Office design shapes furniture design

June 8, 2012
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Although the work cubicle that West Michigan furniture makers created, advanced and made famous isn’t nearing extinction, it has evolved, as the design of office environments is changing.

Office spaces first began to take on a different look about 15 years ago as the needs of the work force changed. Furniture manufacturers responded by altering the cubicle, or pod as it’s also called.

“A lot of the offices that we have been most involved with recently are for a creative customer: the ad services, the graphic artists, the web designers — those kinds of individuals. Their space is really more of a collaborative space,” said Tom Nemitz, president of Cornerstone Architects, which has done a lot of interior office design through its building renovation work.

“They work a lot like we work. There are large, open spaces that maybe have a few smaller breakout spaces where privacy is needed or confidentiality is required. You can have those options. But most everybody works in a big open space and collaborates on the creative process.”

The cubicle, where it still is used, has been redesigned. Pod walls that once nearly enclosed workers have been removed to allow for more interaction among employees.

Another change in the office environment is a concept called “hoteling.” It is space that is reserved for employees who often work from a remote site, such as at home, or who are on the road a lot.

“Once or twice or maybe three times a week, they do need to go into the office and ‘hotel.’ They set up, maybe, in a non-determined space that is flexible enough for other people to plug-and-play into. Then they would use that time to collaborate, but also touch base with the office on some of the things they’ve been working on while they’re on the road or at home,” said Nemitz.

“So that provides a little bit more flexibility in terms of people working offsite in offices. That, again, is probably more attuned to what I would say is the creative industry where travel is a big part of their job description.”

The change in office design began here in the mid-1990s when former warehouses and factories were renovated and turned into loft-office buildings. One of the first Nemitz designed was in 1996 when Cornerstone was chosen to draw up the renovation of the Brass Works building on North Monroe Avenue. That assignment made him one of the first local architects to design wide-open office suites.

“Those were spaces that someone who was used to an enclosed office environment would not be attracted to. It was more of a creative kind of clientele that was attracted to these loft-style spaces. So we saw it in bits and pieces probably 10 or 15 years ago, but I think there is more of an emphasis on that now for a couple of reasons,” he said.

“One is, with our economy, there has been a lot of emphasis on the creative community to kind of lead us out of this slump, and I think that has been promoted. Two, I think the furniture manufacturers are always looking for new ways to reinvent their product for the market, and I think that is a market they’ve latched on to for that reason.”

Nemitz said his firm is seeing more wide-open office spaces now and is even beginning to see some traditionally enclosed office clients opening up to that type of arrangement.

As a professional designer, Nemitz said he likes the open-space concept for offices — and not just from an artistic standpoint but also from a pragmatic perspective.

“Wide-open spaces in some of the buildings allow for a pretty neat aesthetic. And, again, when you combine pretty creative people with that space, it opens us up to a lot of neat ideas. We’re given large open spaces and the ability to bring daylight in. So that component has been a benefit, I think, to what we do and to what we excel at,” he said.

“But I think there also are some challenges, namely with confidentiality and sound masking. Sometimes certain people are louder than others and that can be disruptive to certain types of work habits. So that’s why we try to infuse these private spaces,” he said.

Nemitz said if some are more productive working in a 10-by-10 cubicle or a 12-by-10 office, he wants to make sure a design is flexible enough to offer those options.

“What probably has become even more apparent, I think, in the office market is that certain people work in different ways. Never have we been more encouraged to allow for people of differing work habits to operate. It’s a flexible space and it’s a space that can accommodate the people that need that enclosed office but also encourages breakout space and collaborative space.”

Nemitz said he doesn’t see the use of open office space ending anytime soon. At the same time, he doesn’t think every office tenant will gravitate to it.

“There still are certain professions that have to have a private-office setting, or at least their mindset is that they have to have a private-office setting. Law firms are typically tied to that and there is still a little bit of status involved in having the corner office or the bigger office. Where there is a hierarchical situation, a lot of times we need to be aware and cognizant of that,” he said.

“But one thing that I think has changed is the hierarchy that used to exist in a lot of more traditional offices has been downplayed a little bit. We’re starting to see CEOs move out into open office space. We saw that back when we did United Way, and Mike Brennan, who at the time said, ‘If I’m endorsing this concept, I better move into the heart of an open-office situation.’ So he was a little bit of a pioneer in that respect.”

It was early 1999 when 118 Commerce Ave. SW was renovated into the 28,000-square-foot home for the Heart of West Michigan United Way. The work involved turning the former Heystek building and the adjacent Postal Annex into an open loft-office for the 40 employees Brennan directed.

Nemitz said another important facet of office design is sustainability. An energy-efficient design is now matter-of-factly required for every office, whether a building has been revived or built new and whether its work space is open or closed.

“That is something that the office-furniture manufacturers are keenly aware of,” he said. “I would say the three biggest things we see in the marketing materials we get are flexibility, technology and sustainability.”

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