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From a New Angle

By Steven Graubart

It's an unfortunate but not uncommon scenario: In an economy that's seen better days, a business doesn't hit its target numbers for the year. Corporate budgets are cut, and the effects filter through areas from marketing to payroll to facility design. But when the going gets tough, the tough get tougher. Tighter times require designers to take a multi-faceted, holistic approach while maintaining the integrity of their clients' spaces.

Open lines of communication between the designer and the client are key to achieving cost-cutting measures, and the earliest stages of the project are most vital for budget planning.

“There is a best time for cost-cutting measures, and that’s during the early design phases such as schematic design or design developmental,” says Monica Birkholz, IIDA, Associate Interior Designer and Senior Facility Planner with Kahler Slater in Milwaukee, Wis. “When you know from the beginning what the project cost constraints are, you are better able to work them into the design concept rather than stripping them out after the design concept is established.”

At Kahler Slater, the design team conducts vision sessions during the project planning phase to outline top priorities and objectives. “When forced into making cuts, we rely on the project drivers established in our vision sessions and programming meetings to help determine what areas of the design can be modified without losing the design intent and function of the space,” Birkholz says.

For one of her recent corporate clients, a vision session revealed that enhanced staff communication was an important driver. The original plan called for several pockets of open space for impromptu interaction in café-like settings. However, budget cuts required this “extra” space to be eliminated. Birkholz came up with an alternate solution that met not only the original intent — employee collaboration — but also the client’s strategic business goals.

No. 1: Communicate early on.

“Instead of designing separate café areas, we combined the café and copy and mail center stops into one multi-service space that still encourages communication and collaboration,” Birkholz says. Chalkboard paint was used on the café walls to encourage creative brainstorming sessions over coffee. The central location of the mail station, copiers and printers also proved to be economical and effective.

No. 2: Boost the client's bottom line.

Communicating to a client the ways in which design can improve the bottom line is even more necessary in tighter times. “Tying design to corporate strategy, such as [attracting] and [retaining] employees or branding and image, and demonstrating how design can support business goals helps keep some design selections off the cut list and keep the design intact,” Birkholz says.

It’s a matter of clearly understanding the client’s needs, then executing the project in a way that accomplishes those needs. “We begin by learning the cause for the struggle,” says Alexander Badalamenti, AIA, Partner at Baldassano Architecture in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. “Design can help improve the internal morale, communication and image, improving business confidence in tough times.”

For example, when Birkholz was hired to design a large call center for a national logistics provider, she had to prove to the client that design could affect the bottom line by improving employee turnover and job satisfaction rates, issues with which the company had struggled. Her solution: Increase access to daylight, allow space for both downtime and collaboration, and incorporate pieces that signified the corporate culture to add a sense of employee pride and create a consistent first impression. “Staff satisfaction rates have increased, and turnover rate is down,” Birkholz says

Cost-saving measures can develop from building and maintaining good relationships with clients. Repeat business can result in savings since the firm is already familiar with the client’s design preferences, user groups and other project-related information, Birkholz says.

No. 3: Keep flexibility top of mind.

Adaptability during tighter times plays an even larger role. While a designer may not be able to implement all envisioned solutions with a client on a constrained budget, he or she can anticipate and plan for later add-ons. But that requires setting up a strong foundation. “You have to make certain that you can realize the big strokes of a design, the big concept that is critical,” says Steve Clem, IIDA, AIA, Principal at tvsdesign in Atlanta. “If you forfeit the big concept, it’s challenging to recover.”

Once the big concept is in place, the client and designer can come back and add aesthetic elements such as millwork panels, fabric-wrapped panels, artwork and other furnishings. “These are things to embellish a design as money becomes available,” Clem says.

When tvsdesign recently renovated its own offices in Chicago and Atlanta, open workstations and private offices were reorganized to create an environment more conducive to collaboration. This first phase of the renovation put important functional enhancements in place, but project budget and, in the case of the Chicago office, schedule urgency delayed some aesthetic elements until later.

“We later added fabric panels, artwork and additional graphics to our Chicago and Atlanta offices,” Clem says.

No. 4: Utilize what you've got.

It can be helpful to focus on what you can achieve with minimal effort instead of what you can’t because of constraints. Clem suggests relying on natural light and visual transparency as efficient design solutions. “By building fewer partitions, with private offices on the inboard of the space, we leave windows available to the largest amount of employees,” he says. “This effectively cuts down on partition expense while heightening the overall quality of the space for all employees.”

Color, whether through paint, carpeting or flooring materials, can be an effective method to define a space without the use of pricey materials. “When you are in a minimal expenditure, effective application of … color and contrast in a design really can be a very effective way to develop a successful spatial design,” Clem says.

A tvsdesign client, Country Music Television, in Nashville, Tenn., is proof that limiting the extent of premium materials can actually improve a design. The design firm was hired to create studio space, corporate space and public gathering areas all on one floor. “Budget challenges forced us to be highly selective about the design details and material choices,” Clem says. “Special materials in small quantity can actually be more effective than overusing them.” For instance, millwork curved ribs that shaped the public gathering area and sawn wood square tiles on the entry wall of the recording studio were used sparingly but effectively.

In the end, the project — budget constraints and all — was awarded the 2008 ASID Georgia Chapter Design Excellence Gold Award. Sometimes less is more after all.