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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.

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.

Inspiration Everywhere

“Where do you get your inspiration these days?”

This question was put to me and several other designers at a function recently. Magazines have truthfully lost some of their flair in recent years, what with the wealth of online options. Pinterest was brought up as a source, but my colleague was fishing for something fresh. The other designers and I seems to lack freshness when put on the spot. Now I think I have my answer. While both Pinterest and magazines (the slim Contract magazine getting more of my attention than the gorgeous and much fatter Interior Design) do play a role I think there’s been something even more ingrained in my psyche.

I get my inspiration on “field trips.” At one time, when I was in school and studying abroad that meant literal field trips. My Danish Institute of Study Abroad program was huge on visiting the sites of great architecture and seeing it for yourself. Even more so; they were huge on not just taking your own pictures and seeing the places with your own eyes, but drawing it for yourself. What I learned that summer and what I took away from that program changed the way I have approached design since. (I would highly recommend the program to any students). When I returned home I spent extra time to visit places related to my projects and get my feet and hands on the ground. There was a time (still in school and the year or so immediately after) where a staple of my purse was a small sketchbook.

My “field trips” now are more the spontaneous finds in my daily (and not so daily) travels. Today I don’t carry a notebook everywhere and sketch my observations, but I do have a smartphone. When I scroll through my pictures there I have a strange assortment of pictures that often include no people whatsoever. Photos of porcelain tiles, of building columns, of flower arrangements, of a cool combination of colors, of murals, of hotel room bathrooms and dozens of other things that make me happy to look at, remind me of ideas and help shape my latest projects. So I suggest to you to use your phone, not only for selfies and food shots, but to record the details of places as they inspire you.

Something New for New Years

Green and sustainability has become an increasingly important concept to design, especially since the US Green Building Council and its LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification system has become so prevalent. Like the “Three R’s” (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) that many of us grew up on, this system encourages the innovation of sustainable and green practices in buildings. Extra points are also available for dreaming up new ways to do it! This credentialing system has been adopted by various Federal and State jurisdictions as minimum requirements for new buildings under their purview; a forward-thinking practice. There are other similar rating systems you might run across and all incorporate incentives for reuse of previously developed land, parts of old building, re-manufactured products, reclaimed wood and a variety of other “Three R’s” related stuff.

But today is January 2, so while I’m a proponent of the reclaimed wood and the reuse and repurposing movement, I want to point out the other side and the advantages of the New. There are times where reuse is just not always the best option and something new is needed in any space.

Reupholstering furniture, for example, is not an option that we often recommend to our clients. It sometimes is brought up by clients in an attempt to cut down on a budget, and the assumption is reusing a piece with a new fabric will be less than buying a whole new piece. This is sadly not true. Reupholstering an old piece is usually comparable to buying a new piece of furniture. Go ahead and feel good about buying new when it comes to sofa, loveseats and fully upholstered chairs.

New appliances and toilets are another good idea. Even the LEED systems agree; reusing an older toilet (particularly those from before 1994, as that was a major year for the minimum requirements of plumbing fixtures) isn’t worthwhile. These older fixture use more water per flush or more water per minute than their new counterparts. Since efficiency is definitely part of the game, these are items worth the investment. Much the same is true about new appliances. Every few years the energy efficiency improves and you can get more cleaning/cooling/heating for less power.

A fresh look is still, always a coat of paint or stain away. The newest lines of paints can also come with low or no VOCs to do away with the new paint smell (alas, stains and varnishes don’t really have this option) but get the look easy. Also, if you take a good look at a wall a few years old, it might be in need of some freshening in terms of filling some dents or sanding away old paint drips. With paint or stain, a little can go a long way.

So with those few pearls of “new” wisdom Happy New Year, from our family to yours!

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