Glass Reflects Nonprofit's Mission

August 11, 2010

The International Rescue Committee is a humanitarian organization dedicated to providing relief to victims of violence and oppression around the world. When the 75-year-old nonprofit group outgrew its headquarters in New York City, IRC's directors wanted to make sure the design of its new space—located on the 11th, 12th, and 14th floors of the 56-story Chanin Building on East 42nd Street in Manhattan—supported that mission.

Architectural, planning, and interior design firm Spacesmith, also based in New York, was given the responsibility of translating the IRC's mission into an efficient office design that reflected the organization's brand. According to John Coburn, Spacesmith's director of operations, the use of interior glass helped his firm achieve the following project goals:

Collaboration. According to Coburn, the IRC wanted to limit the number of closed offices and provide an open office area that encouraged collaboration. To do this, Spacesmith designed the 90,000-sf headquarters with a number of distinct work areas—private offices, open offices, and open workstations, as well as private and open conference rooms—grouped around an open work space and reception area, using glass to keep the space open.

The idea of opening up the office was “very much about making the organization more transparent and making the office more transparent,” Coburn said. “It gave employees a much better feeling of membership and community within the organization.” Conference rooms sport all-glass outer walls, private offices have 18-inch-wide glass windows spanning the height of the doors, and open offices, like open workstations, were positioned in the middle of the work space, but with sliding glass doors to supply a slightly higher level of privacy.

Spacesmith even positioned some conference rooms with clear-glass outer walls near high-traffic areas, encouraging collaboration by providing welcome areas for impromptu conversations.

Privacy. Though collaboration was the main theme, the IRC staff still needed levels of privacy for formal or confidential matters. The use of frosted glass helped Spacesmith supply that privacy while maintaining the open-office feel. But instead of the more traditional approach of applying a film to the outside of the glass panel to create a frosted look, the firm designed the glass such that the film was applied between two glass panels bonded with a resin. Coburn says this configuration allows for easier glass maintenance.

The outer walls of most of the conference rooms were done in frosted glass, which minimizes outside distractions and eliminates the fishbowl effect for those inside the conference room. Frosted glass was also applied in strips on clear-glass doors, to prevent passersby from bumping into the doors.

Daylighting. Private offices lining the perimeter have most of the street-side windows. To filter some of the daylight into the inner workspace, Spacesmith designed 18-inch wide door-high sidelites, using frosted glass. Their verticality allows more natural light to reach interior spaces, but their narrowness purposely limits the amount of light penetrating to the interior. “If you have too much daylight, you can start having problems with glare because there is a dramatic difference between outside and inside light,” says Coburn.

Softness. Because the IRC's is an international organization, Spacesmith designed much of the headquarters with wood, bamboo, and other exotic natural materials. For this reason, Coburn said, Spacesmith limited the use of the clear glass in order to complement the naturalness of the space. “In some cases when you have too much clear glass, it presents a crisper and more technological appearance,” he said. “With frosted glass, light is softer, and edges of glass appear softer, more harmonious with other natural materials we were using.”

Image. “We had to be selective for cost reasons and because they're a nonprofit organization,” Coburn said. “The IRC didn't want people to walk in and be surrounded by expensive materials.” By using glass primarily for its functionality and less so for aesthetic reasons, Spacesmith was able to assure the IRC that its headquarters would not come across as showy or extravagant.

         
 

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