Places That Work: Gensler Chicago

Office design for the needs of every worker, including those who use wheelchairs.

Recently I visited with Rod Vickroy, an associate in Gensler’s Chicago office. Rod has been using a wheelchair since 1998, when a mid-flight blood clot lodged near his spine.

As we zipped around the office (people in wheelchairs can move very quickly on smooth surfaces) Rod explained why the office works for him and other wheelchair users. The obvious reason, of course, is that the office is all on one floor and it’s reached via an elevator. In addition, in the washrooms wheelchairs can roll under the sinks; shower areas have handrails, places to sit, and lots of room for turning.

Less obvious are the circulation routes made of a smooth polished concrete. The floors under the workstations are covered in a tightly knit, low profile carpet. This design detail improves the acoustic environment for everyone while people in wheelchairs don’t need to worry about “over rolling” when they get to their desks or lock their wheels while they’re sitting. “Over rolling” is just what you think it is – continuing to move forward after you want to stop.

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Image courtesy of Gensler.  Chris Barrett, photographer

Because the concrete is smooth, as Rod rolls down the hall, his wheels don’t make the clickety-clack noise they would on tile. In addition, purpose is designed into the circulation spaces.  As Rod and I navigate down the hall, we observe work in progress and completed, see the leaders of various teams, and examine the pin-up boards that either lean against walls for display or are placed flat on the floor for updating, helping short people and those in wheelchairs to attach things to them.

Dividers between desks are low. This design detail helps those who sit at their desks to have a good idea of who’s near them and who’s not, thus eliminating a lot of travel both on foot and on wheels. 

No part of the main reception desk is above table height. The seated receptionist and a visitor in a wheelchair are eye-to-eye and directly face-to-face, not at unusual and uncomfortable angles, to each other. 

In meeting areas it’s often difficult for people using wheelchairs to distribute papers and other materials when tables are more than 5 feet wide. Therefore, most tables at Gensler are 5 feet wide or less. The main community table in the cafe is 34 inches high, a good height for people in wheelchairs to pull up to. The once fashionable, heavy and awkward chairs around conference tables make it hard to wheel gracefully up to a meeting. Here chairs not “packed” around the table and they can be rearranged with ease.

Rod says he still sees some unresolved issues at Gensler Chicago, but not many. He mentions the standing-height worktables that can be awkward for the seated teammate. 

As Rod says, Gensler’s Chicago office is a workplace with “experiential equity.” It’s a workplace that works because everyone here can do his or her very best work.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science. She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at [email protected]. This post is part of a series of Places that Work.

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