Fast-paced design for a downtown office boom
September 20, 2016
The mid-20th-century rise of the American corporation coincided with the decline of the nation’s cities and the explosion of its suburbs. The result: a proliferation of office parks. “By the end of the twentieth century,” wrote architectural historian Louise A. Mozingo, “the suburbs, not the central business district, contained the majority of office space in the United States.”
The past decade has seen a notable reversal of this pattern, with companies from Biogen to United Airlines leaving suburbs for city centers. The growing interest in walkable urban communities, particularly among younger people, has convinced companies to locate their offices where the workforce wants to be. A recent Smart Growth America paper reported that “in interview after interview, company representatives explained that a downtown location… has helped them attract top talent in a fiercely competitive environment.”
But finding office space in central business districts can be challenging. In many cities, expensive land and scarce empty space can make building from scratch impossible, while new office towers are rising too slowly to keep up with the demand for leasable space. Retrofitting existing structures presents its own difficulties. While historic architecture is a draw, many older buildings require substantial updates in order to accommodate modern technology and work styles.
Scheduling is another major concern. Leisurely relocation timelines are a rare luxury; companies typically need to be fully operational in their new spaces as soon as possible.
The growing interest in walkable urban communities has convinced companies to move where the workplace wants to be.
The designer’s role
Because most companies don’t have in-house real estate experts, the learning curve associated with searching for a space, negotiating contracts, and managing contractors can be steep. The design industry has stepped in to help fill this knowledge gap, developing specialized services for fast-track office fit-outs.
In San Francisco, where the proliferation of tech offices over the past decade has reshaped parts of the city, Arup has created an integrated interiors team specializing in commercial office fit-outs. While working on some of the region’s most challenging office relocations over the past five years, it has developed processes and protocols to help clients smooth the transition to their new spaces.
Communication and teamwork
Communication, always a critical part of the design process, is even more important when working under tight deadlines. The project team members need to respond nimbly to any questions or concerns that arise, addressing them before they become problems.
According to Alex Lofting, an associate principal at Arup who led the firm’s work on the new Dropbox and Splunk headquarters — two of the largest office fit-outs in San Francisco’s recent history — this kind of responsiveness requires a very tight-knit project team. “It sounds like a cliché, but you really can’t be working in silos. People always talk about integrated design for huge projects, but it’s equally important in interior fit-outs like these, which are super fast paced.”
To this end, the integrated interiors team brings together all the engineering and consulting disciplines needed for this kind of project: mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire/life safety engineers; lighting designers; acoustic, audiovisual, and information technology consultants; and digital buildings specialists. Building a team of people accustomed to working with one another on similar projects makes it easier and faster to exchange information and ideas.
And while having most consulting and engineering disciplines under one roof greatly streamlines the process, having them within earshot creates even more efficiencies. Recognizing this, Arup’s San Francisco office keeps its seating arrangements flexible, enabling core members of the integrated interiors team to move desks at the start of each new project so they can sit together. This makes sharing critical project information as simple as speaking with the person at the next workstation — meaning that it’s much more likely to happen.
Considering the whole building
Although the design team’s scope of work for interior fit-outs is generally limited to one part of a structure, issues stemming from the building as a whole can significantly affect the final result. Taking the time to understand its design and history can help the team identify opportunities and mitigate risks for the interior fit-out, allowing any issues to be addressed before the new occupants move in.
This is particularly true for office fit-outs that include nonstandard features. It’s crucial for the project team to understand the full implications of any unusual plans; otherwise, scheduling delays and costs can quickly add up.
For instance, when Dropbox considered incorporating a large commercial kitchen into its new SoMa headquarters, Arup knew that the base building had not been designed to accommodate a facility of this kind. By studying the building in greater depth, the engineers determined that its existing systems could be harnessed to provide some of the necessary resources — an extra step of analysis that ultimately saved the client money.
Seeing it through
Committing to a project until it passes the finish line is also critical. For the recent Splunk headquarters, also in SoMa, Arup’s team conducted numerous site visits and inspections throughout construction and even after the company moved in — a step many design teams forgo on projects of this kind.
“It’s just being a trusted partner throughout,” Lofting said.
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