HOK Toronto

HOK Toronto’s new Pinterest-inspired home

How the design firm scaled a craft-studio feel across a 16,000-square-foot office suite
Thursday, February 11, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

Immediately off the elevator bank, a dining-room-sized table, squared off by an L-shaped couch and guest chairs, comes into view. This is the first of many and varied collaborative spaces in HOK Toronto’s new office. And it’s located in the reception area.

A group of grey-cushioned, wood-framed Herman Miller Crosshatch Chairs relax into a royal blue carpet around a black coffee table. Custom light fixtures, featuring a series of suspended black rods capped with round bulbs, anchor the placement of the dining-room-sized table and the foursome of lounge chairs. At the far end of the room, an unassuming reception desk with a partial privacy panel sits below a snowy landscape painting.

Naturally, reception presents as a focal point of the office’s interior design, but quality of finish and style are consistent throughout the suite. There is a certain sense of equality in the fluidity of space. It erases boundaries, regardless of a person’s rank or tenure and whether employee or visitor.

“As you walk through, you don’t feel a difference between the front-of-house client spaces and the studio space,” says Sharon Turner, vice president, HOK Toronto. “It’s all contiguous.”

Turner headed up the design team behind the 22nd-floor office suite that HOK Toronto now calls home. The resulting interiors, which recently earned the firm an ARIDO award of merit, have cemented the trend toward infusing workplaces with a residential feel.

With its exposed ceilings, found objects, modern furniture and wood flooring, the office has all the trappings of an artist’s loft. Rightfully so, because the firm’s design charrettes generated a lot of reference photos that portrayed at-home and artisan-style studio spaces. Some came from Pinterest, the popular app that allows users to maintain a virtual bulletin board of DIY projects, home décor and more.

The palette replaced HOK’s trademark red with black, with occasional pops of subdued blue — a “non-colour colour” — and introduced natural materials, particularly woods.

“I think people felt we all know the brand, we know what it’s about,” says Turner. “It doesn’t need to be in our faces overly apparent; it just needs to be a really great environment.”

HOK Toronto initiated the project when it decided to trade a trendy King West address for a suite at 400 University Ave., reducing its real estate from 24,000 to 16,000 square feet. Not only was it a cost-saving move, but one that gave the firm a closer proximity to public transit and a footprint more conducive to collaboration.

“We used to be in a long space [that made it] really hard for us to interact,” says Turner. “People tended to be siloed based on what group they were working with, whereas [this] space has brought us all together.”

Plus, she says, the suite offered one of the city’s “best-kept secrets.”

The transparent glass walls that delineate a trio of boardrooms from reception give visitors an instant sense of the 22-floor office’s spectacular 360-degree views of Toronto.

The interior design project began with a complete gutting of the suite, which involved tearing out the T-bar ceilings to increase the height of the eight-foot-four space. At the same time, preparing to relocate meant purging a lot of the stuff the firm had accumulated in its former office.

Jacquie Martinez, facility manager and vice president, HOK Toronto, recalls that the firm spent months collecting samples in bins and contacting organizations, including local elementary and design schools, art galleries and theatre troupes, to donate materials that would benefit their students and programs.

“Then we found this guy who was opening a bar/gallery/music venue,” says Martinez. “He spent a couple of weeks taking the design library samples, as well as leftover furniture, which was not part of our de-commissioning process, which he was delighted to use in his new venture.”

The exercise was especially critical as the firm downsized its footprint by 8,000 square feet. Also integral to the firm’s space-saving strategy was moving away from paper documents and toward digital storage.

“So much information from suppliers is available online now that we commissioned HOK InfoHub, an online resource that team members can search by keyword, enabling them to call suppliers to order the specific samples for each project,” says Martinez. “That’s been a huge help for us, because we never would have be able to go to a smaller space if we hadn’t gone digital and dramatically reduced the amount of space used to store resource materials and samples.”

One area where this is evident is in HOK Toronto’s library, which has been pared down to material samples and tucked into its kitchen area in double cabinets.

The open-concept kitchen puts reusable dishes and glassware on display with a stainless steel island and racks. These fixtures are surrounded by crisp white countertops, navy-coloured cabinetry and stainless steel appliances. Complemented with communal tables, the kitchen is outfitted with a pull-down screen and serves multiple purposes, including as a venue for office-wide meetings and continuing-education lunch and learns.

The kitchen also showcases elements of HOK’s sustainable operations plan, which incorporates green office practices.

“Catering is part of this and we have purchased our own plates, cups, glasses and utensils for staff and for catered events,” says Martinez. “Caterers are made aware of our guidelines and encouraged to bring catering on returnable ceramic platters.”

The kitchen is only one part of the office’s sustainability story; another is its lighting, which is expected to be a major contributor to the project’s targeted LEED Gold certification.

The layout of the suite positions Inscape benching systems perpendicular to the windows, giving virtually everyone daylight access. Each workstation is paired with an Aeron task chair from Herman Miller, and the last workstation on each row is an unassigned sit-stand desk.

Unassigned seating, or moving to a more agile workplace, was a critical piece in contracting and containing the growing firm’s footprint. At the time of the firm’s move, it had allocated 120 seats to 150 employees.

“We made the decision that it was not the younger team members that were going to be agile, but the more senior people, because they actually had less materials they needed to store. They were the better group that could be flexible as to where they sat,” says Turner.

The core of the suite is divided into seven-by-nine-foot rooms. Two of the rooms are allocated to HR and finance; all of the rooms are available to step into as needed, for everything from personal phone calls to prayer. Only the videoconferencing-equipped boardrooms can be booked.

The question of how to achieve privacy in a dedicated prayer/wellness room posed a conundrum: If the glass was covered with a privacy film, how would anyone know whether the room was available? The answer was to simply add a curtain that could be drawn shut.

With all the change inherent in HOK Toronto’s plans to relocate, change management was a vital component of the project. The long footprint that challenged the firm’s ability to collaborate in its former space also provided the perfect hallways to post new information and progress updates along as they became available.

One of the big concerns that emerged was whether employees would be able to function in smaller workstations. A key response was to, instead of simply providing filing cabinets at each desk, create a custom cabinet with shallow trays suitable for storing drawings, materials and supplies.

“And for the agile workers, we ordered customized filing cabinets they would be able to use for storage … we provided a video ahead of time to show team members how the cabinets were designed to accommodate their belongings,” says Martinez. “We tried to make everything transparent. People were encouraged to ask questions. We didn’t want team members worrying about the unknown.”

Another of the major worries for employees was the move to a more agile workplace. Despite employees believing they spent 80 per cent of their time at their desks, the firm found through study that many employees in fact spent less than half their time at their desk.

Ultimately, the post-project feedback was overwhelmingly positive, from not only employees, but also clients, suppliers and other visitors, including the prospective tenants that HOK Toronto’s landlord now tours through the space.

And undoubtedly, the success of the project benefitted from buy-in from senior management.

“The big table in the front, that was probably the last thing people took up on, and it took people like myself to have a meeting there and to validate that it’s okay to have a meeting in reception,” says Duncan Broyd, managing principal, HOK Toronto. “But we’re past that point now. Everyone knows it’s fair game.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design. Follow her on Twitter @michellervin.

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