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How Companies That Design Offices For A Living Design Their Own Offices

Snøhetta, Perkins + Will, and NBBJ explain the design methodology of their offices.

Many companies can be forgiven for a lackluster office. Not Snøhetta, Perkins + Will, and NBBJ. These three architecture firms are specifically known for their office design work, among other things. From their use of authentic materials to their innovative layouts to their flexible, open office spaces, these firms' offices reflect the latest and greatest practices in workplace design.

At this month's Fast Company Innovation Festival, attendees got to see for themselves the New York offices of firms that have designed work spaces for Samsung (NBBJ), L'Oreal (Perkins + Will), Aesop (Snøhetta), and more. Here are the principles that inform their office design.

NBBJ

Open Offices, (Sometimes) Open Desks

Open office spaces can be loud and make you sick. But for all their drawbacks, all three of the firms we spoke to still had open office plans . . . although whether desks were assigned was another thing entirely.

Perkins + Will thinks the day of assigned office seating is totally over. "Ten years ago, when you started working in an office, you were assigned to a workspace, and that was where you sat," says Perkins + Will's N.Y.C. office designer Joan Blumenfeld. "Now, everyone goes everywhere. Personal choice is key."

Snøhetta partially agrees and says that they'd move away from desks entirely, if it was only plasible for architects to do their work efficiently that way. "The kind of work we do, architects really need a space they own," says Elaine Molinar, partner at Snøhetta. "It's not really practical for us to just work on our laptops all the time."

NBBJ's workplace design principal Suzanne Carlson says: "No one in the firm has a private office." But they do have assigned seating.

The takeaway? Open offices may be controversial, but at least for three architecture firms whose business is all based upon creativity, they're the norm.

Snøhetta

Flexible Coworking Spaces

All the firms we spoke to agreed that modern offices need to be flexible enough for people to feel they can work from anywhere, not just their desks. Good office design gives people choices about where they work, from informal nooks to window-facing standing desks.

At Snøhetta, where architects get dedicated desks, there's still an expectation that employees will mostly want to be as mobile inside the office as they are outside of the office. Consequently, the office has been designed with many flexible, casual, multi-use spaces—for example, the 2,500-square-foot atrium at the entrance of Snøhetta's office, which doubles as everything from a large meeting room to a cafeteria—giving employees the opportunity to change working locations or positions many times through day. "We all have a specific desk, but there's still lots of undefined working space anyone can use," Molinar says.

That's also true at NBBJ, where designers are just as welcome to spend the day on their laptop at a window lounge chair as they are at a standing table. And at Perkins + Will, the idea of letting people choose where to sit extends to the tech infrastructure. There are no desk monitors or phones in the office; instead, you'll find ubiquitous speakers and displays that can be easily connected to.

Open Lobby

You won't find a lobby when you step into Snøhetta's offices. Instead, you find yourself in a huge 2,500-square-foot communal space, filled with comfortable furniture and custom-designed, leaf-shaped tables that can be fit together to create larger meeting spaces. Snøhetta uses this space as a waiting room, a coworking space, a lunch room, a conference room, a movie theater, and more.

This is part of a larger trend—at least among architecture offices—about opening up offices so there is no longer any division between the space the public can see, and the space where employees work.

Similarly, Perkins + Will uses transparent glass walls to let people coming out of the elevators see the whole work space.

"One thing we heard when we were talking about our new office was that clients really wanted to see our creative process," says Blumenthal. "So now, when you get off the elevator, you see people and the projects we're working on right away."

Perkins + Will

Lots of Hands-On Space

Though the current trend in offices is to design so employees don't need a dedicated desk, some work can't be done on a laptop in a beanbag chair, or at a standing desk. To compensate for this, all of the firms provided large hands-on spaces where people can work on physical projects.

At Snøhetta, where a lot of modeling work is still done, there are two physical workshops, complete with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment. Since it can be a dirty environment, Snøhetta closes the workshops off from the rest of the offices, but even so, large glass windows make sure that the workshop feels connected with the rest of the office.

Similarly, at NBBJ, there is a model shop, as well as several available spaces for drawing and other mock-up work. There's also a dedicated materials library. "We wanted to devote significant amount of real estate to the materials and forms we use in our workplace every day, as well as a place to celebrate the craft of what we do," says Carlson.

Neutral Colors, Authentic Materials

In recent years, loud pops of color and exotic materials were fashionable in offices. In their own offices, Snøhetta, NBBJ, and Perkins + Will have moved toward more neutral colors and materials that feel authentic.

At NBBJ, they have adopted a more neutral color palette simply so as to not overwhelm the work they might present to clients. "When you make bold and dramatic design statements in your own space, you run the risk of making a client feel uncomfortable," says Carlson. Instead, the office uses authentic-feeling materials like cork boards or bamboo tables to enliven the space.

Snøhetta's offices also put a great premium on authenticity of material, stripping everything back. The walls are simple Sheetrock, and the floors are concrete. "It's very informal: the kind of office where if you spill something, you know it's okay," says Molinar. "It's an informal, raw environment that helps us be more relaxed, creative, and comfortable."

When Perkins + Will changed its New York offices a few years back, the company similarly adopted more authentic materials, like wood, and softer earth tones. "The office has a much more natural color palette, with subtle motifs of nature interplayed throughout," says Blumenfeld—an important consideration for any office in an urban environment where employees might be nature-starved, she says.

Do What We Say, Not What We Do

Is there anything about their offices that they wouldn't recommend their clients doing? For the most part, no: Snøhetta, Perkins + Will, and NBBJ all practice what they preach. But there are some small exceptions.

"Our redesign was only done a few years ago, so it's still reflecting a lot of the trends we recommend to our clients," says NBBJ's Carlson. "If we were to redesign it, I'd probably just do even more of what we're already doing, opening the space up so it offers employees even more flexibility and choice."

Snøhetta is more circumspect. "It's not a catch-all, but we wouldn't recommend an open office to everyone," Molinar says. "There are many organizations where an open office just isn't appropriate—for example, because they deal with confidential information."

At Perkins + Will, Blumenfeld says there isn't anything about their offices they would tell a client to stay away from—but they sure as heck wouldn't recommend anyone undergo the same process in designing their offices as they followed.

"While we were working on the redesign, anytime a client called, we'd have to jump up and drop the whole thing, maybe for weeks at a time," she says. "If we'd staffed a project for clients like we did designing our own offices, we would have been fired."

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