Critical Mass Shows No Fear in Office Space Design

May 1, 2001
Critical Mass breaks all the rules

No Guts. No Glory. Dominance in the business world isn’t just about good instincts and fast reflexes; it’s about work environments where technology and aesthetics are synonymous with being an industry leader. Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Critical Mass took to the streets in welding rugged good looks together with rocket science for an environment that features hard-core technology in a totally phat design package.

Runnin’ with the Big Dogs
Critical Mass is a leader in web design and development, database integration and implementation, e-commerce implementation, online marketing and media services, content management, and a list of other complex, multidimensional interactive products and services. The corporate attitude about workspace makes the physical environment as important to the creative process as the computers and tools used to design, develop, and maintain high-end websites.

“Attracting talented people is much more complicated than just offering a competitive salary and bonus package these days. We have found that it comes down, more often than not, to prospects deciding what kind of an environment in which they want to work,” says Darrell Moir, vice president of operations at Critical Mass.

“We want this to be a place that people look forward to spending their time – and not like they’ve been stuffed into an office space with a shoehorn. It’s a positive and creative place to work.” With a client list that includes Mercedes-Benz, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Samsung, to name a few, it’s no wonder that Critical Mass relies so heavily on the creative talents of its staff of web geniuses to make it all happen.

No Place for Sissies
Just as computers have evolved into colorful, vibrant amenities in the office, so has the office environment evolved to complement technology.

“At Critical Mass, the office environment is as much about the kind of business we do as anything. We challenged each of our employees to personalize their space – make it reflect their own individuality,” explains Moir. “We were very impressed with the end result. One employee even has a surfboard suspended above his workstation. We felt that the [staff’s] involvement in bringing in personal items would finish out the space and reflect the creative team that is Critical Mass.”

Through the use of existing elements of the building – concrete supports, raw wood floors and support beams, natural brick, and graffiti on the walls – Critical Mass has captured a street-smart interior that reflects the textural turf of the surrounding area and the demographic of the company’s workforce, as well as its corporate culture. To say the space is nice is a gross understatement.

Hip. Phat. Phenomenal
True to the talents of the design team, the space is much more than funky. It’s unbelievably funk-tional. High-tech space is about breaking down communications barriers – opening up floorspace; incorporating personal effects; and integrating super-fast voice, data, and communication speed.

The design team quite literally left nothing to the imagination when finishing out the space. Most noticeable are the lighted plexiglass-style floor panels that expose the wire and cable that runs throughout the building’s access flooring system. Multiple desktop plug-and-play ports, upward/outward lighting systems, and workstation wall heights of no more than 18 inches above tabletops define the space as the ultimate in open communication.

“A lot of companies say that they have an open office environment. We believe that we really do,” notes Moir. “There are fewer than five private offices in the whole building. Without any barriers, our workers move freely within the space, conducting business as needed.”

The lower wall heights allow employees to see if a person is in his/her workspace, on the phone, head-down working on a project, or available for a short meeting.

In line with the industrial style and color theme throughout the workspace, exposed galvanized steel ductwork and electrical conduit enhance the already raw look of the building. The rectangle pegboard-like pattern found in the large carpet tiles coordinates well with design details in the furniture systems, wall units, and the building’s natural brick. A color palette featured in the carpet and furniture systems flawlessly enhances the rich colors of the natural brick for a look both tasteful and practical. “SMED International, [the Calgary, Alberta-based manufacturer of creative working environments, office furniture, floors, walls, lights, and storage] was instrumental in helping us finish out the space. They balanced our technical and spatial needs with our desire for a truly open environment,” says Moir.

Everything in a workstation is multipurpose. Storage and filing units are movable and double as additional seating when necessary. Worksurfaces, complete with ergonomic keyboard trays, can be easily disassembled and moved as necessary.

Meeting rooms offer total plug-and-play capabilities and soundproofing in an almost science fiction design. Circular in shape, these rooms are adaptable and movable as additional workstations become necessary. “When we first looked at the space it was very much an empty warehouse: bare wood floors, cement columns covered in graffiti, natural brick walls, and open raftered ceilings,” recalls Moir. The possibilities were readily apparent, however, and, as the focus of its design, the Critical Mass’ design team chose to incorporate all of the building’s raw materials into the new theme.

For instance, the graffiti art was digitally photographed and given to the local police department for review to make sure that it didn’t reflect any gang-related messages. Images were then downloaded, and now are electronically projected onto glass privacy screens. The company also projects client logos onto these screens as part of its program when touring clients through the space. “The graffiti walls add a lot of color. We change them on a pretty regular basis,” says Moir. “Everyone seems to think it’s a pretty cool idea.”

Slammin’ Back
Like it or not, the corporate game room seems to have become a virtual icon of the modern Pop Culture. Critical Mass, when assessing the age demographic of its workforce, chose to offer this amenity. The lower-level game room is complete with pool table, foosball, 1970s-style video games, and ping-pong. “We took some of those things that we thought were pretty effective in the start-up world and built them in here so that the overall environment is very comfortable for our employees,” says Moir.

Critical Mass’ idea of employee comfort also includes an on-site, full-service bistro, complete with MP3s playing in the background. “It has everything that the area restaurants offer at a fraction of the price,” notes Moir.

Other employee amenities include a full-service hair salon, private showers, and bicycle storage. “We have a very young demographic – 26- and 27-year-olds – that ride bikes. Having a place inside to store their bicycles and even shower before work was an added benefit that our company could offer to existing and prospective employees,” Moir continues.
Critical Mass holds its position in the industry because it’s not afraid to push the envelope. Be a little on the fringe. Adjust to the future. In this business, it’s very much: “No Guts? No Glory? Get Out.”

Clara M.W. Vangen is technologies editor at Buildings magazine.

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