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Frontiers of Enterprise Design of the times?

Office spaces get a revamp — including some throwbacks

From bathrooms to boardrooms, the pandemic is reshaping workspaces. Architects and planners tell us what to expect, as business owners eye everything from increased outdoor space to more private offices.

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More than half of U.S. employees (52%) would prefer a hybrid work model — working some time at home and some time in an office. Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2020

You may not realize this but the idea for the powder room in your house came about after the last time the U.S. faced a pandemic. In the early 20th century, many Americans had delivery workers in and out of their homes on a regular basis and after the 1918 flu, architects began getting requests for a small bathroom near the front of the house that delivery people could use to wash their hands. 

Today’s architects say they also are seeing new trends taking shape as a result of the coronavirus — and bathrooms are again at the top of the list, although now it is those in office spaces that are the priority.

“As the landscape continues to evolve in response to the pandemic, so too, will the design of the spaces that define our lives,” said Peter Exley, 2021 president of The American Institute of Architects. “While our society continues to return to full operations with new safety protocols, there will no doubt be a lasting impact to our office environments.”

Business owners are looking at everything from increased outdoor space to adding more enclosed private offices, re-evaluating the placement of desks and the size of conference rooms and even yes, bathrooms. 

Don Powell, partner and founding principal of the architecture firm, BOKA Powell in Dallas, believes the things that will change most immediately in existing offices are elevators and restrooms — adding touchless systems for faucets, flushing, and even door handles. 

Powell explained: “Within workplace environments, tenants want to come back in a way that allows them to connect with colleagues and also balance the need to feel safe. Collaboration spaces that were eliminated during the pandemic will begin to return and be distributed more widely. Open office workstations will be larger and private offices will be increased as a proportion to open office stations where middle managers who were once in larger stations are afforded small enclosed offices.” 

A rendering for an outdoor workspace designed by the firm BOKA Powell for The Link at Updown building in Dallas shows open collaboration space. According to BOKA Powell founder Don Powell, spaces such as this will become more prevalent in offices. “Collaboration spaces that were eliminated during the pandemic will begin to return,” he says. (Photo courtesy of BOKA Powell)

Powell says he believes there will also be an emphasis on access to the outdoors that will mean new and more creatively designed office buildings. His agency is working on a 400,000-square-foot corporate headquarters for CHRISTUS Health in north Texas where each level of the tower has convenient access to the outside, something he calls a critical element of post-Covid-19 design strategy.

Step-out balconies that provide access to fresh air will become more prevalent. Open green spaces for outdoor gathering and fitness will also become more important to users. Walkability to amenities — especially food — is a trend that began pre-Covid-19, and will continue in workplace projects. Office buildings will seldom be built in areas without walkable services.”

Yet office redesigns will still need to be customized.

“It’s not a one-size fits all approach,” says Ashley Hall of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is a shift into more flexible types of spaces — the ability to adjust spaces to fit different needs,” said Hall, corporate interior studio principal. “Individuals are finding they may have been more productive at home because they could work uninterrupted so the question is how do we create that in the office — is that through architecture or furniture? Most of our clients are planning to customize spaces and have mobile furniture. I think we’ll also see hoteling where people are sharing workspaces and desks because not everyone will be coming back into the office and not all at the same time.” In offices, “hoteling” means employees pre-book a space to work, according to SpaceIQ.

Josh Vallimont is a project executive in Charlotte with DPR Construction and says even projects that were started before the pandemic are making changes — especially when it comes to air quality because the coronavirus is airborne. 

“It’s a consideration on all projects. Most of the buildings that were under construction at the start of the pandemic were able to adapt to this — they’re using ionization — and while it’s not cheap, it’s a way to kill germs before air is recycled.”

Vallimont says the attention on air quality is part of a renewed focus on employee wellness and making workers feel comfortable coming back into the office.

Each level of the CHRISTUS Health building will have a step-out balcony to provide convenient access to fresh air, a critical element of post-Covid-19 design strategy, says Don Powell, founder of BOKA Powell, the firm developing the building. (Photo courtesy of BOKA Powell)

Courtney Fain of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting agrees, saying, “Companies had recently been focused on making sure employees had a cool workplace experience. Now they’re focusing on that but also making sure it’s a healthy experience.” 

She points to the WELL building standard that’s been around since 2014 but is suddenly gaining in popularity. “It’s a building standard created by the International WELL Building Institute,” said Fain, who is financial interiors studio principal. “And while there is an emphasis on sustainable materials, there is also a real focus on creating healthy environments for human beings.” 

WELL-certified buildings focus on everything from air, light and water quality to thermal comfort and nourishment, all meant to build a better environment for the people that fill the office buildings.

Fain says the pandemic also means that their design teams are brought into the process earlier than before. 

“Clients used to come to us and say here’s what we want. Now they come to us and say we want you to help us with workplace strategy, help us create a design that’s going to work for our employees. 

“Everyone is rethinking what they thought to be true.”

The cover illustration was created by Andrés Guzmán, who is a Peruvian-born artist/illustrator based in Minneapolis. More recently, he has done work for Vice Media, Target, Eastlake Brewery, Star Tribune and Pollen Midwest. His favorite tools as of late include India ink and iPad. Instagram: andresitoguzman

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