The Secret of Open Office Success

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill wanted a transparent office environment for his new consulting firm in Pittsburgh. Here's how got it.
August 11, 2010

Paul O’Neill’s office in Pittsburgh is fitted out almost entirely in glass. This sliding glass door’s pane is hung on rollers that run along a structural track attached to another fixed pane.

PHOTO: EDWARD MASSERY

Former Secretary of the Treasury Paul H. O'Neill–whose signature is probably still on many of the bills in your wallet or purse–has, over the years, become a self-taught expert in creating more open and collaborative office environments.

Such a style was not always the case for O'Neill's digs. In the '80s a movie studio paid $500,000 to use his office for the Michael J. Fox film “The Secret of My Success.” And when O'Neill worked for the Office of Management and Budget, he had such a lavish office, with paintings on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, that he thought it intimidated people.

Consequently, when he became chairman of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, O'Neill decided to hire the local interior architects of The Design Alliance to create an open office environment (as part of its design of the whole building) for the aluminum giant's new headquarters. The 1950s-era building that was being replaced was designed around firm principles of hierarchy. Space should be associated with position, with more space for higher-level employees and less desirable space for new hires and assistants—a structure that O'Neill felt led to inefficiency. “The idea that you're traveling on high to visit the potentates sitting on thrones isn't in any way effective,” he said.

The O’Neill office was designed to be open to allow staff and visitors to have views of Point State Park less than 100 yards away.

PHOTO: EDWARD MASSERY

For the new building, O'Neill banished private offices, dark corridors, and other physical obstacles to collaboration. His own office in the new headquarters became an open 9x9-foot cubicle, identical to everyone else's. “The size of my cubicle says to the rest of the organization they are as important as I am, measured by their workspace. That's how it ought to be to get the organization to work together. You want to lose that intimidation of entering the corridors of power.”

In 2000 O'Neill left Alcoa to become the 72nd Secretary of the Treasury.

When O'Neill returned to Pittsburgh Three years later, he opened his own consulting firm with his son, Paul O'Neill, Jr. He wanted to take the concept of the open office even further: no cubicles, and no ordinary walls in a 6,000-sf space along the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Once again, he called on The Design Alliance to make that vision a reality.

A more open office

“We knew we were working with one of the best brains in office design, so we had to express the personal and professional philosophies of the client,” said Martin Powell, AIA, principal-in-charge of the project at The Design Alliance. “We also wanted it to be a space that serves the purpose of a meeting place for public and private clients, yet the suite also had to support individual work and one-on-one collaboration.”

This diagram shows how the track carrying the door’s rollers sit in front of the fixed glass. It also shows how the mounted frame is hidden in the ceiling.

Powell and his team used clear glass for most of the walls to achieve actual transparency and to allow the 6,000-sf space to be almost entirely daylit. The team specified a three-foot clerestory to achieve the daylighting goal. They also tore out an existing eight-foot ceiling to give the whole space an 11-foot height.

Because the office is only 100 yards from Pittsburgh's Point State Park, the design team wanted everyone using the space to be able to see the lush outdoor environment, again using lots of glass. The office's main sliding glass doors not only conserve space, but their hardware is entirely hidden within the ceiling plenum.

Powell said the Building Team made a point of hiding the sliding doors' structure. “The tracks and railings for the sliding doors only required a shallow depth of about six inches into the plenum so we could cut into it that much,” he said. “The glass partitions themselves were frameless.”

Art along the river

The open office plan also showcases O'Neill's personal art collection. A main exhibit area is located along the primary corridor spine that runs the entire length of the office. Perforated metal shades on the exterior windows block out glare and heat, yet still allow views of the waterways and downtown skyline.

“The riverfront location really influenced the organization of the plan,” Powell said. “The layers of spatial zones along the river's edge are carried into the space and the views across the river.”

For O'Neill, the open space was perfect for his company's consulting work in government and healthcare.

“About 60% of my time is now involved in healthcare and government reform of the healthcare system,” he said. “My son sits on the board of the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society, so much of what happens in this office is public meetings and events, and we couldn't be happier with the open environment this office brings to those public events.”