Common Needs, Custom Solutions

HDR Architecture offers a glimpse into its approach to designing multiple collaborative spaces for three different clients, as well as insights into how technology will continue to shape the conference room as we know it.

02.01.2012 by Robert Nieminen


All conference rooms are created equal, right? Since the advent of the open office plan, it seems all you need are some glass walls, a long, sleek table with power and data access, a dozen or so executive chairs, a video screen or whiteboard, and you’re done.

Not so fast. While the conference room described above may sound typical of what we see in many workplaces today, it is certainly not a recipe for creating a successful collaborative environment for a client. Which begs the question: how do you go about designing effective spaces where teams can work together or communicate remotely without disturbing other employees in the office? How do you create environments with similar purposes for different clients, while making them look and feel unique? And with technology changing at an ever-rapid pace, what will conference rooms look like in the years ahead?

To answer these questions and more, we asked designers at global architecture firm HDR Architecture to give us a glimpse into how they went about creating multiple conference rooms and collaborative spaces for three different clients, and to compare and contrast the similarities and difference between them.

“The way we work is changing fast. More and more, work is a chance conversation you have with a colleague from a different department, or a video conference call with folks in Atlanta, London and China. Working in groups, collaborating, is the new norm. And with advances in communications technology, especially in mobility, the traditional board, or conference room, is becoming less utilized,” explains Brian Kowalchuck, design director at HDR. “Instead, meetings happen on the fly: in a café, a small huddle room, outside at a picnic table under a tree, in a casual seating area with whiteboards, touch screen and a wireless connection. Still, all three clients required a variety of meeting spaces for various ways of working.”

“Conferencing is more than just the traditional conference room, and informal spaces are a part of the new model,” continues Kowalchuck. “The idea was to facilitate not just meetings for specific teams, groups or disciplines, but also to increase collaboration between teams. This also accommodates employees’ different ways of working, giving them a choice of activity settings.”

Most conference rooms at each project feature glass, both for a sense of openness and to be perceived as ‘open territory,’ not reserved for leadership teams or special occasions. This transparency encourages collaboration, and can serve as an alternate “whiteboard” for brainstorming or taking notes, he says. However, the option for privacy, both visual and acoustic, is also important, he adds.

“Sometimes the thought is that when you take down walls and make everything open, everyone will automatically work together and be happy,” says Kowalchuk, “but obviously, there are situations that demand privacy. We certainly used a lot of glass in these conference spaces, but we also outfitted them with the flexibility to be made private.”

Here is a closer look at three projects from HDR that address conferencing and collaborative work spaces in unique ways.

the roslin institute
The new, 152,000-square-foot building for The Roslin Institute in Midlothian, Scotland co-locates several research institutions, which require a variety of integrated conferencing spaces that would facilitate teaming opportunities not just during scheduled meetings, but also for chance encounters.

To encourage these collaborations, the design team linked the lab wing and the office wing with a central “interaction zone,” making conferencing a thread that connects the two areas instead of a separate destination. Spaces located in this interaction zone include (per floor): one 20-person conference room, one 12-person conference room, two 8-person conference rooms, a library, a café, privacy “quiet rooms” and informal touchdown space.

“At Roslin, the challenge was ensuring that the conference spaces would be used as intended,” explains Brian Norkus, design principal at HDR. “Scientists used to long hours of focused research sometimes have problems adjusting to more open, collaborative ways of working. The centrality and accessibility of the ‘interaction zone’—right in the middle of the building’s main circulation route—ensure that the conference spaces will be well used.”

“Bright colors, natural light and transparency were used to attract researchers to the collaborative space,” Norkus continues. “The spectrum of colors along with the technology provided enhances wayfinding, allowing researchers to easily understand which room provides them with the type of equipment, acoustics and privacy they need, along with the ultimate location within the facility.”

At Unilever, the main concern was changing the culture from the traditional office model to a new model that incorporated the work style of mobile workers— transients from distributed teams who touch down in their work group’s neighborhood—[which required] a larger quantity of smaller conference rooms and more informal conferencing spaces,” says Allison Arnone, principal facility planner with HDR. “We educated the client on the benefits of embracing new ways of working and offering choices in activity settings—increased productivity, employee satisfaction, creativity, etc. The client embraced these ideas.”

The 10,000-square-foot interior renovation of Unilever’s IT department in Englewood, N.J., required technology-rich spaces that would allow users to plug into technology instantly and easily, and would accommodate the department’s “15-minute meeting” style—smaller groups meeting for shorter times.

Arnone says the IT group rarely hosts visitors, but video conferences with other offices are common, so “video booths” and group video rooms were an important element of the program. Other conference rooms include: one 12-person conference room, one 8-person conferencing room, and a coffee bar and employee lounge space, which accommodates impromptu, informal meetings. Despite the variety of informal spaces, the inclusion of the semi-formal, 12-person conference room—dubbed the “war room”—gives the team a space that they “own,” for IT business only.

Unilever’s workspace is colorful, bright and energetic, communicating the idea that it is a fun place to work. The client wanted employees to be immersed in their brand, according to Arnone. This included lots of display opportunities for Unilever’s consumer products, as well as larger-than-life wall graphics that depict customers engaging with the company’s products.

ImClone features a more understated, contemporary look, and the client specified glass for most of the conferencing rooms to encourage researchers from other disciplines to “crash the party,” according to Scott Kimble, senior project architect at HDR. Views to the New York City skyline and the East River energize meetings held in the main boardroom or huddled in one of the “think tanks,” he adds.

Kimble says that the challenge at ImClone was distributing limited technological program elements for users located on multiple floors. “The client had their own model for conference spaces, but it was designed for one floor. This model was adapted for the four-story space, locating and connecting spaces of different scales and capabilities with open stairs and informal, inviting meeting spaces that feature soft seating, media areas, mail and pantry areas, and provide an environment of intuitive wayfinding and exploration.”

ImClone was also looking for innovative solutions to minimize the size and impact of non-research spaces. The design team developed a free-address office system, where over two-thirds of the office population did not have dedicated office seating. Support spaces, including various size conference rooms and technology-enabled think tanks, intended for cross-disciplinary brainstorming, were provided to allow individuals a varying degree of privacy and allowed for both formal and informal meetings.

technology usage
While support for wireless internet is the norm, the needs of each of HDR’s clients varied, so technological solutions had to be custom-tailored. For the IT department at Unilever, for example, all rooms had to support the ability to “work anywhere”—instant plug-ins, instant connecting, video conferencing, live meetings, etc.

However, for most clients, there are a variety of both high-tech and low-tech conference spaces. At ImClone and Roslin, the boardrooms are capable of video conferencing to multiple locations, and include an above-ceiling projector and projection screen. ImClone’s think tank spaces are technology-enabled, including a central table for AV connection and wire management and a flat-panel monitor located on an electronic lift within an adjacent credenza. However, for local meetings, sometimes low-tech solutions such as whiteboards serve the needs of the group just as well.

In addition to whiteboards and Polycom systems, most rooms include wall-mounted LCD monitors, and specific rooms include video conferencing and built-in projection capabilities. The Roslin Institute also incorporates raised access flooring into the design, allowing wires and cables to run through the conference areas without the visual nuisance. They also use vertically fritted glass (in a DNA pattern, a motif at Roslin) to indicate the use of glass and to incorporate a modicum of privacy. If that’s not enough, the rooms are equipped with integral privacy blinds to give users control over when and how much privacy they need.

At ImClone, an operable theater-grade curtain (with “sound soak” centerpiece) surrounding the main board room also helps to achieve a similar effect: increased visual and acoustical privacy on demand.

the future
As you might expect, Kimble predicts that technology will drive how conference spaces evolve in the future. “The need to instantaneously connect with clients and colleagues in other time zones and at varied times will require the power of connection be placed with the individual,” he says. “Laptops, notebooks and smartphones will increasingly become the main vehicle for patching into meetings, meaning that ‘conference space’ will likely become ‘whatever place it is that you happen to be.’” Kimble notes that appropriate lighting and acoustical solutions will begin to be considered in spaces not traditionally considered for meetings (workstations, cafeteria, Starbucks).

Arnone predicts work environments themselves will become more collaborative, with less assigned space for specific employees. “Distributed conferencing space will continue to be a trend. Traditionally, conferencing spaces were located with the departments they were serving,” she says. “Now you’re seeing a more distributed model, and you’ll see it continue as employees become more mobile, employees move to different offices, employees change professions and teams incorporate employees from different departments.”


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8404 Indian Hills Drive
Omaha, NE 68114-4098
(800) 366-4411

Brian Kowalchuk
design director

Allison Arnone
principal facility planner

Scott Kimble
senior project architect

Brian Norkus
design principal