Places That Work IV: Small is Good at HOK’s Chicago Office

I was jolted by a recent New York Times article profiling an Italian aircraft component manufacturer (Avioninteriors) who is introducing a new kind of seat for flights less than 4 hours long. Well, it’s not really a seat; the manufacturer says it’s more like a “saddle”.  It is further from the floor than a conventional seat and travelers perch/sit/stand with their legs flexed for the duration of the flight. Clearly, the allure of this design is for airlines that want to pack more bodies onto their planes.

As the distance between seat backs changes from about 32 inches (the average for economy class today) to 23 inches or less, a tall person like me (my 36-inch inseams aren’t well accommodated by current aircraft), will view this kind of travel as horrifying. While, in theory, travelers would be willing to endure the experience in return for cheaper fares, the reality of people stacked shoulder to shoulder and within close eye contact with one another, could lead to some increased tension in the air.

Space is shrinking everywhere. Just as human density is growing on airplanes, workplaces are being designed to be more space efficient, and more affordable. During a recent conversation with Tom Polucci, group vice president and director of interior design at HOK, we took a spin around firm’s Chicago office. Here, I came to the realization that closer quarters need not be unpleasant.

HOK Chicago’s 120 employees share a floor in a Loop high rise. Scattered between the zones containing their individual workstations are 64- sq. ft. meeting rooms that comfortably accommodate at least 4 people. In the same number of square feet that used to be occupied by a single cubicle, Tom and his team laid out spaces with bench seating along the long wall, a free-standing table, and a pair of chairs. The door of the minimally furnished room is glass and frosted in a 2 ft. strip that provides privacy for those sitting there. Users can move most of the furniture, and that freedom helps control stress. With daylight flowing into the workspace, claustrophobia is minimized, while people outside the enclosed areas can see if a space is occupied – no need to slide open the door and disrupt a meeting. Since walls extend to the building’s structure, noise flow in and out of the enclosed area is minimized.

The two private, assigned offices are even smaller at 47 sq. ft. The long outer wall of the offices is glass and lets in light that creates a sense of spaciousness, preventing people from feeling trapped. A band of frosted glass extends along these walls and provides seated-height privacy. Benches along each of the long, solid walls supply comfortable, short-term seating for visitors. The small size of these offices keeps their occupants moving about among their colleagues – larger gatherings require the use of another space – which is also part of the plan as Tom tells me.

When designing their own workplace, HOK carefully considered every detail of what people would experiences. Carbon dioxide sensors in the conference rooms, for instance, indicate the shifts in the air quality according to the size of the group. More people mean more carbon dioxide, so the air temperature is automatically adjusted accordingly. This is good for the physical environment but also healthy for the psychological climate during meetings.

There are many compact but comfortable spaces for meeting/conferencing/collaborating throughout the office. In each of these, there is an assortment of seating options, so that people can choose to configure themselves according to their unique needs for comfortable interpersonal distances and orientations. Rocking chairs help release pent up energy.

Small can be humane. Avioninteriors should give Tom Polucci a call.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized