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The Varick Street Incubator

Peter Johnston Architects create temporary office space for new startups and user groups.

By Elianne Halbersberg

Peter Johnston Architects create temporary office space for new startups and user groups.

With the advent of startup companies, the term “incubator” has come to represent spaces that are staffed, equipped and rented out to small, independent business and individuals — a place where new ideas are, in fact, often hatched.

The Varick Street Incubator is a collaboration between the Polytechnic Institute of NYU and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. It provides office space for new startups and user groups — primarily in the fields of digital media and clean technology — to share ideas as well as amenities, including conference rooms, copy room and kitchen.

Peter Johnston Architects designed the evolving, flexible space. “The main goal of this was to promote high-technology startups in New York City,” says Johnston. “This space bridges the gap between academia and professional life, so they’re trying to develop high tech in New York, which is also good for the economy.” The incubator provides services to user groups. Long-term users sublet a number of workstations for daily usage, while day users sublet open-benching space by the day in the incubator’s event space, a central area with a series of tables set up for these individuals to work. Both groups share the amenities. In the event of guest speakers and lecturers, or reception-style events, the tables can be broken down to make room for chairs and a seated audience.

In planning the space, PJA considered the actual layout of the workstations, determining practical ways of clustering them for interaction among user groups while still providing enough privacy. Using an open floor plan, they developed the central event space with the surrounding clusters. “Another interesting thing we developed are what we call ‘little telephone rooms,’” says Johnston. They’re little telephone booths with sliding doors and resin panels and they can be used to make a private call.”

The incubator is located on the seventh floor of a 14-story, turn-of-the-century building that also houses retail and office space. “One of the challenges we had with this space was basically what we could reuse,” says Johnston. “We had some existing systems, so we had to reroute some of the mechanical. It’s an energetic space, so there was no problem with the exposed mechanical. The pipes were routed in a straight line and it adds to the notion of developing technology. The central columns in the space were cleaned and painted; they have some classic detailing that was part of the architecture of the building.” Older windows are being replaced with energy-efficient glass, and PJA created energy-efficient zones to allow controlled lighting for areas in use, rather than illuminating the entire space at once.

The architectural team used sustainable products and design throughout the space. They refinished the existing hardwood floors and installed energy management controls on HVAC systems to keep them from operating during empty office hours. Sustainable carpet tile with recycled content was installed throughout the offices and in the event space. They also used colorful low VOC paints and resin panels containing recycled content in the telephone booths. PJA worked with Herman Miller to select colors and fabrics for the upholstered chairs. “The incubator is used by young people with exciting ideas, so we wanted to create a space that had a lot of vitality in it and that promotes the exploration of ideas,” says Johnston. “It’s a high-energy type space. We tied in the turquoise and green palette as far as the materials in the seating, the paints, the signage in the front and in the carpet tiles.”

The incubator was designed on a budget, says Johnston, but with creative use of color in the chairs and carpeting, as well as selecting and arranging furniture and pieces, a little went a long way. “We reused the floors and did a lot with paint,” he says. “There are no special finishes and not a lot of formal gymnastics. The hardwood floor is very easy to maintain. Carpet tile is easy to vacuum, and if there are any significant spills or stains, the tiles can be replaced rather easily. With the work stations and the amount of fabric to the seat, we looked at ease of cleaning. The workstations have laminate tops, which are also easy to clean. This is a space you can kind of rock and roll in. It can take a lot of abuse.”

Johnston is optimistic, even enthusiastic, about the premise behind the Varick Street Incubator and its shared spaces, and what similar projects hold for the future. “It’s a really exciting concept,” he says. “The whole program, the user types, the collaborative environment, what we were trying to do, how this could be good for the economy — I think it’s a very exciting idea, from the microcosm to the macrocosm of what this could affect.”