Extraordinary officing

Partitions and systems furniture are evolving as fast as the workplace

January 01, 2001 |

The tools and techniques of modern corporate life have led to a remarkable, if sometimes abusive, rise in worker productivity over the last 10 years. While the stellar output of the information-age assembly line has surely contributed to U.S. economic growth over the same period, it has also transformed how the office environment is understood and organized.

The growth in productivity has been matched by increased rates of change among knowledge-based companies. The concept of "churn," for example-a measure of how frequently office occupants turn over-was hardly a consideration in office design 20 years ago. In the last decade, however, average churn rates have jumped by more than 14 percent, according to the International Facilities Management Association. Today, it is often the single most important criterion in space programming and in the design and specification of partitions, offices and workstations.

In the office tower at 2 Broadway in New York City, for example, the new offices of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) are designed to support a "matrixed organization," in which employees are organized according to engineering disciplines and may relocate at any time to support a given project, often taking their computer and telephone with them.

"They felt they had a lot of churn," says Scott Gordon, senior associate with project architect The Hillier Group, New York City. "The system we developed was intended to be modular, so they could swap workstations and replace workstations with offices." Two base modules of 60-sq.-ft. cubicles, for example, can be combined to create a 96-sq.-ft. managerial workstation or a 125-sq.-ft. enclosed office.

The level of churn didn't warrant the use of moveable partitions, however, says Gordon. "As a cost-saving measure, we ended up building drywall rather than using any kind of demountable partition," he says, adding that Hillier estimates a hurdle rate of about 7 percent to 8 percent churn before demountable walls make economic sense.

For the fast-moving offices of Zamba Solutions Inc., a Minneapolis-based developer of Web-based and traditional customer services, managing expansion is as critical as accommodating churn. "We wanted growth spaces, so instead of hard-wall teaming rooms, we used screens supported by poles that are powered," says Mari Ann Baden, facilities manager. "So we can turn the teaming areas into six workstations, or 'pods.'"

The office-furniture system selected by Zamba and Walsh Bishop, its Minneapolis-based architect, is a highly engineered collection of curved work surfaces, moveable tables, light-topped poles and light green and beige fabric screens. "It's very unique with a warm feeling, but very high-tech," says Baden. "You can tell we're not an accounting or law firm."

Increasingly, today's workplace tends more toward the open, space-age look of Zamba Solutions, and less like the traditional gypsum-board jungle. (Even the nomenclature of officing has become lighter and less stuffy; see "An office by any other name ..." on page 38.) The new office paradigm demands more communication and more frequent interaction between workers. It also asks today's info-assemblers for innovative thinking, often the critical point of differentiation between similar companies.

"For the employee, you're not sitting in a box or a small rectangle," says Jay M. Laundré, vice president of facilities with Atlanta-based IXL Inc., a developer of Internet solutions that has used a similar off-the-shelf workstation system at two major offices. "It's that open, high-end feeling that makes you feel that you're on the cutting edge and very progressive."

Transparency and lightness

The results are partition and furniture systems that use unique or unexpected materials in ways that increase the transparency or lightness of the office environment.

At the new offices of Chicago-based architecture firm Valerio DeWalt Train Inc., for example, translucent polycarbonate ceilings and perforated metal panels are used to demarcate office areas and workstation perimeters. The immediacy and transparency of electronic processes and the computer screen itself are suggested by the result.

"We created a series of demising walls from metal ceiling panels, but you can look right through them," says Joe Valerio, principal, who feels that the design promotes collaboration rather than separation. "On the one hand, people do feel a sense of enclosure and privacy, but on the other hand, if you do want to get someone's attention, it's fairly easy to do."

For a similar effect at the MTA's New York offices, the project team created a file surround of rust-red lacquered fiberboard topped by a lighting fixture with a frosted acrylic sheet, or "sail," as a reflector. "The file surround fixes the positions of the workstations, defines and illuminates the primary circulation aisles and provides a site for common storage," Gordon explains.

Not insignificantly, the surround also houses power and data points for network printers, fax machines and other shared peripherals. The cables are dropped from trays above the ceiling through posts holding the sail walls in place, and are fed into the fixed spline of the furniture system.

Even where traditional gypsum-board partitions are used, this trend toward openness and inclusion is a key design goal, while fixed surfaces are minimized. At the new offices of Rycon Construction Inc., in the Pittsburgh warehouse district, design intent merged with office culture, says Todd A. Dominick, president of the firm, which specializes in interiors. "It's a very young firm, and we wanted it to be fun, so we kept it light and airy."

"It's not unlike a lot of open offices now; there are no real enclosed spaces," except for conference rooms, says Richard Bamburak, principal with Pittsburgh-based WTW Architects, designer of the installation. "And rather than keeping the partitions square and straight, they're expressed with angles and colors."

The angled drywall partitioning resolves at sloping top planes and custom work surfaces, with vivid accent colors adding dynamism. The project team also exposed basic construction materials for effect, such as a varnished particleboard, corrugated steel and heavy but spurious bolts, says Bamburak, "to keep that industrial look going."

"The mentality of the team was: don't be afraid to expose building products, because we're builders," adds Dominick.

Energy and ergonomics

The same honesty of material and expression cuts through all of the projects, and even affects how basic work tools are integrated into cubicle design. At IXL's offices, says Laundré, "It's an open, free system, and you can attach different components and accessories, such as hooks for headsets. Task lights are mounted onto the work surface, and there is very good wire management built into the trusses overhead."

Accommodating the work tool is critical to office design, but in this age of electronic celerity, so is ergonomics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of some 600,000 on-the-job injuries in 1998, more than a quarter were in the service sector. While nurses were the most likely affected, a large portion of those injured are office workers, suffering repetitive-stress injuries that are often linked to computer keyboard use.

Productivity undoubtedly has its price. In spite of its bottom-line benefits, the speed of today's workplace exacts a very real toll, in stress, fatigue and injury. To boost output without workers being put out, the corporate workplace must still evolve.

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