Form follows function Featured

9:32am EDT July 22, 2002

Much has been written about the ergonomics of the office chair.

The chair has been overdesigned, overdiscussed and overdissected. A useful and comfortable chair is great, but it is only one aspect of a functional office.

Robert Bostwich, partner at Cleveland-based Collins, Gordon, Bostwich Architects Inc. (CBG), and Tim DelMedico, designer and owner of Akron's Chez-Del, both know something about creating functional offices. When Bostwich arrived as a new partner at CBG, the office was a maze of desks and drafting tables, with no place to meet with clients.

As an architecture firm, Bostwich felt CGB should instill confidence in its clients while providing a functional workspace for employees. For 55 years, DelMedico has designed out-of-box executive offices with an eye toward creating warmer, friendlier, personalized workspaces.

Create a nice place to visit

Client or customer comfort is key. As a result of the renovation, CBG boasts three new conference rooms, including one with a breathtaking view of downtown Cleveland. The conference rooms allow clients to enjoy the time they spend discussing projects.

DelMedico sees the comfortable couch gaining popularity in offices. Sitting next to a client on a couch and allowing him or her to be comfortable is replacing the traditional distance and intimidation of the big corporate desk.

"It puts everyone on equal footing," he says.

Open up for light and air

Aesthetics and function should go hand in hand. Bostwich knew something had to been done to make the office look up-to-date, but he also knew he could be opening a big can of worms.

"We didn't know what we would discover," Bostwich says.

What they discovered was 14-foot ceilings, views of downtown, original brick walls and huge wood beams. One of the most important structural changes involved expanding the windows and installing skylights throughout the building to allow the disbursement of natural light.

"We always try to move desks near windows, to be near natural light," DelMedico says.

And, by increasing natural light, coupled with scattered indirect lighting, CGB combined breathtaking views with lower electric bills and less computer glare and eyestrain.

Project a modern office

Bostwich wanted to design a showplace for the firm's skills, but he also wanted to facilitate a better working environment. Architects work in teams, and the team can change with each project.

So, when it came time to choose workstations, CBG opted for smaller, semi-mobile, expandable desks. If an employee needs more room, he or she just removes a divider or adds a drafting board. In addition, the workstation dividers are lower than usual so employees can communicate more easily.

"We work in different ways. Because of the openness, it is much more collaborative," DelMedico says.

The same concept has found its way into the executive office. DelMedico is furnishing more and more offices with writing desks and desks without a front panel.

"We want to be able to get away from the power position."

Develop public space

The days of the big private office may be coming to an end as more emphasis is placed on teamwork and communication. For example, CBG opted for smaller desks to create pockets of public space throughout the office. The public space is made up of conference or teaming tables with naturally lit wall space for pin-ups.

Employees use these spaces to work on and discuss projects. This, Bostwich claims, fosters teamwork.

"You get a sense of what everyone is working on and it creates a sense of unity instead of territory," he says.

DelMedico suggests adding what he calls a discussion table to offices to create a mobile workspace. The table is 40 inches or 42 inches and moves on castors with four comfortable chairs.

Strut your stuff

Don't be afraid to let clients see what you do. Let people know you're proud of your work.

Bostwich had this in mind when he designed the foyer as an art gallery. As soon as visitors reach the top of the CGB staircase, they're treated to an array of architectural blueprints and renderings.

"We are very proud of our work, and before, it was in corners," he says. "Now, we show respect for the work. It respects those who made it."

Weigh traditional vs. contemporary

Rules were made to be broken, and some traditional office concepts are falling by the wayside. Bostwich himself broke with tradition, forgoing the spacious office and opting to set up his desk in the main workspace with the other employees.

However, when taking an alternative approach to office design, never forget that the office is an important link to the client relationship.

Bostwich explains, "We still need to have conference rooms with doors. We considered this carefully for taking into consideration the comfort of the client."

DelMedico notices a trend toward mixing the traditional with the contemporary. Like having red wine with fish, mixing an antique desk with a Bauhaus chair is acceptable.

Aesthetic, efficient and comfortable, the office must be many things to many people. With Americans spending more time than ever at work, DelMedico says things have changed and personal aesthetics are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

But, he cautions, don't allow personal taste to overcome professional decorum.

"Offices used to be more corporate," he says. "Now, it is whatever makes you happy." How to reach: Collins, Gordon, Bostwich, Architects Inc., (216) 621-4610; Chez-Del, (330) 376-6176 or (330) 867-6100

Kim Palmer (kpalmer@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.