The best architects’ offices are designed from the inside out

Beyond the glass door: the best architects’ offices are designed from the inside out

Cheryl Weber

When Ken, Hinton, FAIA, and Seab Tuck, FAIA, decided to design new offices for their staff of 15, they wanted something out of the ordinary. So the owners of Tuck Hinton Architects, Nashville, Tenn., bought the Civil War-era Elm Street Methodist Church and transformed the interior with such cool touches as a studio in the tall sanctuary, candelabras for nighttime lighting, and, in the vestibule, a Louis Kahn quote that reads “Architecture must have the religion of light.” The message fits the firm and the old church. “Since we work diligently to have natural illumination in our buildings, that quote is sort of sacred to us,” says Hinton.

Like clients who want to make a personal statement with their houses, upwardly mobile architects are doing everything their budget will allow to create signature work spaces. Ideally, the offices become a life-size marketing piece that says something about a firm’s creativity and most deeply held values. Given its historic landmark status in the community, Hinton says his divinely inspired building has become a terrific marketing tool.

One of the challenges of designing an architectural office, though, is that it is both an office and a workshop. Rather than a tidy stage set, it’s a place where models must be built, work in progress must be pinned up for critique, and a gazillion granite samples stored. So designing the ultimate advertisement also raises issues of in-house efficiency and productivity, not to mention staff morale and office culture.

Those fundamentals were at the forefront of Steven Ehrlich’s mind when the Culver City, Calif., architect converted an old dance hall to studio space six years ago. Ehrlich, FAIA, ticks off the design’s strong features, meant to inspire his staff of 18: a large, light-filled atelier with “room for the mind to soar and expand,” original antique maple floors, a model-building shop in an attached former garage, and a 14-foot-square glass rollup door that opens a meeting room to a private terrace containing a 100-year-old rubber tree. Workstations are nothing fancy, just birch plywood partitions and linoleum desktops on solid doors. “It’s simple, but a real treat for us,” Ehrlich says. “It’s a warm, industrial space. Clients can see what we’re doing, and the work speaks for itself.”

place and provenance

In searching for projects to feature in his recent book, The Designer’s Workspace: Ultimate Office Design, author Douglas Caywood, Associate AIA, called upon a surprising number of nationally known, award-winning architects who said their offices were not ready for prime time (see “Office Space” sidebar, right). Many of the firms, he says, occupied rather generic space in strip malls or office towers. Their offices were viewed as little more than a staging area for production drawings.

Moule & Polyzoides, Pasadena, Calif., lies at the other end of the spectrum. In 1999, when they were contemplating a move, partners Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides put a great deal of thought and energy into acquiring a building that went to the core of the practice’s identity. Deeply committed to New Urbanism, they looked for a location in downtown Pasadena near the train lines. The search led them to a building that architect Wallace Neff had designed for his own offices in 1927. Although the building was not for sale, Moule and Polyzoides persuaded the owners to sell it as a poorly managed red-tag property. The firm did a seismic upgrade and renovation, which included installing green electrical and HVAC systems and low-energy-use fixtures and appliances, and using recycled or renewable materials. The architects filled a courtyard with drought-tolerant plants. When the land next door went up for sale, they bought it, too, and put up a 10-unit apartment building with a courtyard and fountain, adding landscaping that improves the building’s connection to the street. “The office is a perfect example of how we think one can live in Southern California,” Moule says. “In a walkable neighborhood, near transit, in a lovely old building with green technologies.”

The building’s floor plan required some compromises, though. Moule & Polyzoides occupies the offices largely as Neff did. He had designed the space to house his staff, his contractor, and several other businesses, whereas Moule & Polyzoides’ 27 employees use the entire building. That means the principals and administrative staff need to work in some of the separate, smaller offices. “It is only a partially open plan, not as much as we would like,” Moule says. “On the other hand, it’s an office of diverse character and intimacy that is quite charming. It feels residential and very Comfortable–great qualities for an office of any kind.”

Fred Fisher, FAIA, Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects, Los Angeles, feels the same way about his offices, designed and occupied for years by the noted architect A. Quincy Jones. Fisher, who oversees a staff of 25, wasn’t actively looking to relocate from his warehouse studio in Santa Monica. But as be drove by the building on his way to work one day, he noticed a for-sale sign. Of 1950s vintage and well-known in the community, it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Fisher says. “I knew the owner, Quincy Jones’ widow, Elaine, and I was fortunate to get it before a nearby property owner bought it to tear down for parking.”

Because of the building’s provenance, Fisher made only minor changes. It had never been anything but an architectural office and was in good condition. The 5,400-square-foot interior is much more divided than Fisher’s former warehouse, though, and it lacks some efficiency. The three partners have private offices; there’s a lot of circulation and three separate meeting areas. But Fisher likes the greater privacy and its nice domestic scale. There are some fabulous perks, too, such as the five courtyard gardens that Fisher had redesigned by noted California landscape architects Pamela Burton, Jay Griffith, and Nancy Goslee Power. “We have our own collection of gardens, which have become a real amenity for the work space,” he says.

Visiting clients also notice the fixtures and Saarinen chairs the partners purchased secondhand to keep the building in period style and complement the original custom furniture. Fisher’s office has a built-in wood and black vinyl sofa, and his desk is a dramatic piece of dark-stained oak, U-shaped and 10 feet long, that floats on skinny legs.

“People sometimes ask, if we’re buying a building, why not build it ourselves or remodel it into our style,” he says. “Our feeling is that this building reflects our values, in terms of a very comfortable workshop, beautiful daylight, direct connection to gardens, a straightforward use of structure, and a mix of materials. There is a whole collage of materials in this building–river pebbles embedded in concrete, mahogany paneling, Douglas fir decking, exposed concrete block. Those are things we do as well.”

a matter of principal

A redesign is a chance to rethink the way architectural offices work. Hierarchy, culture, and the way people communicate are all waiting to be defined. In a new building, of course, anything is possible, but a historic building is what it is. Its character often overrides first instincts and can lead to interesting solutions. When the Cowart Coleman Group, Savannah, Ga., adapted a double carriage house for office use three years ago, principal Gerry Cowart, AIA, appointed an intern as the project architect and involved everyone in the design. The 11-member staff had some say about where their cubicles would go. Some wanted a quiet location in the studio; others wanted to be in the middle of things. But the 3,000-square-foot building’s T shape dictated the general layout, to Cowart’s initial misgivings. Since the short leg of the T was the logical place for a suite of offices, Cowart had to give up being in the fray of the design studio. “It took me two years to get used to designing in my own office,” he says. “The ceiling of my space is open to the entire upstairs, and a large glass area allows me to look into part of the studio, but it’s not like being there with everyone. It hurt me.” However, Cowart says he’s still very much the professor in the atelier. He overcomes the isolation by doing a lot of walking around from desk to desk, sitting down and drafting with a young architect looking over his shoulder. Cowart’s own office isn’t bad, either. When he needs peace or privacy, he steps out on his balcony, which overlooks a quiet garden and church steeple.

The layout of Hinton and Tuck’s former Methodist church also elevates the partners–literally. They sit in the belfry, more like high priests than professors. Yet Hinton gives the unique setup a casual spin. “We think that’s important–the two crazy people are up in the belfry,” he says. The separation comes in handy when the partners are dealing with sensitive personnel or client issues, but the abundant glazing keeps their offices from being a cocoon. “Our office’s informality is something that has made us successful,” Hinton says. “We’ve very much aware of what’s going on in a project at any time.”

making a statement

A very different office is taking shape in Omaha, Neb. Now working on his third work abode to keep up with a growing practice, Randy Brown, AIA, is finishing out the raw interior of a 6,000-square-foot section of the office building he designed in 2001. Through charrettes, the seven-person staff is “looking at ways we can make ourselves work better,” Brown says. “Since design is what we sell, how can we use design to make our life at work easier and create spaces that inspire?” Some of the practical solutions include a model-building shop and place for power tools, a 40-foot-by-6-foot catalog-and-samples library (twice as large as his current one), and lots of pin-up walls and charrette areas right in the studio. Brown is ditching the sloped drawing surfaces and fiddling with new designs for desks.

The studio may be the heartbeat of a firm. But Brown clearly views his office as something more: an experimental showpiece for clients. “Our last office ended up winning a lot of regional, state, and national awards,” he says. “We see it as a way of marketing, but also showing the world this is who we are and what we do.” There will be a high-tech conference room where the lights dim for PowerPoint presentations or movie animations about a client’s project, and some spotlighted model stands. “It’s what Frank Lloyd Wright did 100 years ago,” Brown says. “The Chicago studio had an octagon room with sketches on the walls. He had this great space where he sold design to clients.”

A little drama is planned for the reception area, too. Brown is designing a museum-like gallery that will accommodate 40 people for receptions. Throughout, natural materials such as woods will mix with high-tech lighting and recycled metal and glass. “We’ll incorporate recycled materials as a way to educate clients,” Brown says. “In our old office we had a bath sink with a knee-action valve that turned the water on and off. We do like to put in those elements that engage clients and make them ask questions.”

Also in progress is the office of Daryl Rippeteau, AIA, in Washington, D.C.’s historic Logan Circle neighborhood, where buildings fetch prices unthinkable 10 years ago. Fortuitously, Rippeteau bought a one-story warehouse in 1986 and rehabbed it for office use. Now he’s knocked it down and is putting up a three-story building that will house ground-floor retail, 1,500 square feet of offices for his six staff members on the second floor, and two apartments above. “The space will be utilitarian and I hope to convey a sense of industry or efficiency,” Rippeteau says. “I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years in terms of design. So I’m not trying to present major design themes. Those will be presented in the work in progress.”

Even so, one snazzy element will be five floor-to-ceiling aerodynamic fins on pivots between the work hall and a light-filled conference room that rotate shut when a meeting is in session. Rippeteau is hoping to put matching operable louvers on the exterior windows, though the review board stripped them off before approving the plan.

street cred

When architects lease office space five floors up, a street presence becomes even more of a challenge. Joe Sullivan and Gary Bruck Architects, Columbus, Ohio, found the perfect location in a century-old mid-rise building on the south edge of town. The firm took the top floor, with its lovely views of a neighboring German-style village. But the partners negotiated a lease allowing them to redesign the lobby and entryway. They painted the office in glowing red, yellow, and purple hues. And a canted, umber-colored wall that serves as the gallery is visible from the street, thanks to a storefront glass-wall system. Eighteen feet high, with aluminum and cut-glass detailing, it makes a big impact.

“You know there’s something different going on as you come to the front door,” Bruck says. “I think we are a classically rooted firm, yet our space is fairly contemporary. It demonstrates classical principles of scale and proportion in a contemporary manner, to show that the theory still works no matter what foil you place on it.”

Whatever their office’s location or character, architects are improving their daily lives and their prospects by designing personalized spaces that are part of the community. For 75 years, Cowart’s building had housed a bookshop called The Little House. So when the firm moved in, it changed its name to Cowart Coleman Group at The Little House. And it commissioned a front gate from a local artisan that has become a stop on the historic Savannah bus tour. Some people still wander through the garden and up to the door, asking where the bookshop is.

The garden itself is a conversation piece. The architects designed a formal boxwood parterre that reflects the layout of one of the city’s wards, with a square and obelisk in the middle, surrounded by “trust lots”–pieces of land that were reserved for important architecture–and smaller “tithing lots” where the residents lived. “In my office, I knew I wanted to address an infill or adaptive situation in the historic part of town,” Cowart says. “I love this place and did it for myself. People say, ‘This looks just like you.'”

It’s been almost 10 years since Fisher moved into Quincy Jones’ old offices. What would he do differently if he were redesigning the building today? Not a thing. “We’re very happy with it,” he says. “I feel like the luckiest guy to have gotten this building. Every day I’m happy to be here.”

office manual

how much office space does an architecture firm need? Is there an optimal layout? What impression do you want to convey to clients who walk through the front door? Those are some of the questions Doug Caywood helps architects answer in his book The Designer’s Workspace: Ultimate Office Design (Elsevier, 2004, $59.95; The book contains 50 case studies of architects who’ve designed their offices, ranging from small to large firms and from new construction to renovations and adaptive reuse. Included are sections and floor plans. But perhaps the most useful information is a comprehensive, six-page “workspace design checklist” that asks both philosophical and practical questions. For example, employees might be asked: What is our firm image? What are our clients looking for? What is it about our physical environment that makes you want to work here? What do you wish would change? Other questions help architects take stock of current equipment and furnishings, anticipate future needs, and decide on a design approach for the new office based on a firm’s organization.

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group