Top Interiors and the Bottom Line

May 1, 2001
Is your design strategy undermining your business mission?

A Detroit-based insurance company designed its new office to incorporate team structures, ergonomic furniture, improved privacy, and state-of-the-art environmental systems. Pre- and post-occupancy evaluations showed a 137-percent decrease in time required to process client paperwork, a 9-percent drop in errors and defective claims, and a drop in absenteeism to 1.6 percent, from 4.4 percent, as documented in The Impact of Interior Design on the Bottom Line, American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Washington, D.C., 1997.

With the cooperation of five leading manufacturers, ASID launched an industry initiative to study the relationship between performance and office design. Facilities professionals are discovering from this effort and other ongoing research that high-quality design is an important tool in facilities management. In his book, Liberation Management, Tom Peters wrote: “Physical location issues are neither plain nor vanilla. In fact, space management may well be the most ignored — and most powerful — tool for inducing cultural change, speeding up innovative projects, and enhancing the learning process in far-flung organizations.”

According to Internet search engine Yahoo! Inc., 100 million Americans travel the information superhighway every day. Considering the rapid proliferation of the Internet and related businesses and the shrinking landfills to hold unwanted commercial building materials, the impact of thoughtful interior design has taken on greater importance. Good design can greatly influence the overall performance of a facility, improving end-users’ satisfaction and enhancing operational savings. Increasingly, facilities professionals are discovering that effective interior design can be a key to business success. Asking the right questions and holistic planning can help organizations create high-performance interiors that complement their strategies.

What are We Here For?
For 30 years, the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI) Associates, Buffalo, NY, has examined the concept of how the physical environment impacts productivity, satisfaction, learning, and creativity in the built environment. “Early on I got very interested in ways of making decisions about design other than what it looked like,” says Michael Brill, president, BOSTI Associates. Through research and consultation, the organization has compiled a vast database of consistent and comprehensive results from enlightened design.

The strongest element of information gleaned from the BOSTI research is that the two primary needs of most individuals in office environments are to do distraction-free work and to have easy access to other individuals for learning and collaborating. Brill encourages facilities and design professionals to consider both crucial functions when creating spaces, especially the need for privacy and sound control. Adds Brill, “We’ve become so enamored with cappuccino bars and atriums and other things we think ‘make an open office,’ only to discover that in some situations people spend the bulk of their time in their workspaces doing quiet work.”

According to the BOSTI research, design strategies of the physical environment should be tailored to each organization’s unique mission. Brill urges facilities professionals to design workspaces that, through lighting and acoustics, support individual work. With furniture and related equipment, a workspace should also encourage small, impromptu meetings. “You really want to create a design strategy that allows you to have both,” says Brill. Separate spaces for teaming activities and larger meetings are also beneficial.

To uncover the way individuals work and learn in a given space and address how to improve their performance, Brill recommends conducting a framework interview to understand an organization’s cultural climate. The framework interview process with senior executives is followed by an end-user questionnaire process (usually conducted on-line) to determine how the current environment supports their needs and how individuals actually spend their day. Adds Brill, “If you just ask someone what kind of office they would like, it would be a large corner office with lunch sent in every day.”

“Where you want to invest your money is in those things that affect people’s performance, satisfaction, creativity, learning, and teamwork ability,” says Brill. By pinpointing areas that greatly affect workflow, facilities managers can make economical choices that will not hinder performance. The last step of this three-prong strategy is focus groups to understand the physical environment in-depth. Detailed design guidelines are drawn from the information generated from the framework interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups.

What Do People Really Need?
Technology has unhinged the traditional concept of the office. Increased mobility, hoteling, videoconferencing, the Internet, and more have all changed the way people use commercial facilities. “With the open concept, you don’t feel the barriers. There is a framework of openness and teamwork, but still some privacy,” says Thomas Rodden, vice president of operations and finance, Strategic America, Des Moines, IA. As a public relations, communications, and database marketing firm, the company has explored how interior design can improve its business.

After a recent move and redesign, Rodden faced the challenge of excessive noise in his open-office plan with carpet and acoustic ceiling panels. Conference rooms support teamwork and a new garden café area provides a favored amenity, as well as additional meeting space. To handle the difficult balance of privacy and openness, the facilities and design professionals used Trendway Contrada wall panels and paid close attention to layout. Adds Rodden, “I feel higher workstations and the use of windows [in wall panels] gives us a bit more flexibility and a bit more privacy.”

Strategic America’s previous site was overcrowded and lacked sufficient meeting room space. Now in light of the redesign, end-users’ morale, interaction, and performance have greatly improved. “It’s amazing how they have taken to it,” says Rodden. An abundant use of task light supplements the ambient lighting from natural daylight and overhead indirect fixtures. In response to staff’s needs, the company continues to experiment with lighting to achieve the optimum environment.

“I remember the days when a lot of things were centralized; everyone used one centralized filing cabinet. Now, the staff wants everything at their fingertips,” says Rodden. To accommodate the way the use of computers and the Internet has changed the workplace, this company has become more responsive to end-users’ needs. “Our business is fast-paced. We don’t spend all day in our cubes working; we’re up and talking, we’re in other departments, we’re in meetings, we’re looking at graphics,” says Rodden. Instead of hindering continual movement, the company’s office redesign supports the firm’s overall corporate culture and renewed vigor.

What is This Going to Cost?
Taking a holistic approach to commercial design, which encompasses ergonomic and functional concerns, can also be cost effective. Using whole-building design strategies, Steven Winter Associates helps building owners create energy-efficient green facilities. In terms of interiors, according to William Zachmann, director of communications, Steven Winter Associates, Washington, D.C., a soundly designed building that responds to its environment can support its end-users and deliver a solid return on investment. “What if we built this building eight degrees to the left? How would that impact our daylighting? People often don’t grasp the value of simple, good old-fashioned passive solar strategies,” says Zachmann.

The firm usually collaborates with the building team in the pre-design phase. Depending on location, climate, the different strategies used, and other factors, typical savings range from 30 to 50 percent in most facilities. “What we try to do is balance all the different components of an energy-efficient building in such a way that is most advantageous for the client,” says Zachmann.

In addition to saving energy costs through proper use of natural lighting, considering the interplay between the natural and the built environment and how it affects end-users is on the rise. “We are very cognizant of the bottom line, what it is going to take to get people to adopt these techniques,” says Zachmann. Research has shown that school children’s test scores improve in daylit educational buildings. In the corporate realm, absentee rates decrease with increased natural light and fresh air. And the impact of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in adhesives, textiles, carpet, and paints can make a dramatic change in correcting future indoor air quality issues and possibly lowering health insurance costs.

San Francisco-based U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit coalition, has developed a comprehensive rating system that provides definition for sustainable design and construction called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). “The new buildings being designed using this new whole-building design concept are really showing themselves to be incredible performers in terms of productivity,” says Zachmann. At a recent awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., 12 exemplary projects from around the globe were recognized as the first buildings to ever achieve LEED certification. The projects ranged from a Fortune 500 company headquarters to a community food bank warehouse to a palatial hotel perched on a mountain ridge.

Plans are already under way within the next 18 months to carry over the success of this program by developing guidelines for green design interiors. Adds Zachmann, “You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate the research that has been coming down the pike recently.” Sustainable design inside and out is also becoming a major component of being a good corporate citizen. In the near future, guidelines will be created to manage the operations of facilities at their optimal level.

The aim of the U.S. Green Building Council, building owners, and concerned design professionals await the day when energy-efficient guidelines become as commonplace as today’s building codes. “Sustainable design is really the future. More and more people are making the connection between energy efficiency, productivity, and profitability,” says Zachmann.

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