The Future of the Class-A Workspace is Here

And it’s healthier, happier and more efficient

Perspective Guest

The pandemic has accelerated trends already underway in the design of offices and workplaces, increasing emphasis on workplaces that support health and wellness and hybrid models of face-to-face and remote collaboration.

Design teams are finding that design elements intended to promote occupant health that used to be “hard sells”—interventions that promote physical activity, provide improved air quality (through higher ventilation, better filtration and operable windows), or support flexible working models — are now in high demand. Similarly, we’re anticipating demand for office renovations and the need for reprogramming of existing interior spaces as companies look to fully reopen safely.

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How can New Orleans (and the real estate market collectively) position itself to capture this demand? The city has a viable existing stock of Class-A workspace. How might these properties be repositioned to attract continued interest from companies looking to relocate from East and West coasts and cement the New Orleans market as one that is simultaneously forward-thinking and affordable?

Three projects serve to illustrate this notion: One is a transformation of an existing 1980s building, one a clean-sheet new construction project, and the third an adaptive reuse of a historic structure. What we’ve found is that designing for ways that support health is key to high-performance, energy-saving workplaces that will continue to be in high demand even as the nature of “office” work continues to change.

Two years ago, early in the design process of a renovation for a Baton Rouge-based private company, the client team realized the shortcomings of their aging mechanical systems and the poor ventilation it afforded employees. In tandem with architectural interventions meant to revitalize company culture and teamwork, the team advocated to rejuvenate the building systems and interior finishes to provide better indoor air quality, light and outside views — shown to improve cognitive performance and employee satisfaction.

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The building’s existing heating and cooling central plant was married with a high-performance Dedicated Outdoor Air System with Energy Recovery Ventilation (DOAS+ERV), providing more than twice the level of fresh air of typical standard practice, yet cutting energy use by two-thirds.

Today, as the building opens, it provides higher fresh air flow than old standards, and feeds this air through the building once (rather than recirculating stale air), which is consistent with the latest recommendations from industry organizations and the CDC on modifying workplace ventilation systems to minimize the transmission of diseases that spread through the air, such as COVID-19.

The big takeaway of interventions like this one? The strategies that help make the building better for the happiness and productivity of occupants two years ago are the very same ones that result in substantial health and safety considerations during the current pandemic.

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Similarly, the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs in Charlottesville, Virginia, was designed to deliver an indoor working environment informed by the latest research on how air quality, daylight and views impact human cognitive function, yet with an anticipated energy use of about one-third that of typical office buildings (helping put it on track for LEED Platinum certification). Several months ago, midway through construction, the design team revisited floor plans and design elements for COVID-19 consideration. Incorporating more “hands-free” hardware and fixtures and digital messaging, as well as increasing the distance between co-working “hot desk” seats (along with the preordained considerations for air quality) ensure that the building can open safely this year regardless of an uncertain future.

This is not to say that healthy workplaces should always separate. In a post-pandemic world, great workplaces will continue to highlight the importance of integrating space for socialization. One project in particular serves as a salient example for repurposing existing, underutilized building stock. For decades, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) here in New Orleans has served as a cultural catalyst dedicated to the presentation, promotion and production of art. The third and fourth floors of the CAC building, however, had always been underutilized. CAC representatives searched for years to find a way to generate a profit from the upper floors, always falling short.

Finally, in the fall of 2017, we completed a 40,000-square-foot renovation with local developer (and now tenant) the Domain Companies, transforming the CAC’s third and fourth floors into art-filled co-working space for a group of creative professionals across a range of industries. The heart of The Shop is the commons area, designed to facilitate conversation and connection. Shortly after opening, The Shop achieved its target goal of 100% occupancy.

The Shop represents an aspect of the workplace we’ve lost sight of during the pandemic: the person-to-person connection. Beyond desirable goals like walkability, connection to culture and a unique aesthetic, The Shop boasts a space designed to offer small businesses the opportunity to grow, to network, to make chance connections with neighbors in the communal space. While The Shop has all the requisite technology integrations to conduct Zoom and other video conferencing meetings, its allure comes in the time spent popping in to a neighbor’s space, or staying for the after-hours cultural programming.

What we’ve learned across all these projects is that the future will likely encompass a range of options. Workplace design solutions have the twin goals of desirability and practicality. What works for one client may not work for another. As designers, our challenge is always to provide not just boilerplate solutions, but to start with a client’s concrete problems, mission, vision and goals for their organization. COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the fundamental challenge in workplace design: to allow people to work closely together to unlock the potential of collaboration, while supporting the health of every individual.

As we look to reopen our workplaces for a post-COVID-19 world, we’re convinced emphasizing this message front and center is a crucial key in elevating the city’s attractiveness to a national audience.

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Jill Traylor is the director of interior design at EskewDumezRipple, a New Orleans architecture, interiors, and urban design firm. An integral leader in numerous project success stories throughout New Orleans (The Shop at the CAC, Palmisano Headquarters, and Tsunami New Orleans to name a few), Traylor brings a holistic outlook to design, navigating big picture elements down to the details—hand-picking finishes and artwork to complete a vision.

 

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