An Office’s Common Spaces Should Stimulate Imagination, not Gossip

ZGF Architects marry performance and efficiency with inspiration and user comfort

We know, both intuitively and practically, that socially interactive spaces, furnished with warm materials and rich textures, are beneficial and useful to the people who occupy them. But how do you convince the data-driven person who pays the bills? Buildings cost money. Owners want their dollars to go far. That’s reasonable. It’s because of this that architects are asked to prove that their designs marry performance and efficiency with inspiration and user comfort.

Our practice is focused on designing amenity-rich architecture, from spaces where interaction can take place in laboratories to art rooms and family lounges in hospitals. Atriums are utilized in all kinds of building typologies to bring daylight deep into a floor plate, create a natural gathering spot for users, and aid in wayfinding. Our recently completed U.S. General Services Administration, Federal Center South Building 1202 in Seattle, illustrates this approach. The building uses an oxbow-shaped atrium to connect conference rooms, amenities, and offices. Here the atrium is particularly successful because it utilizes biophilic strategies that connect employees to living systems through the use of daylight, views, fresh air, vegetation, and natural finishes. All of these strategies, together, enhance the user experience. But such amenities add to the building’s square footage and often the construction cost – thereby reducing the efficiency of the cost per square foot. Measuring their appeal to the users’ humanity can be proven by the employees’ enhanced performance and satisfaction.

Still, making the case for this can be challenging from a purely quantitative standpoint. We were recently challenged to design a new office building for a technology firm that wanted to measure the efficiencies and performance of the new project. I was part of the team asked that our decision-making process be based on empirical data rather than qualitative emotion.  The company had a strong desire to have a healthy, inspiring workplace for its employees, but required all qualitative design decisions to be based on evidence. They weren’t going to be sold on pretty renderings alone. This was especially apparent in how we designed the employees’ arrival to the building.

More from Metropolis

We were asked to make sure that workers made it from their car or bus or bike to their desk as efficiently and quickly as possible. The implicit rationale behind this request was that the sooner employees arrive at their desks, the sooner they will get to work and the more efficient they will be. This is certainly a valiant goal. But as designers we decided to take this challenge as an opportunity to approach the project differently. What if we could design a car-to-desk experience that was both efficient and engaging?

Instinct told us that the best way to create a better work environment is to get employees to their desks invigorated, energetic, and ready to go before they even started to work.  While this made sense to us, we knew that without data-driven evidence, we had no chance of selling it to the client.  So our research began.

Our first task was to prove that engaging people actually improves employee performance. We found a study showing that people are likely to be more creative when they are more active physically and in face-to-face interactions.

This same study told us that team members reported to be personally more creative after active interactions with others on the team. These results show a strong correlation between interaction and movement and self-rated creativity. Based on this evidence, we made  sure that our main circulation routes were open enough to promote visual connection to the people who were working in spaces adjacent to the main thoroughfares.


Commute to Desk

To maintain the goal of an efficient time to desk, we decided to incorporate moving walkways along the main circulation routes.  An open, moving walkway system that leads to social hub spaces with open stairs and smaller, skip-level elevators could encourage more face-to-face interaction between employees, provide visual connection to other parts of the building (which aids in wayfinding), and promotes physical activity.  Since I commute to work by riding my bicycle, I can say from experience that interacting with fellow bike commuters promotes a sense of community that’s lost when you’re separated by windshields or elevator doors.

Our team thought that a moving sidewalk could become an excellent opportunity to inspire feelings of delight, whimsy, and happiness. Zipping around on moving walkways like the Jetsons seemed to be unique and delightful departure from the norm.  A study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science shows that people who score high on a standard measure of happiness solve about 25% more insight puzzles (word-based, association games) than people who were feeling angry or upset. Even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity. If we could make moving fun, we felt this would stimulate the employees’ creativity even before they reached their desks.


Pixar headquarters

A case study project that we kept coming back to was Pixar’s studio in Emeryville, California, completed in 2000. This project is a successful example of one of our top priorities: effective use of space to encourage interaction and creativity among employees. In his book Imagine, How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer describes how Steve Jobs had a hand in designing the company’s headquarters.  According to Ed Catmull, the current president of Pixar, it was Jobs (then CEO) who made the decision to push the gift store, mailboxes, coffee shop, cafeteria, and the only bathrooms in the building into the atrium.

“The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,” Catmull explains. “Well, what’s our most important function? It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.” Darla Anderson, an executive producer on several Pixar films, added, “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot.  And you know what? He was right.”

And so more and more, these casual encounters happened on the way to the coffee shop or the bathroom, leading to collaborative conversations and creative breakthroughs. This concept of utilizing atrium space to prompt interaction was nothing new for our team. But Pixar’s highly success work environment reinforced our assertions that similar organizations would likewise find it effective. Our design concentrated amenities like retail, exercise facilities, coffee shops, and cafeterias right off of main circulation routes (see diagram 1).


Diagram 1

Locating most of these amenities on the lower floors rather than the upper floors (which were primarily dedicated to office use) was an important decision. We wanted to give employees an opportunity to grab a coffee, take a spin on an elliptical machine, or meet friends in a sauna room before they headed upstairs to their desks.


17th Century coffeehouse, England

We found supportive evidence in Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, in which he describes the English coffeehouse as crucial to the development and spread of the Enlightenment (1650-1700 A.D.) and, a marked increase in innovation.This was due in part to the architecture of the space where people, from different backgrounds could get together and share ideas, stimulated by coffee and supplied by information. The vitality of coffee shops today speaks to their continued importance in modern society. So we located the social-centered spaces early in the arrival sequence for all employees. This would help people from across the office (not just people who sat near one another) to have chance encounters.

Just like museums are designed to exit patrons through the gift shop, we wanted employees to enter through the amenity spaces. Crafting the progression of employees from car or bus or bike to desk is an opportunity to stimulate imagination and encourage impromptu encounters. Our team found empirical data and real-world examples which show that this “creative walk” could encourage creativity and efficiency among workers.  By incorporating this research into our design, we gained confidence from the client and reached a better architectural solution for future inhabitants of the office.

David Shaffer, associate AIA, is a design professional at ZGF Architects LLP in Portland, where he’s had the opportunity to work on projects ranging from large office buildings to U.S. embassies. David writes about architecture, design, and how those two can affect our everyday lives.

Works Cited: 1) Priyamvada Tripathi and Winslow BurlesonPredicting Creativity in the Wild: Experience Sample and Sociometric Modeling of Teams. School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, Arizona State University. 2) Kounios, J. & Jung-Beeman, MThe Aha! Moment: The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Recent Projects