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Pathways and Eddies

05.02.12 / Sarah Walker, AIA, LEED AP

What constitutes a flexible workspace? This question recently arose for us at ARC while preparing for an interview to design the office headquarters for a local company here in Boston.

When approaching the project the team began the process by identifying our interpretation of the company’s core characteristics: sustainable, energetic, clever, innovative and collaborative. With this framework, we set out to identify a series of spaces that would not only accommodate but also promote the company’s character and mission through the design of their space.  These particular types of spaces would need to support the company’s program and office culture as well as provide a framework to allow future spontaneous interactions to help develop new ideas and opportunities.

Some say the most efficient flexible workspace is a blank canvas of modularity that allows occupants to “set up shop” any way they choose.  Others say it is the combination of more traditional enclosed office modules for individuals paired with open and collaborative public zones at the perimeter.  Our experience has shown that a flexible workspace not only accommodates the user’s current workplace needs but also helps to create new modes of interaction and works to further reinforce the persona of a company. 

Increasing the number of potential connections and interactions is often spoken about as if it happens by serendipity.  Any spatial designer will tell you it only appears that way when the design is quietly doing its job.  The way I approach a design is to generate the flexibility to accommodate various appropriate patterns of interaction.  I like to think of the flow of employees through a space as a series of pathways that are not necessarily linear, but allow for "eddies" at various points that help facilitate interaction.  In a river, eddies allow the water to take a break from its forward motion and pause.  In these moments of pause, hydrologic functions take place that help bolster the overall system.  Sediment - like so much excess baggage - is filtered and drops out of the main current.  People similarly benefit from such moments of pause.  It allows them to recharge, linger on ideas and compare those ideas with others swirling around before jumping back into the rushing waters of their workday.

For ARC, these moments of eddy occur all around our office and accommodate a range of team units.  Individually, working in smaller team groups (2-4), collaboratively, as a larger team (up to 10-15 or more) and ultimately presenting that work for in-house critique.  To this end, our office space provides a wide variety of informal meeting and breakout areas, including the studio, which is the heart of the office and firm culture, the kitchen/seating area, our corner meeting and pin-up spaces, personal phone rooms for smaller private conversations and our more formal corner conference rooms.  

It is important to note that it is not just traditionally creative disciplines that need this sort of flexibility in both unit size and privacy.  More recently, many of our clients have expressed a desire to create further overlap between disciplines within their organization. A recent example includes the space planning efforts for the Albert Sherman Center – currently under construction – at UMass Medical School in Worcester. One of the primary goals of the project was to create casual breakout areas that promote interaction and collaboration amongst different research groups which traditionally would not have interfaced. These spaces are designed to facilitate the exchange of ideas, both personally and professionally, creating a more dynamic work environment.

To me, an eddy is not prescriptive.  Sometimes the intended interaction occurs; sometimes the unpredictable may silt out.  What we as designers are tasked with is to create these moments of pause and potential. The way they are used will vary between companies, teams and individuals. Developing these opportunities inspires me to create new possibilities for each building and the environments within them. I happily look forward to helping guide the flow of people and ideas through the pathways we create.

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