September 15, 2022
When the Office Becomes a Teachable Moment
SOM’s New York team had occupied an office on Wall Street for two decades. In making the move to the LEED GOLD-rated 7 World Trade, staff agreed on a mandate: The new space needed to reflect the workplaces of the future that the international firm designs for its clients. The ambition was to create as open, healthy, comfortable, and energy-efficient a space as possible: An office as both laboratory and model of cutting-edge research in materiality, sustainability, and biophilic design.
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Plans were under way—including getting all staff on laptops and doing away with bulky computer towers—when the pandemic hit. “There was movement in the right direction, but the pandemic was like an inflection point. It accelerated so many ideas that were already percolating. The writing was already on the wall about flexibility, not being tethered to a desk, a healthy work environment, access to light and views and air,” notes Cooper.
To guide their process, Cooper and his team decided to pursue WELL Certification, a roadmap for creating healthy spaces with metrics in both architectural and quality-of-life categories such as thermal comfort, light, and access to healthy foods and materials. The office is targeting Platinum status, WELL’s highest metric. “Sometimes these box-checking systems can be deflating,” says Cooper, “but I would say WELL made us do things that might not have been triggered.” Examples include copious natural light, wide open spaces, indoor plantings for both sunny and shady spots, and minimal noise thanks to fabric-wrapped acoustic ceilings. The investment has made a “profound” difference in the experience of the office, says Cooper, adding life and vibrancy even though the 400-person office is never at full occupancy in the hybrid work environment.
WELL also inspired the team to research and avoid any materials that appear on the “Red List,” a compilation of building materials and interior products that pose a risk to human and environmental health. The certification program requires long-term air-monitoring, which SOM installed. The data is shared officewide. “You get that you are part of a living space,” explains Cooper. Employees completed a Leesman Office survey—a an independent measurement of workplace satisfaction— before and after occupying the new space. The results qualified the office for a “Leesman+” designation, scoring in the top 5% of workplaces surveyed worldwide in terms of outstanding lived experience. “The difference is night and day. We made great progress,” says Cooper.
Program-wise, SOM’s vanguard moves begin at the office entry, where guests and employees are greeted by what Cooper calls the “forum,” an open, double-height living room of sorts, with a long conference table surrounded by soft seating. The space works for small client meetings, critiques, and celebrations. Nearby, a grand communicating stair is the office’s sculptural centerpiece, leading to the shared 28th floor kitchen. Three cross-laminated timber walls act as the stair’s beams and stringers, integrating structure, finish, and function.
Both the stair and the forum are symbolic of SOM’s guiding design philosophy for the office—“radical reduction”— which meant “evaluating all of your decisions to be as reductive as possible in the final iteration,” says Cooper. The result is aggressively avant-garde in conception, he adds, but not aesthetics. For example, the firm removed as many walls as possible, concealed support systems and a low wattage point light system (designed by Tillotson Design Associates) behind the acoustic ceilings, and made use of the building’s existing concrete slab floors instead of applying wall finishes.
Studios on both floors—organized around open collaboration spaces (fourfold the former SOM office’s offerings) —add to the light footprint. The design team chose desks with a smaller surface area, knowing that not everyone would be in the office at the same time and wouldn’t be bumping elbows. Employees can move seamlessly from one work environment to another. In place of pin-up spaces, which are getting far less use in the new hybrid work environment, screens and digital technology are being installed to ramp up virtual communication. Partners also have desk space in the studio areas, salvaging more square feet for shared collaboration and layout spaces, a generous materials library, a second shared cafe on the 27th floor, and tectum- (a rapidly regenerating wood fiber) and cork-lined conference rooms.
The New York move coincided with the relocation of several of SOM’s other U.S. offices, some of which also decamped to SOM-designed buildings. Collectively, they represent, in built form, the 87-year-old firm’s ambition to evolve into a more open, less hierarchical organization, says Cooper: “Hopefully this expresses another cultural shift about how we see ourselves, how we’re working, who we are, and how we were positioning ourselves for the next generation.”
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