How the Office became what it is today

In commercial environments we often grapple with tough questions regarding productivity, technological integration, and (now more than ever) employee satisfaction and well being. Due to the speed of ever-changing technology, the shape of workplace environments are in a constant state of flux. The days of cookie-cutter office solutions are over if they ever really existed.

At a time where there is a constant need to move forward, we do occasionally need to look back on where we came from to get here. Not only are office changing now; but they have been doing so for the past century.

This Stylepark article provides a nice overview of commercial space history and some of the factors, individuals, and technologies that have driven the change in commercial environments.

Sample board or Rendering

FullSizeRenderWhen working with a client  we will meet in person multiple times to bring drawings and plans of a space and also material finish samples for what will go in the space: carpets, ceramic tiles, paint chips, grout colors, fabric swatches, wood samples, laminate chips, the list goes on and on. I like to bring loose samples, sometimes with pictures of how a large piece will look in a space, especially with carpet. But at some point the we go from making decisions to  giving a sense of what the final product will be. With drawings the final product is still represented in a drawing, either printed, digital or both. But with materials there’s a choice: Sample (or presentation) board or Renderings. (Or both, but that’s a rarity in our office)

IMG_0802A sample board is a foam core board with actual physical samples used in the space tacked to it. Many clients use these in combination with drawings for showing final selections of Board members or teammates who weren’t involved in our meetings and to give other stakeholders an idea of what is coming soon. This post was inspired by my colleague snapping a picture with his phone of me standing on a chair to take a picture of a presentation board before giving it to the client.

On the plus side here, you have the actual sample of the materials to know how they will feel and the exact color that they are for the space. It’s also a little less time consuming so it can be done more quickly. On the down side, while we often label what materials will be located where, it may be hard to visualize how the space will look for some people. There’s usually only one copy as well. This is a good solution for more simple work and small spaces where 3D images are hard to create effectively.

ETC-CISC3-Wkspace-PR5Renderings are the other option. Instead of mounting all the materials on a physical board of materials, the selected finishes are grafted into the space in a drawing. This can be done on a plan, an elevation of a wall, or a 3D drawing for the space. Before computer rendering this would be done by hand. Now it’s more often done in programs like SketchUp, 3DMax or Photoshop. With these programs digital images of materials can be uploaded and fit into their locations at the proper size. Shadows and light can be added with algorithms that will correctly interpret how light will bounce off different material types and reflect in the space. The result is a very strong impression of what the final space will look like. This is a great option for large projects, clients who have trouble with visualization, or who are spread out over large distances, since computer files can easily be shared.

The down sides are that these are generally more time consuming and therefore more costly to produce and the color may not be perfectly correct for what will be the final space, depending on printer, monitor, and other color corrections.

If you are the recipient of one of these tools, there’s a few things to keep in mind. First, this is a step that’s best taken when most decisions have been made or are very close to be final. Redrawing takes time and rendering multiple times is also time consuming. On the flip side, these tools are a snapshot in time and you still can make changes after they are delivered. Treat them like a final check that this is indeed what you want. Finally, enjoy your tool. These are definitely one of the fun take aways from working with design professionals.

Trade Shows, Magazines & Blogs

I have admitted on this blog that I don’t often make as much time for reading trade magazines as I used to. It’s also way harder for designers in the Philadelphia region to make it out to trade shows like NeoCon or ICFF (although having NeoCon East in Philadelphia this year will make a difference). Both of these losses are to my detriment as a designer and I want to take a little time to explore why the new, as found at trade show, magazines, and blogs/Pinterest/Houzz is so important and why I am constantly struggling against my inertia to make time for these things.

IMG_5115It starts as a source for ideas and inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere but you need to sometimes seek it and embrace it. If you never going looking for ideas you’re not always lucky enough for them to find you. A few weeks ago my husband and I went on a date night in Middletown, DE. It poured buckets and while my husband pulled around the car I found this lovely arrangement under the stairs. While it’s not something I’ll need in my bag of tricks on just any job, I snapped the pic to keep it fresh because you never know. This kind of inspirational find is more my exception than the rule.

Trade shows, magazines and blogs – while condensed, occasionally overwhelming, and maybe missing your current needs – are great spaces for inspiration, especially since in those environments a designer’s mind is looking for ideas. When you are engaged in looking, more active connections are made. I always walk away from a trade show having found great ideas both future and current. While the cubical curtain I adore from NeoCon East last year still hasn’t panned out I feel like I’m just one project away from it being exactly what I need.

To keep our work updating and relevant. Furniture and design, just like fashion, is constantly changing. In the last 5 years I felt like the Mid-Century Modern driver has gone from a trickle to a full blown stream. You don’t know that unless you’re keeping tabs on what others are designing, building, producing and specifying. No trend works in every environment. But you’ll never know what a West Coast team is doing with other fit outs like yours if you’re not looking. It might be spot on.

To keep the designer from atrophy. We’ve all felt it. As the distance grows from that last healthcare project and the last time you worked the math to calculate rentable space, you feel less confident in that work. What is the code for plumbing fixtures in a business occupancy again? Maybe some things are so deeply rooted you’ll never forget (NFPA 701 !) but others fall away with disuse. While a trade show might not help you remember codes better, it will potentially jog the memory of other long-ago skills and keep you fresh on things that you don’t get to do everyday anymore. My first job out of school I did a bunch of libraries. I don’t do them anymore, but when I see Leland’s latest products it always makes me think of that work.

The Client Inspiration Board

I have had two clients recently who came to their first meeting with us armed with what I’ll call an “inspiration board”. In both cases is wasn’t technically a board: one just had a digital file folder of pictures they liked. The other had a PowerPoint of pictures. I don’t know if the influence of Pinterest is to thank for this, but I love it.

To anybody whose about to become a design client, this is an excellent exercise to engage in and bring to your first meeting with any of your design team: Architects, Interiors, Engineers, everyone will love you for it.

Why is this helpful?

A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. There is no where that is truer than in design. First, it shows me what the client is thinking. Pictures can evoke a quality of space; the grandeur or simplicity or vivacity. I use words as carefully as I can to describe visual concepts to a client. But no matter how careful I am words can’t always express the quality of a space, color, or texture accurately. A picture is always more accurate. I can say “wingback chair” but there’s millions of them and they can look very different, just like the two examples here.

budget-classic-leather-wingback-chair-Z1qysAlex Wingback


“Modern”, by the by, is one of the worst offenders as a non-descriptive word. For many people, they say “modern” and mean “current and contemporary”, but for others including designers “modern” usually means capital M “Modern” as in the Modern movement that dovetails with International Style and Bauhaus from the early 20th century. Those are wildly different things. (For a rather accurate visual interpretation of the differences check out West Elm’s new Workspace line; their splash page lays it out in very nice visual representation)

Second it takes out the guess work. Sometimes I don’t attend the first meeting with a client and I’m asked to come, with ideas, to the second or third meeting. If I’ve been given an arsenal of pictures then I don’t have to guess what I should bring. I can make (more) educated and strategic choices that are in keeping with the pictures. This isn’t to say that I can’t get a sense of a client without pictures. I listen to what my supervisors tell me from their previous meeting, I check the client’s website and use my educated best judgement to determine what the client might respond to. But pictures speed up the process.

Get inspired, pin that picture and show us what you want. You can use a file folder, a Powerpoint, a Pinterest board, printouts and clippings old school style from magazines and kept in a folder or notebook. Whatever works for you will work for us too!

Hands On – an Argument for Printing

As we move forward in a digital age, there is a lot of designing done with and by computers. There is very little hand-drafting in our office and AutoCAD is a staple I cannot live without. However, I strongly doubt that design, architecture, and interiors (and probably all its associated engineering) will ever go paperless. We need paper. It’s a foundation of the industry. And there’s one little word to explain it all: scale.

Scale, in architecture and  design, is the rule by which all drawings are produced. It’s the ratio to compare what’s on the drawing to what will be built in real life. If a drawing is scaled at 1/4″ = 1’0″ (1 ft) that means that a door drawn 3/4″ wide is a 3ft wide door in the real space. When drawings are set up and printed, this scale indicates a lot of information to the builders. This is one of the tools that gives a drawing tangible meaning.

When a drawing is on the computer, while there is a scale, you can change your view so readily, that the meaning of the scale to the eye is constantly in flux. Zooming in and out means it can be tough to judge what you’re looking at and how big it really is. That alone is one reason for printing things off: to check that what you see on the screen is what you think it ought to be. Designers and architects get very comfortable looking at certain scales and can understand space very well from those scales that they use regularly. Printing off and looking at the drawing in scale can give a better sense than looking at the screen, even if you’ve got the screen zoomed to the right level.

Checking your work can also be easier when you have a piece of paper to scratch your notes on.  It’s also easier to have a meeting with a contractor over a drawing on a desk (which is the same document they will take onto the building site with them) than on a power point screen. And that’s another one. I don’t think drawings are leaving the construction site any time soon. Laptops and tablets, while ubiquitous, are still too valuable and sensitive as commodities to leave exposed to dust, paint and other debris on a job site, let alone a new construction site where they would also be exposed to the elements.

Design and architecture certainly walks a delicate balance with technology. Like so much of our society, you can’t get anywhere fast without embracing the tools that technology offers, but there’s a trade off in getting too far from those paper & pencil (or pen) roots. We may not be hand drafting so much anymore, but don’t expect that printer to disappear anytime soon either!

Professional Accountability

My office had the pleasure recently of completing a project in Maryland with my colleague signing and sealing our construction documents for a code impacted project.

A quick digression: for Interior Designers, the ability to sign and seal the construction documents, the legal document from which the construction team will read what is to be done and how it is to be put together and with what materials, is a hotly contested state by state issue. About half of states do not yet recognize interior designers as a profession that requires licensing (and therefore accountability for their work) and even fewer states give their designers the privilege to sign & seal on work in code impacted spaces. It’s a complicated issue that architects, interior designer, decorators and other rated trades all get caught up in.

I consider this a question of responsibility and accountability when talking about code impacted spaces. Who do you want responsible for the work: the person who did the work, or a outsider who came in at the end to review it and put their name on it? Right now the latter is what happens in many small firms such as ours. In states where interior designers don’t have the ability to sign & seal, a small interiors firm will hire an architect to review the drawings and then sign and seal them.

This means in the (knock on wood) case of a later legal dispute over the work that the architect who signed and sealed the drawings is liable for the work, not the person or company who did it. I personally don’t think that’s right and why I support licensing; it will lead to interior designers having the right and responsibility for their life’s work. It will lead to greater accountability and professionalism. It sets a bar of minimum competency that is required for certain kinds of design work. I think we should all be accountable for our work and that’s why I think this is an important issue.

What does SFC’s current research show?


2015 Consumer Research

Summary of Key Findings by Susan Inglis, SFC Executive Director

The 2015 Green Home Furnishings Consumer Study is the 7th wave of national survey conducted to assess consumer awareness, interest and behavior in a variety of issues related to sustainable furnishings. The samples were intentionally limited to the prime demographics for purchasing home furnishings to ensure that the results would be most applicable to decisions made by companies that service this market. The 2015 study was conducted by Impact Consulting.

Overall, findings indicate a growing concern about sustainability issues and an interest in buying products that are good for the environment, so long as they meet given style and budget requirements.  Quality, price and style are always the main drivers in choosing furnishings, but survey trends show “good for the environment” is more and more part of the value consumers seek.

At least half consumers rate themselves as very or extremely aware and concerned about a range of environmental issues from toxic pollution to using up natural resources to deforestation, with no single issue being of much greater concern.  This tells us that the “engaged” population has been holding steady at about 50%.  Most furniture consumers are taking action in a variety of ways, from recycling at home to switching to CFL light bulbs, and over half have purchased green products in a variety of categories.  However, they still are not buying as much in “eco-friendly” home furnishings products as they are in categories they can access more easily, such as recycled paper products and non-toxic cleaners.  It is clear that this is mostly because they have not been made aware of the options.

Purchase interest in green furnishings is growing, with over half of all furnishings consumers indicating interest in buying eco-friendly home furnishings, if they like the style and the price is right for them. Those definitely interested has grown from around 30% when we began the surveys to about 40%.  These are very healthy numbers.

The current survey indicates that price sensitivity may have peaked. Those who would pay nothing or only up to 5% more fell from a peak of 78% in 2010 to around 70% in the current survey.  This is a significant drop.  Further, the solid 30% who will pay more is in line with general consumer inclination to pay more for a favorite feature or brand.

Awareness of specific eco-options in furnishings remains largely unchanged with recycled content, organic fabrics and reclaimed wood the most recognized, though as we always caution these are also the easiest to fake knowledge of because of the descriptiveness of the terms.  It remains for the furniture sales person to point out the significance of eco-features including other recycled or reclaimed content, bio-based foam, domestic manufacture, etc.  It is clearly worth having the conversation, though, since most consumers will respond to these features when the product is their style and price point.

Sustainable Furnishings Council is pleased to offer a range of training programs to ensure that furnishings professionals, as well as consumers, better understand the simple choices we can all make to help ensure a healthy future.  The survey results show clearly that consumers are eager for us to bust the myth that “sustainable” looks a certain way or always costs more.

is available free to all SFC members. (a $250 value)

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Snow Day Workplace

Today is a rare snow day for our office, but don’t think that we aren’t working! Today I sit house-bound with my husband as we both work from home, networking into our respective servers back at the ranch to keep our projects moving. So as I thought about an appropriate topic to write about, nothing else seemed more relevant than to discuss one of the penultimate questions in commercial design these days: How do we, as designers changes with the times and improve workplace design? How do we use technology in the workplace and how does that affect space, collaboration, and space needs? Because as technology changes and we have greater capacity to work, well, anywhere and at anytime, the shape of our workspaces and what is important to them has changed.

This is a constant and ongoing dialogue in the design community. The major manufacturers of the office furniture industry are constantly revisiting these and related questions: What environments promote productivity? What environments promote collaboration? Creativity? How can we use wireless technology, going paperless, or new software to enhance the workplace? What is really needed in a workspace?

Obviously the answers change based on the type of work being done, the people involved and the company’s values. There is no one-fit answer and that is part of the discovery that a design team goes through with a client. For work like mine – design, architecture and most building engineering – paper will always be a component, so printing and a certain amount of filing will always be needed. I will always need room to spread out and look at physical samples and storage for those samples. I will, therefore, always need something that resembles a traditional workspace. So today, while I can work from home, I am handicapped somewhat. My husband is in the exact opposite position. His work is computer software engineering and never needs to be printed. He doesn’t need filing space at his workplace, because everything is saved on his harddrive or in the cloud. His laptop is pretty much all he needs and he carries it home with him every night from the office. So his work can take place anywhere he feels comfortable enough to work. He is as productive from home as from the office. What space to you design then, for someone that mobile? Or someone who move from site to site on a weekly basis? Or someone who is constantly working in group settings?

Herman Miller, Haworth, Knoll, Kimball, Steelcase, Teknion and many, many other big furniture manufacturing shops are constantly asking and revisiting these questions. They research it and then provide new and innovative solutions to assist in making the types of spaces workers (and managers) want a reality. That includes touchdown spaces for folks who travel from one site to another, collaborative spaces that are causal and help people work together and get things done or dreamed up. No matter what you think you need, there’s probably a solution out there.

Committee Appreciation

Our office works with a lot of committees. It’s an amazing journey to take with a group. We’ll meet week after week and build a relationship with representatives of a community, a building, or residents and help guide them in the design process. These are not professionals in the design world or the building owner and facility operators who hired us; these are usually interested residents and end-users of the client who are providing a much needed perspective. Owners and operators have one view of maintaining a space. They are looking for solutions that are easy to maintain, economical, and functional. The folks who live and work in it day after day have a much more personal relationship with a space and that’s especially important in renovation work where that relationship already exists. Especially in terms of function because the committee members know what is and is not working. They use the space everyday! So when our committee tells us putting mailboxes on X corridor is inconvenient and they think it’ll be better located on Y corridor, you bet we listen!

The process goes something like this: First, it’s the plan stuff: What spaces are being considered for the renovation, which existing or new rooms are needed, where they should go in relationship to one another, to doors, to windows, to that noisy furnace, ect. Then arranging them all in the space and helping the committee hash out what’s most important, what will fit, and whittling the wish list into something do-able. Sometimes not everything will fit the space or the budget (like that jacuzzi, often the first thing to go!) To an extent all this is the intangible stuff that’s really most important. Then we move from the meat and potatoes to the sparkle and flash: finishes. Picking the actual flooring, wall colors, textures, furniture pieces and upholstery. This can get very intense since it’s all the stuff you see and the people who get involved in these committee sometimes have very strong opinions on how the space should look, are worried about it staying nice, and have their own experiences with similar products to prejudice them for or against certain solutions. Along the way we bring in lots and lots of visual aids: first it’s drawings and sketches in plans and 3D, and then we move to physical samples of materials, pictures of furniture and sometime we go as far and rendered (colored) 3D images showing all selections made to date.

Our recommendations at these meetings are based first on what the committees tell us they want, and second on years of experience with materials, design choices, ect. Sometimes we end up suggesting something very different than committee members think will work. Sometimes we can explain our suggestions and choices in a way where all committee members are happy. Sometimes committee members are skeptical of our solutions, or don’t agree amongst themselves. This can make for meetings that are challenging for everyone involved. Along the way we remind our committees that we have their best interest at heart. It’s our job to make sure that the space does work and perform as expected and we are as invested as they are in making choices that reach a happy conclusion. We have to show them products, bring in samples and flyers and answer questions, point out the features and why the product will work for them. It often involves both the pros and cons of a product and making a decision regarding the trade-offs. Often this requires multiple meetings for everyone to become satisfied with a proposed solution, or get proof that a different solution won’t work. It involves lots of opinions on things (like color) that are subjective and there’s no one right answer.

This is one of the social sides of what designers do. Not only do we communicate with other design and building professionals, but we communicate with the client: the end user. We have to be able to explain some of the technical parts of the industry in a way that makes sense to everyone. It can take time in a fast-paced world the time a committee can take to make decisions can seem very slow. But, this is really a rewarding process when they see that final rendering, or you meet the committee in the finished space and see the smiles. Its fantastic to have met with the users and really know you’ve delivered a space that will work the way that the client needs it to.  But mostly, it’s about seeing that committee’s happy satisfaction with the job and loving it.