A Play on Tradition

Robert Nieminen

By identifying its client's needs and identity, RNL translates tradition intro abstract thinking—and beautiful design—for the new offices of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.


Tradition isn't what it used to be. At least not when you consider the design of today's corporate office spaces. There's a trend toward the use of residential elements in contract design and a step away from the traditional model of corporate architecture as a means to showcase a company's financial success. Cost-effective facilities that can support a productive work environment that convey both an image of quality and shareholder responsibility seem to be in greater demand than ever before.

That was certainly the case in the planning and design of new office space in downtown Denver, CO, for Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board). As a professional regulatory organization, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. fosters professional standards in personal financial planning so that the general public values, has access to and benefits from competent and ethical financial planning. That mission, coupled with an extremely frugal view of corporate space—and the desire for a quick turnaround for architectural services and an uncomplicated, timely construction duration—presented the Denver-based RNL design team with a host of challenges.

Among them was translating the client's identity into the design of the space with strict time constraints. "It was a challenge to weave meaning into a project that was initially viewed as a down and dirty, carpet and base sort of space," explains RNL senior associate Stephen M. Busto. "By the time planning was done and the lease had been signed, the team had very little time to help nurture the project into something that helped grasp the very essence of the client, the things about them that would make 'our' project, 'their' project."

CFP Board required the new 21,000-square-foot office space for its growing organization to train, certify and govern its financial planners. It wanted an updated image, more workstations with a greater openness factor, well-planned amenities, a bright and welcoming front door and acknowledgement of their history and founders—all of which RNL provided, and then some. Initial client interviews and design charette meetings uncovered key identity drivers for CFP Board, including: education, professionalism and
a sense of permanence. They also desired modern undertones to enhance their recruitment and retention.

As a result, the design team sought to "weave these concepts into the language of the design—at times tongue-in-cheek, at times rather elegantly—to capture the idea of abstract thinking," Busto says. Essentially, the concept driving the design elements was the notion that "an educated individual has the ability to think abstractly." Thus, architectural forms and interior finishes that emulated "tradition" are abstracted, uncovering new ways of seeing more traditional elements.

For example, engaged pilasters are purposefully over scaled and abstracted (meaning no base or crown, just the huge fluted panel) "to the exact point where it has almost lost its association with traditional architecture," explains Busto. The panel lines from a
wood paneled library are abstracted into frost lines in the glazed conference room wall and are reminiscent of the paneling in a Fifth Ave. townhouse. Pinstriped textiles for furniture were selected to emulate tradition, yet are railroaded "to turn the whole concept upside down," Busto notes. Abstracted archetypes of education and traditional educational architectural forms like columns, pilasters, moldings and urns are used throughout the space, as well as colors and textures that allude to upscale residential homes. The traditional colors of a neoclassical Park Hill home (one of the "old money"
areas of Denver)—burnt gold, pale blue, tan and lots of white molding—abound.

Other design details also play conceptual chess with the forms and ideas of tradition. An oculus in the ceiling, side illuminated in neon, marks the center of the lobby. Carpet patterns that are traditional with a twist—basket weaves, shifted pinstripes, boucles and gingham—were specified for their modest and background character that supported the forms of the interior architecture. The flooring in the lobby has CFP Board's corporate mottos literally "written in stone."

Repetition and rhythm of structural elements imply formal space and reference the client's four pillars of professionalism: education, examination, experience and ethics. Silhouettes in sidelights provide privacy and openness while acting as suggestive "Rorschach" type positive/negative tests. Vinyl flooring patterns are tongue-in-cheek neoclassical references. Even the artwork was chosen for its reference and allusion to history. Founding fathers are displayed in a custom leather book on a custom fluted column book stand.

The result is a space that "walks a nice line between old and new and does not come across as stuffy or overdone," according to Busto. And it didn't require a massive budget either.

"It does not take a high budget or incredible building or view to help a project come to life," Busto insists. "What it does take is the ability and desire to ask questions of the team, challenge yourself internally and challenge the client. It is not enough to simply make elegant space—the space needs to have meaning associated with it and woven into its very fabric. This can be a challenging and often difficult process to begin with and follow through with. However, the rewards can be endless."