Accessibility, ventilation, noise mitigation and privacy have become key design concerns as office floor plans are configured, or reconfigured, to accommodate more people than past workspace norms. Employers’ ultimate objective may be to reduce real estate costs, but they typically want to do it in a style that conveys something positive about their corporate culture. Meanwhile, their landlords can find themselves balancing the need to attract and keep tenants against the operational pressures of high-density occupancies.
“Intensification is not necessarily about cram and jam,” Eric Yorath, a principal with the design firm, Figure 3, told seminar attendees at The Buildings Show last fall — a qualification that nevertheless implies congestion can result.
As moderator of the cheekily titled discussion, Densification on Steroids: Addressing the Challenges of Increased Workplace Density, Yorath polled an experts’ panel on how to achieve a happier outcome. Looking from the perspectives of space design, building systems, tenants’ aspirations and landlords’ constraints, panellists outlined the trends that are shrinking space-per-person ratios, and the structural and social encumbrances that can arise in step with climbing densities.
Although the quest to cut costs is surely a prime motivator for intensification, other evolving business realities help with the practicalities of the case. Offices once housed resources — paper-based documents, computer mainframes, phone and fax lines — that tied staff to a physical location. Today, there is much more technological flexibility to work remotely and formal workplaces are less likely to routinely be at full capacity. With still further space reclaimed from now largely unnecessary storage areas, many corporate strategists are re-evaluating the purpose and the possibilities of their premises.
“Most occupiers today are looking at the real estate as a way to really transform the organization,” submitted Ron Armstrong, managing director, project management, with CBRE.
“People are trying to create an environment for a better product,” concurred Rick Comish, a partner with Ellington Tenant & Facilities Services.
The process for doing that is still far from defined, but concepts such as collaborative environments and employees’ self-identification with the company’s values and image are steadily gaining currency with management gurus. It’s now practically a real estate industry tenet that employers are battling to hire the best available young talent, and that this generation has different, inherently more demanding expectations. Beyond providing tools to carry out assigned tasks, Armstrong posits that companies need to provide choice, nurture social interaction and impress onlookers.
“The employees are really driving the space design,” he said. “For most of our clients, the outside view of their brand has become extremely relevant.”
“Design of the spaces is becoming much more social,” reported Suzanne Bettencourt, a principal with Figure 3. The favoured layout is now most densely peopled at the perimeters to maximize access to outdoor views and natural light, and offers multi-functional space and leisure respite.
Administrative tasks are likewise evolving, with receptionists moving away from the traditional gatekeeper role and more into traffic control. “They really are becoming a facilitator of how you use the rest of the space within the office footprint,” Armstrong maintained.
He’s well positioned to provide professional and personal insight. As a consultant, he has overseen the selection and fit-out of quarters ranging from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of square feet, while, as an employee, he has experienced his own company’s office consolidation and makeover. CBRE has spearheaded a 25 per cent corporate-wide reduction in the office space it occupies — necessitating an 8 per cent increase in spending on technology and capital upgrades, but resulting in a 20 per cent reduction in leasing overhead.
At Armstrong’s own home base, about 6 per cent of the total office footprint was relinquished, but the square-foot-per-person quotient was cut by a more dramatic 40 per cent. To counter perceptions of crowding, the company added amenity space and committed to the WELL Standard‘s dictates for natural light, air quality and ergonomics.
The new format offers 14 different types of workspaces, none of which are assigned to specific employees. “It’s fluid,” he said.
Furniture design caters to these density trends. Comish noted that workstations are now typically 6′ x 6′, down from the previous 8′ x 8’ standard, while sit-stand desks are becoming more commonplace both for space-saving qualities and to address concerns about the health drawbacks of sitting for prolonged periods. (The latter have proven particularly popular with older workers who no longer have such supple joints, he added.)
Compactness also supports compliance with accessibility standards related to accommodating mobility aids. Bettencourt shared examples of higher-density office layouts that have ample circulation space — stressing that good design begins with inclusiveness.
“Every client comes to us and says: we’re unique; we’re special; we have special needs,” she recounted. “What we try to do is find out not what’s unique about your people, but what are the commonalities of your people?”
Yet, common experiences in high-density occupancies can often be negative.
“More people just means more noise,” observed Tony Spina, associate principal with the engineering firm, Smith & Andersen. “If you have more bodies, you’re going to have more carbon dioxide.”
Surface materials within the space can either amplify or muffle the general din so they must be selected with care. Ceiling tiles are a common starting point in efforts to dampen auditory transmission, while engineered acoustics are a next step that many companies are now embracing.
“Certainly, in large open floor plates, you need something to bring the noise down,” Armstrong acknowledged.
There are also concerns about what might be overheard. Secure spaces for confidential conversations are critical, both for due diligence in the handling of sensitive business and for staff morale. Perhaps for this reason, space-per-person ratios continue to be higher among some professional services, such as law firms.
As is often the case, the capacity to provide adequate ventilation and handle greater plug loads is easier to find and/or augment for in newer Class A buildings. Spina advised prospective tenants to assess HVAC adequacy before they make a commitment, while Comish suggested that many owners/managers of Class B buildings may willingly withdraw from contention.
“They are definitely not interested in trying to increase the densification of the floor,” he said.
Especially for buildings that don’t have heat recovery ventilation, extra intake of outdoor air — which has to be warmed up or cooled down during several months of the year — will increase energy loads. On a more positive note, steady advancements in lighting technology have given older buildings some manoeuvring room since they were designed to more generous wattage-per-square-foot criteria.
In newer buildings, Spina warned that multi-functional space can play havoc with air return systems as partitions are opened or closed. “How you start fragmenting space starts to affect HVAC,” he said.
Burgeoning interest in the WELL Standard and other programs to support a better quality of work environment might be seen as reaction to or a trade-off for the negatives of office intensification.
“From an occupant perspective, having worked in it, I would say it’s an absolute positive,” Armstrong said. However, he cautions that it works best as proactive element of a company’s facilities strategy.
“You need to look at it early and you really need a landlord that will participate,” he advised. “All of that happens at the lease phase, as opposed to the design and construction phase.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.