By Christopher Bockstael, AIA, Partner, Svigals+Partners
In recent years, commercial and institutional groups increasingly ask designers to create office settings that are more friendly, comfortable, and informal. “Lighten it up” is the new rule, not the exception. This has opened the door for real innovation. It’s also part of the stated mission at Svigals+Partners, New Haven, CT, to conceive productive playgrounds: environments that are conducive to open participation and creative collaboration, and the kind of grown-up play that supports progress, inspiration, and productivity.
Interview With Christopher Bockstael
Learn more about creating informal and flexible workspaces in our interview with Christopher Bockstael at commercialarchitecturemagazine.com/architects.
Along with these opportunities come challenges, however. For example, interpreting what “friendly” or “informal” mean to different clients or corporate cultures is essential. Many workplace projects demand some level of flexibility, too. But different organizations define that in vastly divergent ways. The key to success and the most supportive workplaces is to engage each client in a collaborative process from the earliest possible pre-planning phases.
Programming to support flexibility and a friendly environment requires rethinking how open-plan offices work. For example, traditional break rooms and kitchenettes are out. Forget those usual two- and four-top tables tucked away in a small non-descript room. Instead, develop ideas for lounge spaces with a mix of comfortable seating and family-style tables. Using adjustable and moveable furnishings that can be easily grouped together for staff meetings and presentations stretches the versatility of these spaces.
This flexible approach promotes workplace collaboration and communication. Add to this some focal elements that support office culture, such as an art wall, a coffee bar, or a ping-pong table. These add a comfort lifestyle that can benefit recruiting and retention of the best people. For one client, a major soft-drink brand, we created an “ideation lab” that incorporated digital media, flexible furniture solutions, and floor-to-ceiling writeable walls of whiteboard or blackboard paint over a level 5 drywall finish. In another case, we specified back-painted glass as a striking alternative. In each instance, the design featured a splash of color, texture, branded graphics, or all of the above, to reinforce the client culture.
With wireless technologies, informal workplace approaches are even more effective. Furnishings are more moveable without wired data ports, and Wi-Fi eliminates cable-management issues and the unsightly runs of visible wires. Power continues to be a connectivity challenge, but wireless charging systems are advancing rapidly. Meanwhile, well-designed plug-and-play pods in the floor or furnishings can serve electricity and data needs.
Modular furniture, re-locatable partitions, and raised floors allow quick refreshes of the workplace look. Company divisions or employee groups can completely reconfigure at will, rearranging workspaces, break rooms, meeting areas, and lounges to support their needs and even their whims.
The most playful and productive playgrounds of all employ unique ways of customizing work space. An investment banking firm’s Connecticut headquarters, for example, takes inspiration from its leadership’s shared love of music. The result? Smack dab in the middle of the trading-room floor is the Quiet Room, as it’s known, which looks like a recording studio enclosed in sound-treated double-glazed walls etched with the company’s branding and fitted with color-changing lighting and an illuminated “In Use” sign. Inside, a high-tech sound system stocked with the employees’ collected music libraries provides an oasis in the middle of the trading floor, suited for private meetings, chat sessions, and reflective moments.
Speaking of lighting, integrating daylight into our workplaces is essential today. For the below-grade ground-floor offices of a leading pharmaceutical company, Svigals+Partners brought together glass walls, transoms, and bright finishes to maximize natural illumination. Years ago, calculating the number of lighting fixtures for an indoor office space only required determining the average uniform horizontal illumination in a space. Now, however, non-uniform approaches to office lighting design are taking the lead, thanks to an increased emphasis on energy conservation and a shift toward task lighting at workstations.
We’re also specifying far more natural-wood finishes and reclaimed and rustic materials. New research shows the benefits of such finishes—as well as views of the outdoors, interior plantings, figurative art, and other such elements, often referred to as biophilic—to occupant health and productivity. Mixing these materials with bold colors and patterns creates vibrant, visually stimulating spaces. The ideation lab described above, for example, incorporated a rich maple discovery wall. The feature serves as a storage space and idea center, with sliding cubbies backlit to display images from nature on transparent polycarbonate 3Form panels.
Everyone needs a productive playground in their lives. But change is hard for many organizations. Fortunately, innovation and creativity can be introduced with small gestures as well as big ones. Encouraging play and informal collaboration can offer surprising rewards, including increases in employee focus and morale. Once our clients see that playgrounds can be productive, they tend to ask for more.
Christopher Bockstael, AIA, is a partner at Svigals+Partners, New Haven, CT, and director of innovation space for the firm. Bockstael approaches design through the holistic integration of client vision, culture, and sustainability to develop meaningful environments, weaving together the creative aspects of architecture with pragmatic design solutions. He spearheads quality assurance for the firm, and identifies strategic business opportunities.