Designing outside the box

Heightened aesthetic sensibilities elevate attractiveness and functionality in commercial architecture.

There's a growing expectation that infrastructure should be functional and beautiful. As a result, architects are finding that the general public has become more conscious of good design. That awareness is translating into higher expectations for the aesthetics of the office, industrial, residential and retail spaces we occupy. Designers are responding with architecture that embraces technological innovations, serves a workforce logging excessively long hours and goes more gently on the environment.

Office sweet office Paul Westlake, a principal with van Dijk Pace Westlake Architects, a Cleveland-based architectural firm, says there is a huge emphasis on attraction and retention of employees. "In our business, the internal environment has a huge impact on our ability to attract and retain employees. The idea of the space being current and fresh is absolutely paramount."

Moreover, the Gen-X crowd that has flooded the workplace holds high expectations about what they should be getting from the company and environment in which they work. It is another reason for the distinct departure from the straight-laced, stuffy corporate interior or the feeling the old wood-paneled law office evokes and a trend toward designs that have a contemporary feel, according to James Pope, principal of Morris Architects, Orlando, Fla.

Loading up on amenities that go well beyond offering a small kitchen with a microwave oven is another way companies are preening to be more attractive to prospective employees. For instance, exercise facilities are becoming more prevalent, cafeterias and break rooms are well stocked with cappuccino and latte machines, and non-institutional food, and corporations are providing more places to go for relaxation and work.

According to Mike Scott, principal at Callison Architecture Inc., Seattle, "Work and lifestyle changes have put a greater emphasis on the interior environment as fundamental to a building's identity and function. Lobbies will continue to be redefined as a casual, sophisticated, multi-purpose extension of work environments."

Scott designed Key Center in Bellevue, Wash., just east of Seattle (See photo on cover), the first suburban tower to be built in the city in 12 years.

According to Scott, tenants were attracted to three- to six-story buildings on expansive tracts of land. These sprawls created traffic congestion and strains on the heavily wooded environment. The "vertical campus" concept was created in an attempt to lure tenants away from these park-like campuses they had grown accustomed to.

Scott says, "A prime component of this concept for Key Center would be the development of a different kind of public space."

He says that "break-out spaces" are already becoming a prerequisite in office buildings - space where employees can go to escape their computer screens and where technology is conspicuously absent.

"In the case of Key Center, the Starbucks coffee shop would be open and part of the space," he says. "The lobby would no longer serve to impress but to engage."

Another feature of Key Center is a park area. The building itself was designed to maximize its exposure to natural light. "That is the primary reason for the sweeping curve of the building," Scott says.

Pope points to the Walt Disney Feature Animation Facility, Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where employees often log 18-hour work days. Among the spaces Morris Architects provided for the animation studio were a deli, exercise room, recreation areas, a video game room and a casual library with stuffed chairs. "The furnishings are more like those in a living room with light colors that have a more residential feel to them," Pope says.

Technology also is creating a design shift in the workplace. "There's a blurring in the hierarchy and people are working in a more associative way. So we're seeing an emphasis on open plans - fewer enclosed offices - and more movement in the space where the furniture is almost mobile," Pope says. Innovations in products such as fabrics, carpets, systems furniture and finishes are broadening designers' options for imaginative space.

Although one would think that the technology boom would create an emphasis on edgy, high-tech looks, that is not necessarily the case. Pope acknowledges that for a while there was an interest in high-tech looks so that companies could project an image of being technologically adept while embracing innovation. Now, he says, people are more interested in humanizing the space and making it cozy.

Even at start-up software and Internet companies where one would expect the most cutting-edge designs, a homey atmosphere more akin to a family living room is often the prevailing aesthetic. There is still a use of industrial materials, with exposed piping painted black and a warehouse feel. But according to Pope, "These people tend to spend a lot of time at the office doing intense work, so comfort is a higher priority than a tech image."

New urbanism and smart growth Along with feeling comfortable at work, people today are looking for a better sense of community, a feeling reminiscent of cities in the 1940s or 1950s, before people moved out to the suburbs. Mixed-use communities are quickly filling that void by combining residential, office and retail all in one development.

According to Ray Peloquin, vice president of Baltimore-based RTKL, smart growth is the buzzword for the new millennium. With smart growth, designers look to urban sites, putting apartments over store fronts or small office space - filling in, instead of spreading out into the suburbs. "Putting developments where they make sense," Peloquin says.

With everything right in the neighborhood, people aren't driving an hour to get home at night, only to jump back in the car with the family to drive 20 minutes to the mall. Peloquin says that in the past, people left the suburbs in the morning and drove into to the city to work, but today people are not just driving from the suburbs to their job in the city, they are driving from one suburb to their job in another suburb.

"People would prefer to live and work in the same community," he says. Mixed-use communities make that happen. People have more free time to spend with their families and neighbors.

RTKL recently designed Mockingbird Station, a 10-acre, multi-use, transit-oriented development (TOD) nearing completion in Dallas. The live-work-play project is adjoining the Mockingbird Lane light-rail commuter station. The project features 300,000 sq. ft. of office space, 216 loft apartments, an eight-screen Angelika Film Center and Cafe, Virgin Megastore and more than 90 shops and restaurants.

The RTKL plan and design integrates new and existing buildings, including a circa 1920 brick-clad warehouse.

"As less development opportunities exist, I see more mixed-use development," Scott says. "I see more office, residential and retail uses combined, given these markets tend to go together (job growth = housing growth = retail). This allows the developer to maximize the opportunity while creating the synergy of a city within a city. Each component is strengthened by its union with the other component."

Scott adds, "I see nearly all developments being planned mixed-use rather than phased so as to match market need and economies."

It's not always easy being green Particularly in the West, green design continues emerging as a priority. In a Flagstaff, Ariz., office building, one of the primary factors driving the design was environmental sustainability. The van Dijk scheme incorporates operable windows, natural light, materials that do not emit gas, and reliance on fossil fuels is minimal. Both energy savings and the balance sheet play a role, but so do the users.

"The end-users will be scientists - people very focused on environmental quality - and it's important to their culture and values," Westlake says. "The client wants an environment that will attract the best and brightest scientists."

An interest in green design also extends to industrial facilities. Although the industrial aesthetic has not changed dramatically over the years and the bottom line still drives such properties, more owners are seeking sustainable concepts in the designs.

In one Detroit-area automotive facility, the plan calls for specifying environmentally friendly products and avoiding materials hazardous to the environment. ARCADIS Giffels, a design firm in Southfield, Mich., is specifying recycled rubber flooring and recycled wood products for interior finishes.

In addition, a roof garden will provide both aesthetic and energy benefits: Employees can look out at the garden from a cafeteria, and the vegetation's insulation properties will reduce heating and cooling requirements.

"The whole purpose is to give something back to the environment, rather than taking something away from it," says Dennis O'Beirne of ARCADIS Giffels.

O'Beirne also sees a greater interest in natural lighting through windows and skylights for industrial buildings. "Daylight was quite common in the old Albert Kahn facilities in the 1920s. There seems to be a resurgence in getting daylight back into these spaces," he says.

Moreover, less utilitarian break rooms and cafeterias are being animated with color and more comfortable furniture, and in some facilities employees can access outdoor space from break areas. Daylighting and more vibrant spaces also generate gains on the employee benefit side by energizing and cheering employees. In turn, occupants often become more productive.

Retail with a higher mission Shopping areas are no longer just for shopping. They are gathering places for social events, strolling, catching up with neighbors and local news, people watching and holiday festivities such as tree-lighting ceremonies. In short, retail centers, in many areas, have become the new town center.

"They're lifestyle centers reminiscent of the old town centers - work here, live here, play here, shop here - that everyone has memories of from childhood," says David Parrish, a partner with Cleveland-based Dorsky Hodgson + Partners.

"Malls are dead," Peloquin says. "They are still going to exist, and people are still going to go to them, but the amount of time spent at the mall is getting shorter." He said today people are looking for an experience when they go shopping.

And just as old town centers had a distinct character, so do today's new lifestyle centers. The public is no longer satisfied to roam through identical shopping malls that look the same in Atlanta as they do in San Francisco.

"People respond strongly to good design, and the general public is reading design magazines and becoming more sophisticated," says Scott Pollack, an associate principal of Arrowstreet, a Boston-based architectural firm. "They have a better sense of quality, and we have to respond to that with a certain level of design."

Not only are residents becoming more design savvy, but they also are flexing their muscle by getting involved at city meetings to voice preferences about the mix of tenants that interest them, what kind of development they want and how they want it to look. And they expect architects and developers to listen.

Centers that incorporate principles of new urbanism in projects that reflect the prevailing regional architectural style have emerged. That means developers and architects are not plopping down a Southwestern adobe look in Boston or a center with a docks-and-piers theme in landlocked Ames, Iowa.

For instance, Arrowstreet's design of the Galleria at Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn., draws on nautical themes to tie the 1.2 million sq. ft. property to its waterfront location and the city's maritime history. Sailing and steam vessels, once mainstays at the city's harbor, will be reflected in the $100 million project through elements such as ship masts, sails, cable stays, steel railings and portholes that all will figure prominently in the design. Contemporary exterior materials - glass, panelized metal, fabric, steel mast and cable - will all unite to reinterpret 19th and 20th century nautical forms. Interior details also will feature maritime themes inspired by the center's location.

Entertainment, too, has become a hot topic in the retail world, and success requires more than installing cinemas, skating rinks and video arcades. The design also has to be fresh and amusing. Architectural firms are examining every retail detail in a center - furnishings and the way pedestrians circulate, to colors, materials and iconography - to catch the eye and introduce more energy into the spaces.

Even seemingly inconsequential details such as sign poles get attention. "Armature should be more than things that hold up signs," Pope says. "They should be works of art in themselves."

A complete sensory experience can be found at Desert Passage in Las Vegas. This shopping center, designed by RTKL and ID8 - RTKL's design and thematic imaging studio - recreates the experience of traveling to the great market cities of the ancient spice route, from Morocco to India.

Developed by TrizecHahn, Toronto, the 500,000 sq. ft. retail/entertainment destination features 130 stores and 14 restaurants arranged in merchandising districts, including The Treasure House, Lost City, Sultan's Palace and The Hall of Lamps. In the Merchant's Harbor district, waves lap against pilings, fog rolls in, lightning is followed by thunder, and it rains - all adding to the sensory experience.

"People expect to be entertained wherever they go," Pope says. "If you want to attract people to a mall, you better be prepared to entertain."

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