From Weitz Thought Leaders: Building an Office that Works

The October Harvard Business Review¬†issue features office space design and its effects on productivity, creativity and overall engagement. In leafing through it, I was taken back 15 years when I was responsible for creating flexible, collaborative work environments for a Fortune 500 company. Back then, we concentrated on how to attract and retain young, bright (and highly sought after…it was the tech boom) IT pros. The physical challenge was how do you transform buildings designed with long hallways and walled-off offices into open, collaborative working spaces that are edgy and fun?

Today, many of the facilities and construction challenges of the late 1990s have been erased. For example, wireless technology has nearly eliminated the need for two to three CAT 5 cables per person. You don’t need to sit near a voice and data plug; your wireless devices go where you go. That being said, we still face some of the same old challenges in designing and building these flexible, fun environments.

Floor-to-ceiling improvements

To answer the call for flexibility in the physical environment, many solutions are available. Access flooring can allow for power and data to be moved virtually anywhere very quickly and with minimal disruption. These floors can be retrofit into existing structures, driving the needs for ramps and steps in some areas. While most people find this undesirable, it’s definitely not a show stopper.

The other hurdle to overcome in this approach is now that the floor is raised, the ceiling height becomes lower. Making any changes to increase ceiling height typically gets complicated and expensive. Above those white ceiling tiles you’ll typically find electrical conduits, air conditioning ducts, fire sprinklers, and often voice and data cabling. Getting two to five inches of height could cost you $3 to $7 per square foot. Going for more can reach $15 per square foot, and well beyond. The cost of the flooring itself can range from $3 per square foot to $7 per square foot for moderate heights (2 to 8 inches). If your building is designed with this flooring in mind, the aforementioned challenges go away, but like anything else, there is a cost.

To facilitate increased floor-to-ceiling volumes, often the height of the building itself is increased. We find this often adds $60,000 to $175,000 or more for each additional foot, and this is totally dependent on the overall building perimeter and exterior wall construction. There is a better way, though. By implementing tools like Building Information Modeling (BIM) and close coordination with multiple building trades and internal experts, we have successfully minimized building heights and at the same time increased ceiling heights. On one project in Colorado, this process allowed us to save 12 feet of building height for a client.

Outside the (walls of the) box

Another barrier to buildings that can quickly change inside are the walls themselves. Typically these physical partitions are framed with metal or wood and covered with drywall.

To move them requires demolition and fairly extensive refinish work. Many times they house electrical wiring and doors which further complicate things. I have seen a demountable wall system used in many buildings, which improved the ability to move/reconfigure walls. This is a compromise solution at best, as these walls tend to be flimsy and do not stop sound transmission very well. Additionally, they are roughly twice as expensive as typical drywall solutions.

Furniture vendors have attempted to address this issue as well, by making self-supporting walls that can be moved around. Unfortunately, they contain many of the same drawbacks as outlined above with the addition of greater cost on the magnitude of two to three times the cost of drywall partitions. In addition, these demountable systems are treated as furniture and hence depreciate much faster than the building itself — seven years for the furniture and 30 for the building. Your CFO would be the deciding vote on that long-term benefit.

The trend that I first encountered 15 years back is fewer interior partitions for offices and more shared common spaces such as conference rooms and even phone booth-sized spaces that allow for sound and visual privacy. The Weitz Company has actually implemented this in our Phoenix office. Upon entering this space, you feel a sense of energy and fun. It is so prevalent, we have begun to spread this concept to our other offices.

Know your boundaries

Over the years on the facilities side of the business, and now for the past eight years on the construction manager side, I have seen the very issues highlighted in Harvard Business Review wrestled with – and the end result is amazingly similar. Typically, a progressive leader decides that the new facility or new space should be designed to support the work process and create a fun environment for its workers, as they spend so much time there. The designers show them tons of ideas, some of them totally wild, and they wrestle with whether the ideas will work for them.

I think the Harvard Business Review¬†article, “Workspaces That Move People” is the absolute best I have ever seen in that it quantifies with data the different ways people are most effective at their jobs. It will be interesting to see how great designers take this information and incorporate it into their future approach. If you set out on this road, rest assured there are designers that do this well, and it is worth talking to them. To save yourself time and money, be sure to know your boundaries and communicate it in writing to your design team.

After 25 years of working in, designing, building, and experimenting with office spaces, I suggest: keep it open and flexible. Choose a furniture system that is easy to reconfigure. Finally, use a quality construction manager like The Weitz Company to optimize the build around these parameters.

– Written by Jim Wells, Vice President, The Weitz Company (