Author: Eric Wagner, Senior Director, Project Management
Traditional office space has evolved with occupiers looking to maximize efficiency, attract and retain top talent and create an inviting, engaging work environment. Architects and designers are re-evaluating the function of office space, leading to significant changes in the work environment. These shifts include private perimeter offices evolving into open office layouts, bench furniture seating to increase population density and collaboration, the removal of ceiling systems to maximize ceiling heights and expose the building structure and infrastructure, polished concrete floors in lieu of carpet, and high-end, luxury cafés fitted with lounge areas and soft seating. Other trending amenities such as outdoor patios, billiard rooms, putting greens, bars and concierge services have all served to elevate the employee workplace experience.
Though popular, these trends have introduced many functional and operational challenges, such as: increased noise levels, innefficient infrastruture, lack of parking availability, extended operational usage and increased facility costs. But, with the development of new technologies, materials and progressive design elements, project teams have been able to offset these challenges with innovative solutions. Below we outline the top six challenges for a new office fit-out, and offer solutions to effectively address them.
1. Noise Levels
Ambient noise, often times a subjective disturbance, is the most common concern as it may distract employees and affect productivity. When drywall partitions are eliminated and hard-finish surfaces are used, sound will travel with no barriers or areas for absorption. Architectural elements, such as glass office fronts and doors, can contribute significantly to sound infiltration.
Strategically locating white noise sound-masking systems and devices can help cancel out undesired noise. Architectural materials that absorb sound, such as spray-on acoustical treatments or ceiling/wall panels, can also help minimize noise levels. Additionally, double- and triple-insulated door/glass office fronts with special seals and gaskets can reduce sound infiltration. The furniture industry has developed solutions that offer creative alternatives to combat noise, as well.
The absence of wall partitions and suspended ceilings, which often reinforce the structure of an office building, have contributed to noticeable vibration from the slab within steel frame structures. This problem is then exacerbated by the dimensions of column bays, floor plate square footage and building configurations, as the architectural elements that served to dampen the facility vibration are eliminated. We suggest either reinforcing the existing beams, or installing tune mass dampers to help absorb the vibration and alleviate the issue.
Photo credit: © Gensler/Michael Townsend | Design by Gensler Chicago
With increased employee populations and extended flexible work hours, facilities require a more robust infrastructure to support the increased office use. New technologies, such as infrared sensors, can help project teams respond to a more fluid work environment and control mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
Large, densely populated, open spaces present challenges to heat and cool the office as comfort levels vary with each occupant. Innovative technologies with carbon dioxide occupancy sensors that measure the number of occupants in a defined area provide a practical solution to help control conditioned air-flow and maximize efficiency while reducing operating costs.
Most office buildings were not originally designed for an increased number of occupants. For this reason, older buildings tend to have an insufficient amount of bathroom plumbing fixtures, which does not align with today’s building codes. In these cases, bathrooms must be redesigned to accommodate demand. In addition, modern amenities such as cafés, conference centers and exterior roof gardens require plumbing systems, which may not be anticipated.
Reliable and secure wireless (wi-fi) technology is also critical in today’s flexible work environments. Wireless Access Points (WAP’s) should be strategically located throughout the office to ensure connectivity. Additionally, many landlords have differentiated their assets by installing Digital Antenna Systems which enhance wireless reliability with no “dead zones” in the building.
Although the demand for electrical power has not changed significantly as a result of the office evolution, there are smart technology options that utilize low-voltage electricity. Most notable is Power Over Ethernet (POE) light fixtures, this new technology uses telecommunication cabling (Cat-6E) as a means for electrical power. Therefore, POE lighting can interface with IT systems and databases. This technology controls lighting levels and harnesses natural light where possible. Additionally, POE lighting systems provide insight on space utilization. Furthermore, POE light fixtures can also reduce build-out capital costs in comparison to traditional light fixtures, since additional labor and material is not required.
Photo credit: © Gensler
4. Parking Demand
Due to the increased number of employees in an open office environment, additional parking is required. Often in suburban markets, the ratio of occupants to parking spaces is out of balance with demand. In some cases, new office build-outs aren’t feasible, because the property can’t support additional parking and/or the capital required. Some landlords address this issue by offering Uber services as part of the lease agreement with tenants. Additionally, extended work hours may reduce the number of parking spaces needed. Lastly, Transit Oriented Development (TOD) initiatives have allowed developers to reduce parking requirements in suburban locations that have direct accesses to public transportation.
5. Operational Impact
As a strategy to attract and retain talent, flexible and extended office hours are now being offered to employees. Companies are shifting away from the standard 9am-5pm work model, to allow for a better work/life balance.
Combined with the increased population, extended work hours present new challenges to maintain and operate the work environment. When selecting and specifying finish materials and equipment, it’s important to consider durability, as original colors, textures and functionality often fade over time— especially with prolonged daily use and ongoing exposure. The initial capital premium may be justified when considering the long-term operational impact, as it will significantly reduce annual operating costs and the need for an attic stock of replacement or maintenance materials.
6. Capital Cost
Many corporate real estate portfolios are recognizing the opportunity to reduce the office footprint while increasing the overall occupancy, due to new flexible workspace options for employees to work remotely.
Although it is counter intuitive, there is often a premium for the initial capital cost to build-out a new office. The contemporary minimalist aesthetic of new offices have complex and intricate architectural details that can be an arduous task to construct. These details require more labor and high-quality materials that are aesthetically pleasing.
For example, the coordination required for an open ceiling design is extremely challenging as all building components, including ductwork, piping, cablings and equipment, are exposed. Materials which are otherwise concealed within the ceiling plenum must now be carefully designed in order to achieve the desired vision for the space. Depending on location, the construction costs for an open ceiling design in a 10,000-square-foot-office utilizing union trades, can be 10 to 14% more than a typical hung ceiling system.
Although the cost for some trades are the same, the differential is attributed to the following:
Although these concepts have been widely well received, there remains concern that the new open office environment is not appropriate for all companies, and some employees don’t find the space as functional. Because of this, we see the need for a more balanced workplace approach that will reduce the office footprint without compromising functional aspects.
Challenges faced during a new office transformation have been met with creative and innovative solutions. New technology, such as infrared sensors and occupancy analytics, continue to have a significant impact on the way offices are designed to elevate the employee experience. As we rethink our work environment, it’s critical to evaluate the functional, operational and financial impacts to fully understand the long-term benefits and anticipate challenges throughout the build-out process.
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