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Designing for Design

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Project Description

We are architects and designers. While we frequently perform many roles and an assortment of tasks, we are dedicated to the design as both activity and outcome. Maybe we’re just wired a bit differently: We don’t fit neatly into cubicles, we thrive on deadlines, we work odd hours, and we constantly look for better solutions. That may be why, as we have been renovating, retrofitting, and revisioning our own workplaces at Perkins+Will, we have started to seriously ask: How do we design places for design?

Perkins+Will is a global integrated design firm, with 1,500 employees, eight market sectors, six disciplines, and 24 offices, many of which have recently been or soon will be renovated. Opportunities to design our own workplaces present fantastic opportunities to turn our offices into living labs by reexamining how we work, how technology works, and how we can build and share knowledge based on our own firsthand experience. We began, as our clients do, by establishing values and consideringwhat elements of a workplace foster good design.

We knew that our workplaces should be designed to encourage creative design, be respectful of our co-workers, exemplify high-performance spaces, and provide a clean, healthy environment. We understoodthe importance of working in an interdisciplinary manner, engaging professionals across a wide spectrum of expertise. That meantcreating spaces that provide for predictable workflows, but also ones that foster spontaneous conversations and collaborations, prompting our shift from individual workstations to team areas. Designers are now able to work in a variety of configurations, from individual “heads-down” desks, to group worktables and project-team rooms.

Project teams typically sit together. In this open environment, team members now benefit from hearing interactions around them, providing project engagement throughout the day. Design issues are discussed in real time when they occur, thereby reducing the need for dedicated meetings and conference rooms. In fact, our workspace module was based on the observation that we spend a lot of our time interacting in pairs, which reinforces our firm's collaborative culture and dedication to mentoring and sharing knowledge. Technology supports this new workplace design by utilizing laptop computers, powered by cloud-based computational nodes and wireless networking. Design teams can choose to work in whichever manner best supports the task. For example, in our Atlanta office, team members can pick up and move to the exterior terrace. Our open environment also contributes to social well-being by facilitating stronger personal relationships. In general, we now talk to each other more often and consequently get to know our colleagues better.

Designing a sustainable, high-performance workplace means reexamining how we design the use of energy and water, by first reducing the need and then increasing efficiency. For our own offices, we have seen that the opportunity to meet our performance goals often depends on the scale of the project. A singular tenant-improvement project is inherently limited in its capacity to influence the overall building energy use or transform the built environment. Therefore, it becomes critical to engage stakeholders with similar visions. Perkins+Will's Washington, D.C., office demonstrates that finding a building that maximizes opportunities to incorporate natural daylight and a landlord who subscribes to the idea of minimizing the energy load is important. Having both optimized the opportunity where a typical lease was involved. Seeking building owners who share our goals resulted in outcomes such as negotiation of green leases, installation of rooftop solar hot-water and energy-management systems, replacement of building plumbing fixtures, and installation of separate meters for measuring and monitoring utility use.

In our Atlanta office, which was the renovation of a building owned by Perkins+Will, the project potential was taken to a new level, addressing regional issues of water conservation, on-site energy generation, and sophisticated HVAC and building-envelope solutions. Rainwater is collected from the building roofs, stored in a 10,000-gallon cistern, and used for all irrigation and restroom flush fixtures. Every occupied area utilizes natural daylight, reducing the amount of energy used for lighting by 67 percent over comparable buildings. In addition, displacement ventilation and radiant heating and cooling systems circulate hot or chilled water through a series of capillary mats, thereby reducing the need for the energy typically required for fan-based systems. As an early adopter of the 2030 Challenge for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we also had to consider the source of the energy used for the building. Photovoltaics and rooftop twin microturbines, which use natural gas that emits 56 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, both help reduce our carbon footprint by 68 percent. An absorption chiller helps eliminate the need for refrigerants.

The firm's energy consciousness is highlighted by displaying energy-use data on monitors in public locations, where it is visible to employees and visitors entering or leaving the space. This generates an instant feedback loop where positive behavior is reinforced with the evidence of instant result. And engaging a bit of friendly competition doesn’t hurt. In the inaugural Perkins+Will Energy Challenge, seven offices saw how much energy performance could be improved over a two-week period. Energy saved was converted into equivalent miles traveled, and as unused lights and appliances were turned off, our energy dashboards recorded the energy savings in real time. Offices compared efforts and competed to find even more ways to conserve. We could see and measure, firsthand and in real time, the impacts of our energy-use choices, and this resulted not only in a savings in energy costs, but also a change in the way we design and operate.

Designing for change— means designing our offices so that they are ready for the future. We need to consider scale, collaboration and shifting purpose, by building in flexibility and adaptability. Our offices have a built-in surge capability to increase population by up to 30 percent before additional space is required. Project teams form and re-form frequently, and modular layouts and moveable furniture allow team members to move to a new location in minutes, not hours. In addition, “young voices” focus groups have a big impact on our office design; after all, these are the people who will be running the practice in 10 years, the typical lease term. Most important, our new spaces further build on the inherent energy of our organization. Our Washington, D.C., office's post-occupancy survey reveals that 80 percent of respondents have a direct, positive reaction to their newly designed space, which impacts their attitude towards their work.

One of the most important lessons learned from designing our own spaces is the importance of simply telling the story. Even though we are a large, global design firm, we realize that we are part of a much larger world facing some very serious environmental issues. Where we design can foster the creative collaboration needed to address those issues, and how we design can change the world.

Paula Vaughan, AIA, is co-director of the sustainable design initiative and associate principal in the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will. Grzegorz Kosmal is design director and an associate principal in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office.
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