The Continental Divide

What accounts for the differences between Europe’s workplaces and our own? Three American interior designers offer analysis and insight.

What are the cultural differences between European and American workplaces? Why is sustainability more advanced across the pond? How does legislation affect the way buildings look and operate? We decided to explore these issues by inviting three American designers to each look at one seminal European workplace. The idea wasn’t to compare design cultures but to analyze them as a way to get beyond style.

Each designer—Tom Vecchione of Gensler, Shashi Caan of the Shashi Caan Collective, and Stephen Apking of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—was given a project to study. The Werndl WORKL@B, in Germany, is a furniture-company headquarters that also acts as a showroom and research laboratory. The eight-story Dynamic Office, in the Netherlands, houses eight government organizations and features flexible workstations. The Commerzbank, a sustainable high-rise, also in Germany, uses sky gardens and a full-height central atrium to both ventilate the building and provide views for every workstation. We gave each designer plans, photographs, and supporting materials to study, but all of them chose to concentrate on the plans.

Tom Vecchione on the Werndl WORKL@B:
The space deals with a lot of the issues we were seeing four or five years ago, during the technology boom. I’ve tried to avoid using the word dot-com—I was actually in charge of Gensler’s dot-com studio three years ago, so I cringe when I hear that term—but the truth is a lot of the themes that came out of the era remain valid.

The dot-commers may not have set out to create a different architectural model for the workplace, but a number of initiatives survived the technology bust and became baseline thinking for the way we think about work space: the merging of architecture and technology, branding, community, fluidity, openness. You rarely see a closed door today, even in the most hierarchical, buttoned-down companies. There is more access, there is more organizational transparency, and these are outgrowths of the Internet era.

So Werndl has a lot of the open-plan spirit of the tech boom—the ubiquitous coffee bars and teaming stations— but it’s combined with performance initiatives that involve product display, corporate culture, brand, and research. As a furniture company, Werndl is a workplace analyst—and this is a prototype office, which is always a different kind of model. The second generation of this space would be very interesting to study. What would they phase into and out of? Because this office is clearly a kick-the-tires scenario: “We’re going to build this out and see how it functions.”

Looking at the space reminds me of some of the feedback we’ve been getting from clients who’ve been living with totally open plans for five or six years now. What we’re discovering is that we need to look again at some important issues about heads-down work, about creating areas for concentrated effort. I think we’ve also become more realistic about the promise of technology. People need time to process information. My big questions today are: Is information too fast and too cheap? Is it too readily accessible? Do we have enough time to digest, understand, and respond? The next big challenge for workplace designers will be to create spaces that actually help create that time.

Steven Apking on the Commerzbank Headquarters:
The idea of large atriums within high-rise office buildings has been around since the 1950s, but Foster and Partners refined and pushed the idea further here. In American buildings, you’ll often have a dense core in the middle—with back-office functions and load-bearing walls—which means people sitting against a wall. Here the architects essentially pulled the cores out to the perimeter of the building. They torqued the structure, creating both atrium space—which helps ventilate the building naturally—and interior views up, down, across, and out.

The interiors are composed of almost a kit of parts: universal ceiling systems and lighting approaches, modular wall units, raised-floor heating. So you could conceivably move walls almost anywhere on the module—combine offices, eliminate them. There’s a great deal of flexibility, but it comes at a higher price. Our U.S. clients are looking closely at this issue: What kind of flexibility do they need? Where do they need it? Where ,i>don’t they need it?

Still, the building remains a model for the future: the sustainable high-rise. There’s no question that Europe—and especially Germany—is ahead of us as far as sustainable office buildings. I’ve spoken to engineers who work in Europe, and they cite four factors. One, government legislation: access to daylight, operable windows, and energy efficiency are legally mandated there. Two, milder European climates make natural ventilation easier. Three, utility costs are twice as high in Europe, which means the payback period for developers is significantly shorter; there’s an economic incentive to build green. Four involves an interesting cultural difference related to climate: Europeans tend to tolerate a greater range of temperatures inside offices. Their comfort range is anywhere from 65 to 80 degrees. Americans prefer 75, plus or minus a few degrees.

Shashi Caan on the Dynamic Office:
European architects have always been more focused on mechanical systems, on qualities of art and light. Here they’ve considered sustainability in an even deeper way by locating this government building near a train station so employees don’t have to drive to work. That’s very good.

From a space-planning perspective, this is a unique building. Where we would typically take a [structural] core and condense it near the center of the building—to house mechanicals, elevators, and other space efficiencies—here they’ve staggered it. There are five sets of stairs in a floor plan that is probably not much bigger than 25,000 square feet. From an American perspective, that represents a lot of wasted space on each floor. But the positive aspect is, these staggered cores create interesting units of space that are varied and human-scale. The architects almost hide the scale and magnitude of the atrium spaces so that moving from them into the more intimate office spaces is a unique experience. This variety of spatial experience is intriguing.

And yet looking at the plan, I’d bet that space is an issue in this building. European structures tend to be narrower because of natural lighting requirements. Here you have a fairly thin building with two corridors: one along the windows, the other roughly following the staggered cores. From a real estate efficiency standpoint, this doesn’t cut it. How much strategic planning was done based on a behavioral analysis of the tasks that people would perform and the space needed to perform them? This is a common shortcoming in America too. We don’t always plan out for a ten-year time frame. Businesses are changing too fast—consolidating, separating, morphing. We’re planning with a three-year strategy in mind, so it’s little wonder that we quickly run out of space. I wonder if this didn’t happen here.

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