office to help define that culture in this post-pandemic environment.
When we started the process of laying out a 20,000 square foot office that would accommodate our current staffing levels, as well as future growth, the very first conversation, had to do with organizational structure … basically, where and how do people sit and do we want to avoid setting any “traditional” hierarchy within the layout. This means that you have to consider the location of private offices, workstations, circulation around your work area, etc. In my current office, I’d even argue that location within the office is also a consideration (superficial location adjacent to break room, point of entry/exit, proximity to restrooms, and so forth.
Open Studio versus … something compartmentalized jump to 11:01
If you do any research on office plans, specifically open office plans, you will find as much information as you can stomach on this topic … and almost all of it proselytizes how bad it is for the company and the individuals who are forced to endure this sort of working environment.
- Increased negative mood by 25%
- Sweat Response by 34%
- 62% more sickness absences than those in one-person offices
- people in one-person cell offices performed 14% better on cognitive tasks
- and on and on and on …
By David Brooks from the New York Times (September 2022)
For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.
The ideology of open plan workplaces associates walls and rooms with authoritarianism, hierarchy and social isolation. If you put people together in one big room, or in low cubicles, the popular thinking goes, they will collaborate, a spirit of egalitarian togetherness will reign.
What I was not able to find was the sort of data that was specific to the type of office in which these open plans were instituted and if any of them were architects’ offices. You might be thinking to yourself “Why does that matter?” and I would suggest that open-plan workspaces are all that most architects have ever known dating back to the time they started architecture school in college. My own experience with open-plan workspaces is mostly uninterrupted since 1986.
We also talked about a concept called “The Fourth Wall” which was originally a theater reference in which an imaginary wall separated the actor from the audience. In open floor plans, the same sort of meaning is put in place since people want to have some control over their environment and open plans do not allow for any sort of separation between one worker and their immediate surroundings. So in return, this term has since been co-opted into workspace design language to describe how workers cope with being put in these open environments.
Offices, partial offices, and workstations jump to 20:03
We have a bit of all three in our new office. The 4 owners of the firm and two of the principals have elected to go with enclosed offices while the balance of the principals elected to go with partial offices (think 3 walls with the 4th side completely open – you can see the spaces I am talking about in the rendering above on the right-hand side. Going with these partial offices took some conversations with the owners who advocated the need for an enclosed space – we wanted to maintain a more active part of the office, which is similar to how we work now, but the argument was that as we evolve in our new roles as principals we will have the need to have a private space to facilitate more private conversations with the people we whom we work.
We also made the decision that most of the enclosed office spaces would be internal to the perimeter so that we could put all of the workstations on the glass. This also allowed us to spread these workstations out so that we could minimize how deep these rows of desks are as they march around the floorplan. Our current office is 5 workstations deep off the glass whereas the new workstations are limited to three workstations deep so that every workspace has a stronger connection to daylighting and exterior views.
Individual workspace versus collaboration space jump to 26:46
When we started talking to the various user groups to better understand their needs (as well as their desires), one thing that came up a few times was the ability to come into the office and work in a space that was other than your desk. Because of the pandemic, there are some folks that have come to appreciate the benefits that a change of scenery can provide, and rather than having the only option be working from home, we want to accommodate some variety in the office that allows some flexibility. In addition, we know that digital calls are here to stay and you can’t work in an office our size without recognizing that there are times when it seems like everyone is on a video call and the office sounds a little cacophonic and distractingly noisy. This isn’t just taking place when we are speaking with consultants and owners, we typically see calls where all the participants are sitting just a few desks apart from one another.
We are attempting to deal with the challenges of video calls and workspace variety by providing designated and typically unassigned collaboration spaces. We will have 3 dedicated conference rooms in our new office, but we will also have 4 dedicated enclosed/private workspaces, and 6 open-air work zones … and that is not including any of the partner or principal level spaces which will all have work areas within their space that are available for use.
The War Room (multi-purpose space) jump to 32:11
If it is reasonably possible, every office needs a multi-purpose meeting room that can accommodate an all-hands-on meeting with its employees … but this is a lot of square footage to dedicate for such a task unless you can program other activities to take place. Enter the “War Room” which is our version of the large multi-purpose meeting space. In an effort to increase its flexibility, it is located adjacent to our break room and we are intending to have moveable “rooms” that can be moved around and relocated so that the War room and the break room can blend together into a single space. The walls will be lined with Homasote, a product that almost all architects are familiar with since it lines the walls of most college architecture studios – this material will allow vast amounts of pin-up space and homasote as a product also has acoustic properties that would be beneficial in a room this large.
This space also has an important role to play in establishing the design culture of our office. We wanted to create an open unprogrammed studio in the office that could be used for impromptu pin-ups and reviews, charettes, as well as allowing group meetings with outside organizations in which we collaborate. We want to be able to host parties in this space, and the size and location of this room, as well as the movable banquette rooms that allow us to reconfigure the space, will provide us with options that we currently don’t have available to us.
Office design and Culture jump to 37:31
How does office design impact culture? Should it?
There is some evidence to suggest that open floor plans are not ideal if collaboration and problem-solving are core values of your company (think call center versus focused thinking/group work) but as previously discussed, this is more than the norm of an architectural studio, it’s the default. Does the office represent the spirit of your culture – because that should be a fundamental goal. I firmly believe that beyond some very specific design work, we do our best when we are working together, the push for more and more work-from-home time, and how to address it, is becoming a focus with any creative organization. I am actually in favor of a work-from-home policy that allows for about 20% time out of the office, but rather than butt heads with folks that think that number should be higher (much higher with some individuals) I would like to address the space we are designing in such a way that people want to come into the office and still get the environment they need to allow for focused work-time.
It’s easier said than done.
What the Rank jump to 48:14
Of all the food-related rankings we have done, the challenge with today’s topic is that a) almost everyone loves pizza and therefore has an opinion, and b) pizzas tend to be thought of as a complete assembly and not a collection of parts.
Today we are ranking [drum roll please] ….
What are the Best Three Pizza Toppings?
|Bob’s Best Pizza Toppings||Green Olives||White onions||Pepperoni|
|Andrew’s Best Pizza Toppings||Hamburger||Sliced Jalepeño||Pepperoni|
I fully expect people to come at me for my selections because is a rare turn, I think my choices are more fringe than Andrew’s. Would I want to eat a pizza just made of green olives? Absolutely not … but this is a question about the best toppings and not the best pizza. We also spent some time discussing how locked into our favorites we get at a pretty early age and how those favorites don’t really seem to change over time.
Ep 113: An Architect’s Office
If you listened to the podcast you’ll know that we spent some time talking about the role that an architect’s office plays that goes beyond the traditional work environment that allows us to simply do our job. The design of an Architect’s office presents a unique opportunity to address design culture while providing an opportunity to show off your creative side and undoubtedly plays a role when recruiting new talent and showcasing your creative abilities to clients. These things are all fairly obvious as items of interest to address, but now our offices have to address, or at least reinforce, the role that collaboration plays in the creative process and we need to work on getting people to want to come into the office and be with one another if we have hopes to re-establish and build the sort of office culture that suits how we want to work. I will concede that this challenge becomes increasingly difficult as the number of employees grows and the range of dynamics that exist throughout a multi-disciplinary office increases. Finding a place that supports and celebrates everyone is the charge that we have set for ourselves and I am extremely interested in seeing this succeed.