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The Power to ADAPT

By Lisa Kahn

Seemingly, life can move at the speed of sound. In the workplace, employees must race to keep pace with all the data being thrown their way. Families grow and population dynamics change. In every field — from retail to healthcare — executives must learn to adapt to evolving needs.

But this observation is not new. In fact, nearly 40 years ago, Robert Propst, Director of Research for Zeeland, Mich.-based furniture company Herman Miller, noted it in his book, The Office: A Facility Based on Change. “Human organizations have always been natural places of change, reflecting the organic nature of life,” he writes. “What is different now is the pace of change and the prospect that it will come faster and faster.”

In the present-day workplace, these words hold even more truth. Today’s designers are preparing their clients in all sectors for the technological, environmental and economic challenges of the future. Flexible design is providing clients both cost benefits and an advantage over the competition. And some of the ideas are groundbreaking.

My, How Times Have Changed

When Propst’s book was published in 1968, the standard office was an open bullpen lined with rows of white-collar workers. Cell phones, e-mail and global teleconferencing didn’t exist, and Wi-Fi was about as plausible as HAL, the talking supercomputer in the year’s hit movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

But Propst — whose design genius also extended to heart pumps and tree harvesters — foresaw a new age of “overabundant information.” He reasoned that when it arrived, workers were going to need more than just an inbox to contain it. He and his team devised what they called the “action office,” which not only provided walls, shelves and ample desk space to spread out paperwork, but was easy to reconfigure as the organization’s needs evolved.  And that is how system furniture — better known as the cubicle — was born.

Herman Miller's modular, programmable electrical data system, Convia, is based on a flexible, money-saving desing. "Imagine being able to rewire a floor at the touch of a button, or redesign a whole space without ever having to call a contractor," says Mark Schurman, Herman Miller Spokesman.

In the last four decades, Herman Miller alone has sold more than $11 billion worth of office partitions just in the United States, says company Spokesman Mark Schurman. And while Propst’s vision of the cubicle as a serene haven of productivity may not have completely panned out, his insistence that design must be adaptable to its users was prescient.

In 2007, “the office” can be defined in any number of ways. But more and more, it is becoming a social venue where relationships are built and connections sustained. “Ten years ago, we spent all our time designing around the wiring of equipment, all these caddies and ‘wowmajiggies,’” says Tom Krizmanic, a Principal at STUDIOS Architecture, an international firm with offices in San Francisco, New York and Paris.

Today, wireless technology frees employees from “the almighty corner workstation.” Designers can now focus on the simple things, he says, like helping people “work among themselves, interacting with each other instead of a computer.”

As Senior Vice President in Bank of America’s Corporate Workplace division, John Lijewski, FIIDA, LEED AP, is overseeing the 23-floor total renovation of the company’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, which is in the process of becoming LEED-certified. Everything in the redesign, developed by Chicago-based Perkins+Will, is planned around the inevitability of change. Modular ceilings, lighting, furniture and walls can be rearranged around a “chassis,” the one permanent area that houses the plumbing system.

Another highlight of the design plan is the “associates’ hub,” a collaborative space located near the entrance to each floor. “Each of our lines of business can tailor this area to meet their particular requirements,” Lijewski says. On some floors, the Wi-Fi-enabled hub will serve as an informal “touchdown” space, where out-of-town associates can perch on café stools, check their e-mail and sip a latte. On the human resources floor, the hub will contain a reception area and a series of informal interview rooms. And on the finance floor, the same space will house trading desks, as well as sofas, café tables and flat-screen TV monitors.

Growth Across the Board

But flexibility is crucial in all sectors — not just corporate — because “organizations grow, shrink or repurpose for all kinds of reasons, both good and bad,” says Harrell Scarcello, ASID, who heads Detroit area design firm Scarcello Associates Inc."

New technology in the financial sector, for example, often can reduce the need for space in one area while demanding more in another. One of Scarcello’s clients is a growing financial services firm that will soon be moving to larger quarters. In the interim, Scarcello has been helping the client manage its existing space.

“One recent challenge arose because they now image most of their documents,” she says. While the result is less square footage dedicated to paper storage, it means more work for the firm’s information processing staff — and not one, but two computer monitors for each employee. Scarcello applied a cost-effective solution by mounting two flat-screen monitors on adjustable arms within the 6- x 6-foot workstations.

Client ROI has also been carefully considered in the new building. “We’re using a new systems furniture line from Haworth that will integrate with the client’s existing Haworth components when required,” she says. “Everything from the panels to binder bins, shelves and work surfaces is the same 3-foot width, which will save time and money when they need to reconfigure.”

At a short-stay surgery center, Scarcello has proposed flexibility to reduce family stress. The facility’s original waiting room followed the old bus-station paradigm, with endless rows of attached seats. In the new space, the waiting area is reduced in size, but now contains laptop-friendly tables and chairs reminiscent of a hotel lobby. Patients’ family members are also issued a beeper, freeing them to head down the hall to a coffee shop or downstairs to a light-filled public area. “These changes are creating a less impersonal environment with more alternatives,” she says.

At The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a sustainable design firm near Austin, Texas, Architect Pliny Fisk III and his team are experimenting with ways to integrate flexibility into every aspect of the building process. One pet project is a prototype called the GroHome, a “starter dwelling” that can be constructed from a kit of prefabricated, interchangeable parts that can be expanded as the homeowner’s needs dictate. “Without flexibility, static design quickly becomes obsolete, and so it is not sustainable,” he says.

Perkins+Will is part of the design team for the Dubai International Airport Terminal 2, which includes a retail concourse with modular, reconfigurable kiosks that “basically float in space,” says Frank Pettinati, AIA, LEED AP, one of the project directors. During busier shopping seasons, more retail spaces can be added, and then removed once demand drops. This kiosk approach also allows retailers to experiment with new types of merchandise or marketing approaches with a minimal investment.  "Without flexibility, static design quickly becomes obsolete, and so it is not sustainable."

Productivity and ROI

As a Senior Manager specializing in workplace dynamics at Herman Miller, Ginny Baxter, IIDA, ASID, uses research to measure the impact of design on her clients’ bottom line.

“When you collaborate on a new design, you need to answer two questions about client ROI,” she says. First, consider how the design will influence productivity. And secondly, determine how it will affect an organization’s ability to attract and retain top employees and customers. “There are cost factors involved with both,” she adds.  One major aspect of employee satisfaction is the ability to control one’s workplace, Baxter says. Often, this means that individuals need to shift from solitary to group work more effectively. For one mid-sized manufacturing client, this meant building “lots more transparency” among workspaces to foster collaboration and connection, while retaining enough privacy for employee “alone time.”

And in a large financial services firm, greater job control came from a more open workplace solution, where employees can turn their chairs toward a corner for individual work or around to share a conference table, Baxter says.

Above all, innovative design solutions allow organizations to adapt while balancing opposing forces: the dynamic nature of change — especially in technology — and the inherently static nature of buildings.

“Good design will transcend time,” Baxter says. No doubt, Robert Propst would have agreed.