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Inside The Modern Design Office

From building a corporate culture to integrating technology in intuitive ways, here’s how three leading design firms are redefining the modern office.

By Adam Moore and Robert Nieminen

From building a corporate culture to integrating technology in intuitive ways, here’s how three leading design firms are redefining the modern office.

Designers have always worked in spaces designed for collaboration and experimentation, whether it's a dusty shop or a paper-strewn studio, and it's a background that has seemingly preconditioned the field to embrace new and different ways of working together. That, in turn, has uniquely positioned the design community to steer the ongoing redefinition of the office, as many clients and corporations seek to capture that same spirit of energy and innovation in their own workplaces.

Many design firms have taken the step of using their own spaces as prototypes in the search for what works and what doesn't in the modern office, and it's these redesigned and re-envisioned spaces that give us the best glimpse into the future of work—as well as some ideas for how to maximize our existing investments. So what will you find in these next-generation design spaces? We spoke with three firms with new offices, including Ziegler Cooper in Houston, Cannon Design in Chicago, and Quadrangle Architects in Toronto, and found that, while each firm took a different approach to creating its own space, a few constants remained.

clear values by design
In the same way that tech companies are using open office plans and exciting amenities to lure talent away from their competitors, successful firms are designing their offices to visually convey the values and culture of their organization, all in a bid to boost everything from employee recruitment to business development.

For Scott Ziegler, AIA, senior principal with Ziegler Cooper, the move to a new building was indicative of a number of big milestones. "We felt like this was a pivotal point for the firm to move to another level in our profession, in our niche, and in our region," he says. "We wanted to create an inspirational space that uplifts the human spirit, and expresses the creativity and craft of the firm."

The new office, built in a lobby space that had been vacant for 15 years, features 65-foot high cathedral ceilings over a highly open and collaborative studio—a fitting inclusion for a firm with a well-known and growing worship design practice. "There's a kind of 'Aha, wow' moment when people walk in," Ziegler says. "They're not expecting to see a 65-foot-high ceiling."

The design of the new space has also had a noticeable effect on employee recruitment, according to Ziegler, even though it has only been open for a year. "Recruiting has always been tough in Texas, but I'll say that since we have moved in here … there's not been one recruit that has come through here that hasn't said, 'I want to work here.' We've hired 35 people this past year, and it's nice to have that leverage."

For Cannon Design's new Chicago office, which we first covered in October 2013's "Top 10 LEED Projects of 2013" (pg. 58), the intent was to capture the firm's position at the global intersection between architecture, design, engineering, and consulting practices. "[The firm's] culture, if you will, is one that's very cohesive across cities and countries and borders," says Mark Hirons, AIA, IIDA, LEED, design leader for corporate interiors with Cannon Design. "It really doesn't have any barriers."

The resulting space works to immerse visitors and employees in the creative process as soon as the elevator doors open. One can see from one end of the office to the other, and individual lines in glass wall panels represent individual thoughts and ideas; as one progresses toward the center of the space, the lines activate and interconnect, expressing the dynamic sense of collaboration found within Cannon's creative process. That dynamic energy is also captured by a 40-foot projection mural depicting stories, projects, and a commissioned video installation by renowned video artist Thomas Gray. A spacious café area and research library, both of which are located just beyond the reception area and open to all, adds to that feeling of transparency and openness.

"We allow [clients] into the space, so they can see how people are interacting, they can see the inspiration wall, they can see what's beyond the café area," Hirons says. "We're inviting them in to be part of a wonderful journey." PageBreak

Of course, sometimes all it takes to get your point across is a great view and some humanist design. The new office of Quadrangle Architects, built on the seventh floor of a former data center in Toronto's King West neighborhood, features sweeping views of the skyline, abundant levels of natural light, and a sustainable, friendly aesthetic. The space also exceeds accessibility requirements, and is filled with custom millwork and generous circulation corridors, meeting rooms, and furnishings to accommodate mobility devices. "The design of the studio allowed us to demonstrate that inclusive design can be comfortable, purposeful, and beautiful," says Caroline Robbie, principal architect with Quadrangle.
a participation expectation.

Encouraging collaboration in the workplace is nothing new, but actually getting it to happen is another matter entirely. While many companies have added informal meeting areas to their offices, leading design firms are finding that it sometimes takes a combination of spatial and cultural changes to jumpstart the collaborative process.

For example, Robbie notes that Quadrangle has always favored a collaborative way of working, but the firm's new studio space has been designed to make that the norm. Individual workstations have been sacrificed to accommodate a variety of new collaborative areas, including the Annex, a flexible communal and lunch space framed with whiteboards, tackboards, and book shelving; and the Incubator, a semi-open meeting area covered in writable, magnetic surfaces and filled with easily reconfigurable furnishings. "The best aspect of [the Incubator] is its visibility from the moment you step off the elevator into Quadrangle's space," Robbie says. "It says everything you need to know about the value we place on design."

The firm has also taken the unique step of instituting a "no food at desks" policy in the office, in an effort to overcome the tendency for design professionals to work continuously throughout the day, as well as to encourage an improved social atmosphere. Designers now spend their lunch breaks in the Annex mingling with others and sharing ideas, making everyone an active participant in the firm's work.

Ziegler Cooper followed a similar script in the design of its Houston office, adding collaboration areas into the main studio space in an effort to break the isolating effect computer screens can have on employees. The new spaces include the Innovation Lounge, a space filled with colorful lounge chairs and a gull-winged canopy, and the Critic's Corner, which features unusual serpentine furniture to get the creative juices flowing. Both spots act as a space to pin-up work and discuss design face-to-face.

"The real purpose is to go back to our college days and have a critique of our work," Ziegler says. "We'll have a pin-up once a week, where we'll select one of the projects from the firm, put it up there, and engage the designers in the office. We'll stand in there and let the younger designers do the presentation for two reasons. One, it gives them a voice, and two, the senior designers and principals will critique the work, making it a learning experience."

Representatives from all three firms mentioned the addition of informal meeting or café spaces as one of the biggest culture-changers that companies should consider when it comes to redesigning the office. Ziegler in particular identifies the vendor presentations that occur each week during lunch and after-hours as opportunities to encourage continuing education and team connections. "When I bring my clients through who are looking to design a new office space, I bring them to the café and say, 'If there's one thing that will transform your organization, it will be a nice break room café.'"

"It has changed our culture," he adds. "I've had conversations with staff in the first few months just by sitting down to share lunch with them that I hadn't had in 10 years in my old office." PageBreak

tech that works (and wows)
This is something desired by most companies in the digital age, but it seems that design firms have been among the first to figure out how to integrate all of the necessary systems smoothly, and in ways that enhance productivity without interrupting the flow of the design process itself.

At Quadrangle's new office, employees can take advantage of office-wide Wi-Fi and AV support, allowing them to work anywhere in the 17,000-square-foot space, from the bench-style desking overlooking the city's skyline or the numerous glazed meeting rooms. "We have a work-anywhere technology backbone," Robbie says. "This freedom allows us to leverage the collective knowledge of our firm better." Lighting systems can be controlled remotely by smartphones and each staff member's VOIP phone and computer, conserving energy and improving lighting quality, particularly for those with low vision.

The technology found in Cannon Design's Chicago space is similarly integrated, with differing levels of technology support spread across the office's 20 different work settings. Teaming areas include projectors and whiteboards, or flat screen monitors. Magnetic wall surfaces can be written on, and include e-beam tools that enable electronic mark-ups that can be saved and shared. Employees can log onto their computers from anywhere inside or outside of the office.

"Pretty much everything is electronic, so if [an employee] is bringing a client through for the first time, they can sit down in front of a teaming area or go to the lounge, pull up a monitor, and tell a story or share insights on any given project live," says Hirons. "It really brings [technology] to a much more intuitive perspective, as opposed to it sometimes being a barrier."

Employees in Ziegler Cooper's Houston office enjoy many of the same tools, including 90-inch plasma screens and software that allows them to make live markups on drawings and images for clients hundreds or thousands of miles away. ("Our clients have gotten so comfortable with the technology they don't even come to our office," Ziegler quips.) As of last year, the firm also equips all of its new designers with iPads, allowing them to make presentations on any of the Apple TV-equipped monitors around the office.

But for all of this, perhaps one of Ziegler Cooper's most forward-thinking tech investments has been in wood. The firm invested in a laser-cut model and paint shop in its basement space, giving it the ability to create "seductive, miniature-scaled" basswood models early in the design process. According to Ziegler, it provides the firm with the ability to "bring the sculptural aspects of the design and the materiality in the renderings" to the client more quickly. It also has a way of capturing clients' imaginations in irreversible ways.

"We have won more assignments with those laser-cut minis," he says. "When you create one of those objects of desire, your clients become attached very early on to design, where you don't have to ever defend your design anymore."