Design Within Reach

Demographics, Economics, and Going Green Impact How the Office Looks and Feels

Ron Gordenstein

Ron Gordenstein says many of today’s offices are designed to facilitate a new culture of collaboration.

With the modern workplace operating much differently than it has in the past, today’s office spaces are steadily being reinvented from the inside out. To thrive in these changing times, office-design professionals have to stay atop trends ranging from environmental concerns to a shift away from cubicles to a more collaborative work culture, and create workspaces that reflect and facilitate these changes.

It’s no longer as simple a job as picking out the color of paint on the walls and the type of carpet in the hallway, says Debra Freedman.
As senior designer for Corporate Designs NE, she and Maria Czupryna, vice president of operations, said that interior design comes with an ever-increasing and shifting set of demands for the 21st-century office.
Many of these changes are strictly aesthetic, they said, with professional spaces mirroring current residential design. “There’s more of a ‘Pottery Barn’ quality to people’s aesthetics now,” Freedman explained.
But the modern office is reinventing not only the look based on current designs found in shelter magazines, but the very way that business within those walls is conducted.
Mary Wilczynski, design principal of Spec’s Design in Springfield, said that “jobs are changing so rapidly, and there’s a lot of movement within an organization. Current design reflects those needs.”
The days of the Dilbert-style cubicle are a thing of the past, said Ron Gordenstein, referring to that comic-strip portrayal of life in a droning example of corporate America. As president of Broadway Office Interiors of Springfield, Gordenstein said that his firm designs efficient and smaller work areas, “either to fit more people into that square footage,” he explained, “or to allow collaborative areas to happen, so that the business doesn’t have to find larger real estate.”
Such redesign of the nature of the workplace maintains an important concept of flexibility, he said, and furnishings and partitions are requested to maintain that goal. Reversible, L-shaped returns on desks and other modular concepts are a good means to allow furniture to be moved around the office.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “Office furniture is expensive. You want to make sure you’re making the best possible investment.”
Many trends have been introduced into the modern workplace, not the least of which is the concept of making the office greener. While finishes and furnishings can assist in a non-toxic environment, architect Steve Jablonski looks outside of the box — at the ‘box’ itself.
Using the term “adaptive reuse,” Jablonski is a local proponent of renovating existing, older structures to become contemporary workplaces. There are challenges to integrating high-tech and code-compliant infrastructure to these buildings, but he is committed to seeing these projects as the best possible use of resources.
For this issue, BusinessWest spoke to several design professionals to help get a better look at the specifics of the modern office, and how that institution is being reinvented, from the inside out.

Opening the Floor
Wilczynski said that, for the first time in her 25 years in the industry, some major changes are underway in how offices are designed, furnished, and, in some cases, how they operate.
“We used to have private offices in cubicles,” she explained, “but what we’re now seeing are those cubicle heights coming down, a lot more collaboration with project-driven teams, and less distinction between workstation designs. Before you’d have a supervisor, a manager with two side chairs, a technical person with one side chair, a data-entry person with a very small workstation. But now that footprint of the workstation is getting smaller and is being more universally designed.”
At Broadway Office Interiors, Gordenstein agreed that the changing nature of work practices has dictated a significant change in the workplace itself. He said that one of the most common terms he uses in meetings with clients is ‘collaboration.’
“When I first started in this industry,” he said, “I don’t think we ever used that term in a sales presentation. But today, I often ask, ‘tell me how your staff works with each other, and how they interact. How do they collaborate with one another to solve the problems of your business?’”
While this phenomenon would seem to be the style of creative-based offices and smaller boutique firms, Gordenstein said it is becoming common across all industries and among businesses of all sizes. “Companies aren’t staffed the way they once were,” he continued. “You have fewer people doing the same amount of work. In many cases there’s also a crossing over of traditional job descriptions. No longer does Mary do this and John does that. Now Mary and John do the work of three or four people.
“Inherently you have a need for better communication,” he added.
To illustrate this point, Gordenstein referred to one of his larger clients, a firm with more than 200 employees. Everyone in the office, from the president on down, sits within a space framed by panels that are 42 inches high.
“You can’t help but see, hear, and feel everything that’s going on around you,” he said.
Elise Irish of Spec’s Design added that, for companies operating with less staff, employee retention is more important than ever. “If you want to hold onto them, and you want them to do as much as possible, then you’ve got to give them the right environment.”
Across the table, Wilczynski added, “especially with Gen X and Gen Y, who might look to move through companies more rapidly, employers recognize that they have to design to a younger population.”
Addressing that workforce, with younger ages and attitudes, Wilczynski said that more ‘fun’ is being introduced to the office environment. Employers strive to fashion workspaces that closely mirror a more residential formula, with lounge areas and designated areas for staff to congregate and interact.
Explaining the benefits of such an office, Irish said that “you spend more time in your work environment than you really do in your home, and I think employers are aware of that. If you’re in a creative environment, you are more likely to think outside of the box.”
To help create a workplace that is less stressful, employers are looking for more ways to look after the health and well-being of their staff. Freedman says that in-house gyms have become more common, and one of her rural clients landscaped hiking trails around the facility.
“It’s very important for the employer to satisfy the needs of the employees,” she explained, “to show that they are valued, and that the boss is looking after them. They’ll do better work, and in the end, there’s better productivity.”

Trade Talk
The evolving workforce, with increased numbers of telecommuters, has introduced a new lexicon to the design trade.
It’s not just people who work from home, Wilczynski added, but staff that are encouraged to be out in the field, without the requirements of a full office.
These types of workers might share workspace, she said, “and the name for this style of space is the ‘touch down’ spaces — where your storage is separate, but you share a workstation. When you come in those one or two days per week, you bring your wheeled storage station to the work area, and it’s plug and play … no more leaning under the desk to get to outlets.”
But these aren’t restricted to non-traditional employees, Gordenstein said, but rather a non-traditional style of work. “A lot of employees today don’t sit at their desk all day long,” he said. “They have mobile technology, they’re walking around … they are in another employee’s office. So we create generic meeting spaces that are accessible and quick. They can be a simple table in the department, or a quiet meditative space for someone to read a trade journal, also.”
He added ‘hotelling’ to the new vocabulary of his industry.
“If you’re an outside salesperson,” he explained, “I as the employer don’t pay you to sit at your desk all day long. I need you out meeting clients and selling. If I make it too comfortable, you’re going to stay at your desk.”
Green Is Good
Another measure of creating a healthy workplace is the renewed importance of building and maintaining a green office.
When sales reps show her the latest in furniture and accessories, Irish said that the green option is always the first to be presented. “Because those questions do come up more and more now with our clients: what chemicals are used, were the components sustainably produced,” she explained.
Her colleague agreed with her, and added that tax breaks don’t exist for green office design to a great extent, so clients aren’t pursuing LEED certification, “but they are designing to it,” Wilczynski said.
“And we’ve been designing to it for about three years now,” she continued. “All of our specifications are written for finishes with low VOCs — we are very conscious about the products that we put into spaces. Regardless of whether a client wants to pursue the LEED plaque, we’re still finding a strong movement to designing greener spaces.”
Czupryna said that, while her office has also been seeing an increased use of green components in design, that consciousness extends to any material removed during office rehab. “It’s important to take it another step and take the older materials that have been removed and then recycle them,” she said. “The clients appreciate that we too are doing our bit.”
But going green can often come at a price that clients cannot carry. Gordenstein agrees that green is a popular phenomenon, yet, he added, “customers will ask me about ‘green,’ but they don’t really understand what it means, nor are they prepared to pay for what it means, or make the commitments for what it means.”
But greening the office often is a measure of changing technology as well. Wilczynski said that, as large central copy stations have been rendered irrelevant by desktop, all-in-one printers, those large spaces are now turned over to central recycling stations.
“And it’s the first time in my career that we are seeing the realization of the paperless office,” she continued. “It’s been a buzzword since I started 25 years ago, but it’s finally here. Technology has caught up.”

Everything Old Is New Again
Steve Jablonski sees the movement toward greener office spaces from a different perspective. The Springfield architectural firm that bears his name is well-known for its interest in historical redevelopment.
“With the emphasis on the environment and carbon footprints,” he said, “people are finally starting to say, ‘what’s the greenest thing you can possibly do?’— well, how about reusing what is already there?”
He agrees that it is easier to tear down and build from scratch; “that way, when you design a square, you get a square,” he said, simplifying the complexity of redeveloping older structures. But, he added, these resources are not only a link to history, but also to project cost.
“It’s a matter of enlightening the client to get over the hump of thinking it’s cost-prohibitive,” he explained of adaptive reuse of older buildings. “To knock down an existing building isn’t cheap. And all the hazardous waste has to go somewhere. So people are saying, ‘wait, I have to pay that much to throw it all away?’
“If you take the long-term picture,” he continued, “let’s say that in ten to 20 years you might come out ahead with the cheaper, bland office structure. But if you take the 50- to 100-year approach, that cheap and bland structure is going to need to be replaced itself. Whereas these buildings with character that have been modernized at first might be 10% to 20% higher in cost overall, but then after 50 years it’s still going strong.”
Admittedly, such a timeline is not suited to the budget concerns of every client, but for higher education, this is not only good for the schools’ mission to go green, but in many cases an important link to honoring their own history.
Jablonski unfurled the plans for a building project currently underway at Springfield College. Formerly called the Judd Gymnasium, the elegant, 19th-century brick structure is being converted to office and museum space, and has been rechristened the Stitzer YMCA Center.
The building’s older warren of rooms was quirky, he said, but he praised the vision of college President Dr. Richard Flynn, who had the initiative to make this the new showpiece of the campus.
It can often be a hybrid of architecture and archaeology, Jablonski said, during these projects. Pointing to a large room at the Stitzer Center, he said, “we took out the drop ceiling and restored the truss roof. People walk in and say, ‘this is beautiful, what you’ve done.’ But really, all we did was bring back what was already there.”
Springfield College joins the ranks of many other campuses across the country in the successful adaptive reuse of buildings, he said, adding quickly that “it takes leadership on the part of design people to take the initiative to use these spaces.”
He emphasized the importance of good office design as an important role for people like himself, and the people who furnish those rooms. But, ultimately, he credits the client for their acceptance of these reinvented workplaces.
“There’s only so much you can do as a designer to lead people along,” he said. “But if they’re not following, you’re not going to get far.”

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