Tuesday, September 09, 2014

About an Office and Its Meaning

Award FOX Architects, which designed NEI’s offices here in Washington DC, has won the Pinnacle Award from the International Interior Design Association. It’s in the category for interior fit-outs of between 20,000 and 100,000 square feet. Of course, this has everything to do with the quality of work done by the architect and its contractors, not the nature of nuclear energy

Or does it?

When NEI came to the end of its 20 year lease on I Street, it found itself in a revived and newly vibrant city. F Street is closer to Capitol Hill than I Street, but for many years F Street was an eyesore, almost a generic representative of a decaying downtown. In the last 10 years, as DC finally shook off the impact of suburbanization, the virtues of city living became manifest to an affluent, and younger, cohort.

Consequently, DC went on a building binge, with both office buildings and residential complexes rapidly changing the skyline. But it remains a distinctively short skyline due to building height restrictions. These were first established by Congress in 1899 and revised in 1910. The law has been tweaked since then, but not much.

The law limits residential buildings to 90 feet and office structures to 130 feet. A few taller buildings were grandfathered in and Congress granted a few exemptions after 1910: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, for example. The height restrictions would have to be lifted or amended by Congress, which is highly unlikely. Never say never – Congress is currently considering allowing penthouses to be built on existing building - but this is pretty close to never.

In practice, the height restrictions limit office buildings to 12 or 14 floors (no building officially allows 13 floors), which makes office space in the revived District very dear indeed. Many offices work around this by eschewing closed staff offices in favor of bullpens and offering compact conference space.

NEI did not do any of this on I Street and did not intend to on F Street. But achieving this while fulfilling the goals NEI set to serve its membership, staff and many visitors required creativity.

Those goals included the following:

  • Much more conference room space. NEI’s name includes Institute for a reason – it hosts many industry professionals to meet on task forces, workshops and other gatherings. The offices needed more and larger conference space than before.
  • A space for nuclear professionals and about nuclear energy. The I Street offices could not really show off the industry or even make it clear that the space is all about nuclear energy. It became important to devote wall space and open areas to stress the history and value of nuclear energy. This is equally important to show visitors from outside the industry that nuclear energy has an exceptionally storied history.

The idea isn’t to crush visitors with legacy, as some museums do, but to remind them that they are part of something that has had a major role in the American story of the last 50 years and counting. That has to mean something.

All these things together take resources and had to be accomplished on a budget and in a finite amount of space. The solutions were  forward looking – NEI intends to stay put for awhile – and incorporated many architectural and design elements.

FOX Architects made a very smart decision: it visited a nuclear energy plant – Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, the nearest to NEI – and sought to incorporate the clean lines and open spaces of the facility. Most importantly, FOX wanted to devise ways to allow easy interaction between employees and visitors, another feature of Calvert Cliffs.

NEI Offices The solutions were ingenious. Staff offices needed to be smaller to yield space to member-centered conference rooms and other priorities. The resulting offices are exceptionally tiny – about 10 x 10 square – and enclosing them with walls could cause claustrophobia. So The offices are all fronted with glass, extending their effective width beyond their boundaries. To avoid a fishbowl feeling, translucent strips put on the glass provide a modicum of privacy.

Nuclear Energy Institute It’s unusual and it took getting used to, but it allowed NEI’s staff to interact more easily without damaging the sense of personal space. Look at it this way: people filter smells and sounds that are part of the atmosphere and can filter sights, too. That’s been my personal experience: I can see colleagues across from me but they are part of the environment and not continual distractions. I’ve heard a variety of views on this, but most think that this has enhanced staff interaction.

NEI NEI leveraged the talents of its creative staff – the folks who make the Web site and brochures look so good - to create wall displays that focus on the history, personalities and qualities of nuclear energy. These are easier to show than talk about, but just as an Institute of learning will design itself around the subjects it teaches, so NEI means to convey to its members that this is their space.

Nuclear Energy Institute FOX also borrowed a leaf from Calvert Cliffs by placing the largest gathering space, NEI’s cafe, front and center – not because the Maryland facility does this exactly, but to encourage the interactions among staff, industry folk and visitors observed at the plant. The cafe is within site of the reception area rather than tucked away, as many companies do, in the proverbial basement. It can be used by staff to eat lunch or get together, but also by visitors and NEI members. It is large enough to host receptions, such as the one that will be held tonight by the IIDA for this award.

Some ideas did not work as planned. FOX tried to expose some of the pipe and other infrastructure in the building – as Calvert Cliffs and other industrial structures do – but it did not work in context, making an area seem unfinished or under construction. This was popular with warehouse-converted structures in the 90s – I lived in a building that tried this approach in Baltimore. It can work, just not everywhere.

But most of the ideas did work: they fulfilled NEI’s vision of the space while giving FOX the latitude to execute ideas that enhanced the vision – precisely what you want out of such a collaboration. Hence, the IIDA award.

Congratulations to FOX Architects and its contractors for winning the Pinnacle Award. As one denizen of the space they created, I can affirm that it’s a prize well deserved.

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