Thermal Comfort at Work

November 29, 2019 • admin

Each individual feels temperature differently. How can we design spaces where everyone is comfortable?

When my family would visit my wife’s grandparents during Christmas, we had an agreement that whoever arrived first would adjust the thermostat. While the warmth of the indoors is usually comforting in December, it was just too jarring to walk into a 76 degree house wearing several layers of winter clothing. Those of us who were younger would commiserate about our discomfort until the indoor air temperature finally cooled off.

When we design office environments, we consider the factors which impact the thermal comfort of those who use the space. Temperature is just one concern. Air movement in the space, drafts, and the distribution of air from HVAC systems can have a significant impact on thermal comfort. If the ambient temperature is 74, but there is a draft, the room may feel cold. Likewise, if it is 70 degrees, but there is no air movement in the space, it may feel stuffy and warmer than it should. Humidity is another factor under consideration here.

The challenge to ensuring all employees are comfortable in their workplace is that each individual feels temperature differently. Some may feel too warm while others are too cold in the same space. Lida Lewis points out that our activity level can contribute to our thermal comfort in an article for Work Design Magazine. If someone is active as part of their job duties, they will be warmer than those who sit and review data all day. If these folks are in the same space, those with the sedentary tasks will run cooler. Additionally, studies show that people with lower metabolic rates will measure colder.

Designing for Personal Comfort

So how are we to design spaces for comfort with the vast array of factors at play and the wide-ranging demand on employees, not to mention personal preference? At WSA, we are exploring this topic and have found that the design considerations which best address personal comfort are similar to those which improve workplace happiness and effectiveness in various other ways. Thermal comfort results from a more rigorous consideration of the individual needs of users.

It all comes down to allowing personal choice for the occupant. If an employee is tethered to a space and has no way to modulate their personal space, they will be challenged to find comfort and develop a negative reaction to the design. Some may like to sit adjacent to an outside wall during the winter to stay cool, but shy away from this same space in the summer. Fixed locations for employees can contribute to discomfort since the individual is not able to address their individual comfort. A mobile workplace allows individual employees to modify their environment to address their own individual comfort level, leading to improved focus and mood. Likewise, if we can provide individuals with the ability to adjust window shades, crack a window, manipulate HVAC delivery systems, or find an additional source of warmth, their individual comfort will improve, and we may make them much more effective as they go about their workday.

Another consideration is the type of HVAC system that is specified. Traditional air delivery systems are zoned and seldom offer the ability to adjust the temperature in targeted areas. Even when variable air volume systems are added, the individual control is limited. Other systems, such as the variable refrigerant flow (VRF), can offer the ability to create micro-climates within the workplace more easily, since the equipment is distributed throughout the space. Much of the research on thermal comfort indicates that air delivery from the floor in lieu of overhead can positively impact comfort. You remember from physics class that heat rises, and if we deliver warm air from an overhead position, we are trying to force the air against its natural flow. Additionally, overhead air distribution can create a drafty atmosphere. Underfloor systems deliver warm air directly at the level of occupants, so they often feel warmer even if the space has a lower ambient temperature.

As we consider the twenty-first century office environment, we are finding a consistent thread that leads to its effectiveness. Personal comfort, happiness, and workplace efficacy can only be addressed if we allow for personal choice. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to design. These historic, monolithic designs provide thermal comfort to a limited number of occupants and may have contributed to a disillusioned workforce. Let’s work to drive personal choice. It is well worth the investment.

Balancing Workplace Hierarchy

November 24, 2019 • admin

Say goodbye to the corner office, and hello to your team mates. Workplace design can combat rigid internal hierarchy and encourage collaboration.

Hierarchy has become a dirty word. As the baby boomers whisk themselves away to retirement, the concept of necessary hierarchy, or the idea to aspire to climb the corporate ladder, seems to be fading with their generation. For years, American workers recognized the importance of hierarchy in their workplace and looked to sharpen their game to be noticed, gain access to promotions, and step into a role of supervision or management.

Randolf Saint-Leger stated in BizFluent magazine that “a company’s hierarchy allows employees on different levels to identify the chain of command and serves as a reference point for decision making. A company without a hierarchy cannot effectively hold its executives, managers and employees accountable.”

Hierarchy may indeed help to hold executives, manager, and employees accountable, but the desire for accountability does not need to manifest itself in the physical environment as it has over the years. There is no definitive need to supply a manager with a private office, and the work of a supervisor does not demand a larger workstation. How has our society gravitated to the tradition of awarding larger footprints to management? Well, the proverbial corner office may have sprung from the tradition of awarding progress. As an employee showed success, the corner office was a way to reward and provide a visible sign to recognize their expanded role. The corner office has always symbolized accomplishment in 20th century popular culture. I recall the last scene in the eighties popular film “Working Girl” when the character portrayed by Melanie Griffin is recognized for her ingenuity with a private office of her own. Interestingly though, the cinematographers even revealed the irony as the camera pans further and further out to allow viewers to recognize that she was still just one of many, even with her success. After all, the concept of getting ahead is all relative and success demands more and more reward.

Regardless of the motive, we are all very familiar with the symbolic importance of a private office. As designers began to evaluate the need for private offices in the 90’s, it became clear that the job duties of a manager, supervisor, director, or any senior leader has seldom demanded a private enclave for most of their work. There are certainly some tasks performed by these folks which demand privacy, like personnel reviews and financial review. But research reveals that most private offices sit unoccupied a large majority of the time, while occupants of the adjacent open office environments often work under duress in a noisy, congested environment. And ironically, many of these entry level data-entry job duties are best performed when the occupant is isolated and can focus. So how do we correct this upside down paradigm? How does society reward success and how do we offer environments which address the demands of individual job functions?

At WSA, our teams have shifted our energy to focus on needs assessment for our clients. We know that a higher level of observation, inquiry, and engagement with users results in richer data output which can inform programmatic recommendations on projects.

Recently, our team worked with Ohio Mutual Insurance Group (OMIG) to improve the effectiveness of their teams. A third-party observation team occupied their space for a week and documented workstation, private office, and conference room use. The results were revealing. A large majority of the building’s occupants use their workstation less than 50% of the time, and private offices were seldom occupied. Focus groups and surveys revealed that users desired more space for collaboration and the ability to interface with off-site partners through audio/visual tools. Faced with the reality of a potential multi-million dollar building expansion to accommodate the existing and expanding team, OMIG senior leadership decided to take the design team’s advice and implement a new office standards program. WSA developed a collection of working scenarios that ranged from shared, private enclaves to team tables (8 unique scenarios were outlined), and then our representatives worked with each department to custom design a work environment that was unique to each team. The rigorous process allowed the existing facility to absorb nearly 45 additional staffers without an addition. The process also sparked internal review of standard protocols. Many of the teams took advantage of this opportunity to advance their mission and shift energy towards the enterprise’s newly minted mission statement. The final design includes private offices for some and dedicated heads-down workstations in the traditional sense for others, but most associates have migrated to a mobile work situation where they report to the campus and not a dedicated, individual workstation.

The results are remarkable. Senior leaders indicate that the efficiency of the organization has increased and job satisfaction is on the rise. We know that people work best when they can help shape their environment and Ohio Mutual is well on its way to a culture where emerging leaders break through encumbrances to success, which will lead to innovation and reward. In this new model, leaders work their way “out” of a dedicated office as their success is recognized. Under the new paradigm, individual leadership demands a higher level of engagement with reporting staff and the resulting culture of mentorship, collaboration, and innovative problem-solving becomes the reward.

The future may demand hierarchy to hold organizations accountable, but the OMIG example demonstrates how this hierarchy does not need to drive the design of the physical environment. The successful work environment is shaped by the demands of work process.

The Power of Natural Light

November 23, 2019 • admin

How often do you see views of the outdoors at your job? Natural light can improve sleep and mood, and is an important design element of a healthy workplace.

If you had to guess, what do you believe would be the most important amenity for today’s worker? A well-stocked kitchenette or an area for fitness? How about access to a wellness facility or an on-site day care. Well, I googled this question and found that the highest priority for any employer in today’s market is lease flexibility. Companies want flexibility and do not want to be tied into a long-term lease agreement. However, I don’t really consider leasing agreements to be amenities as much as a state of mind. People just don’t want to make long term commitments and they desire this freedom as a high priority. So, beyond freedom and flexibility, what amenities do workers really seek?

The Need for Outdoor Views

If we dive into the research on this topic, we find that more North American employees rank natural light as their most important element. A September, 2018 article by Jeanne Meister in Harvest Business Review references a survey by Future Workplace called “The Employee Experience” which found that among 1,614 North American employees, access to natural light and views of the outdoors is the number one attribute of the workplace environment, outranking cafeterias, fitness centers, and other premium perks. The study goes on to cite how the lack of light and outdoor views hurts the employee experience and contributes to associates feeling gloomy or tired. Obviously, this study indicates that natural light is important to the overall well being of employees.

At WSA Studio, we recognize the importance of natural light when we design and take extraordinary measures to distribute natural light in the facilities that we design. Since we model our projects using Building Information Modeling tools, we can overlay these digital models with software which determines the natural light levels through spaces at various times of the day. This kind of smart data drives design recommendations and can impact the size of exterior glazing. On a recent primary and secondary school we designed, we were able to use this information to modulate the ceiling treatment which increased the reflectivity of the exterior light on surfaces and elevate light levels deeper in the space. Note that this did not cost the client any additional money. The data simply provided the information necessary to inform the design of the classroom space.

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On the same project, we were able to work with our engineering consultants to connect each light to a control system which dims or brightens interior lights to accommodate for the lack of natural light on an overcast day. This helps to address lighting needs and significantly drives energy savings. So, attention to detail regarding natural light can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of space. Since this project has been occupied, district leaders have indicated that the classroom spaces are effective and that student engagement has increased when compared to their previous location. We cannot attribute all this improvement to natural light, since many other factors are different as well, but we know that lighting and access to views is a strong contributor.

Bringing Light into Schools

On a more recent educational project, we adapted an existing warehouse to accommodate an innovative learning environment. The existing space had been used as a warehouse to store light fixtures and equipment and was very dark. The proportion of the space was somewhat deep, which typically precludes access to natural light. This is a very typical challenge in “big box” buildings that were designed and constructed for storage or retail needs. But the Ohio landscape is littered with many of these abandoned buildings and we believe that there is a lot of potential to inexpensively adapt these relics and put them to good use.

The PAST Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to advancing educational outcomes for children, had acquired an existing deep building and located their administrative offices in a portion originally intended to accommodate office workers. So, this area naturally had light and access to view. But, when faced with the challenge to design and construct an educational laboratory, they turned to our team to lead them through this challenge. Our design team was determined to prioritize access to natural light for the students and worked diligently to communicate the value attributed to the distribution of natural light throughout the educational laboratory.

The design positions active educational laboratories adjacent to a centralized “agora” which features three large, overhead lanterns. These skylights bathe the space in natural light and draw students into a shared collaborative space which changes character throughout the day and from season to season. Ironically, when the project was in its development phase, these skylights sat on the chopping block. Their cost was under consideration as the team struggled to meet the limited budget for this not-for-profit organization. But, after much consideration, the team collectively agreed to prioritize the introduction of natural light into the space, and end results benefits considerably. I have never been to the space when I have not seen students using this space, and I cannot imagine the impact that the lack of natural light would have on the efficacy of the project to meet the educational mission of the PAST Foundation.

Access to natural light in our buildings is that important. It can impact the effectiveness of a facility, can increase one’s sense of security, stabilize our well-being, and improve our mood.

Moving at Work

November 18, 2019 • admin

How many hours per day do you sit at work? Many Americans could benefit from a more dynamic workplace that lets you move more and sit less.

For the past few days, I was in Washington DC for a meeting with architecture students, and we walked. We walked a lot. We would walk to our meetings, walk to a lunch or dinner destination, and walk to run errands or meet up with one another in our down time.  Of course, I have my phone with me wherever I go, and the phone has an app which tracks my steps. Over these three days, I walked 13.5 miles, which is an average of 4.5 miles per day. For those of you who measure your days in steps, that is an average of 9,500 steps, which is pretty good. And, I was able to perform all of this exercise even though I was attending sedentary day-long meetings. Based upon my size and age, this means that I was generally burning an additional 657 calories each day. I loved it. I felt more alive when I arrived at meetings and this exercise helped me focus during important moments.

As I was returning to Columbus, I began to muse about the differences among cities like DC, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco where residents can often live, work, and recreate without the use of a car, and the typical car-centric city. Columbus is challenging, if not impossible, to navigate without a car. And, we get lazy and typically choose to drive. So, it is even more important for designers to encourage the occupants of buildings in Columbus and cities like ours to move. Since many of our residents are walking out of their kitchen, stepping directly into a car which transports them to their workplace with little opportunity to include exercise as part of the day, we must consider this sedentary lifestyle when we design the places where people learn or work.

The Importance of Moving at Work

Studies show that sedentary time in adults can drive up the incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even death. In a 2012 research program, eighteen individual studies of nearly 800,000 participants indicated an increase in diabetes by 112% in the most sedentary subjects. The research also indicated a 147% increase in cardiovascular events and a 90% increase in the risk of cardiovascular mortality. These numbers are astonishing. It proves what we have sensed for some time. The desk job is killing us, literally.

Given this enlightening data, we at WSA Studio understand that we just can’t keep contributing to the demise of our health through replicating the designs of the past. We are charting a course of discovery and research to find design concepts which drive healthy outcomes for those who occupy the spaces we design.

How Workplace Design Encourages Movement

So, what is it that we should do through our designs that will improve the health of the occupants? The United States Department of Health and Human Services has issued a report which indicates that adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Many of our workplace designs have focused on accommodating a stationary posture for workers. Designers have focused on the individual workstation or individual office, and through our many designs, we strive to improve ergonomics, accessibility, privacy, technological access, and comfort. Additionally, employers have focused on the productivity of individual employees, so the combination of employer expectation combined with the design emphasis has driven a complacent environment, where one’s success has been evaluated based upon their ability to sit and do the work that was required.

Over the past five to ten years, as we have designed spaces to ignite innovation, WSA Studio has found that success is often determined through how we come together collectively. The design of workplace environments has shifted towards this emphasis on the collective. Collaborative environments which support shared experience among employees drive the need for quick response and agile workplace environments, and these shared spaces are an alternative destination within the workplace. Often, these designs include standing height tables for active meetings, adjustable monitors, white boards for presentation, mobile technology carts, and lounge furniture. This equipment provides a great break from the typical heads-down posture of the individual office and encourage movement and can even improve productivity according to a major study of workers in the United Kingdom.

As employees move between spaces, we have infused designs with communicating stairs which encourage their use over elevators and can even serve as the destination for collaborative meetings.

How WSA Studio Incorporates Movement in Design

The successful workplace needs to attract emerging professionals, and this generation of workers is not satisfied with individual or collective performance spaces only. Millennials demand “third space” amenities, those spaces where we participate in non-work-related activities. Beginning twenty five years ago, WSA Studio began to program and design fitness spaces, including yoga rooms, aerobic exercise space, and resistance-based exercise machines. For one client, we even included a sprung wood dance floor with ballet bars and mirrored wall surfaces. However, not every client can afford a dedicated gym. So, recently we began to imagine how the design of shared collaborative space could double as a fitness setting.

We design dedicated conference space as convertible to low-impact aerobics space or meditation settings, and now that large group gathering areas may need to support athletic activities. Ceiling heights, air flow, and specialized lighting controls need to consider this use. To increase the culture of movement throughout the greater campus, many of our designs incorporate storage space for bicycle commuters, walking and jogging paths, and even calisthenic stations.

As we continue to advance workplace and academic design, the WSA Studio design team will explore additional opportunities for occupants to move, and we know that often the best solutions are linked to blending individual space with the collective. We encourage employers to invest in the potential to increase productivity and improve job satisfaction and the overall health of employees through design. We design environments that work.

Introduction to Workplace Wellness

November 13, 2019 • admin

Workplace wellness encompasses a variety of facets at your job. Architecture and design can support a healthy place where employees feel welcome and comfortable.

Is it just me, or are things spinning faster and faster and we all seem to run from thing to thing without any respite? I am old enough to remember a slower time when we prepared drawings by hand and talked to one another in person or on the telephone to do our business as architects. It seemed as if we had more time to do our work. Projects took months and months to complete, and we finished projects at a high level of quality. Certainly our work was more linear, with fewer iterations expected and we had time to review drawings, coordinate the work of our consultants fully, and do our best to integrate and anticipate construction challenges.

In today’s fast-paced environment, technological connectivity drives speed and heightens expectations. Smartphones make our work 24/7 and we stay on and connected throughout the weekends. Clients seem to expect a collaborative process with “real-time” virtual reality modeling and detailed renderings. The construction of our projects is delivered by construction managers who often impose a fast-track construction delivery model with multiple bid packages. I can guarantee that the design process is much more complex in our current environment. Additionally, I can also attest that the level and quality of design that we all desire and deliver is much higher. Our landscape environments are richer, interior environments more thoroughly detailed and coordinated, and our teams work to integrate every technological detail.

No wonder we all feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and frazzled! And, we know that what I have described is not unique to the architecture and design industry. All of us are facing these demands. Educators have a higher bar to meet with a spotlight on the results. If a CEO does not meet the Board’s goals, they are quickly ousted. Ad agencies have to quickly turn opinions in a campaign and retailers are working quicker and longer to make up for lost margins from competition.

So, what can we do to help our society deal with these changing and challenging demands as we step into the future? At WSA Studio, we believe that good design can offer tools to building users which will help reduce stress and improve our health. Over the next few months, we will explore how design can impact our health, improve worker productivity and student performance, and advance our society towards a more balanced existence.

The Value of Acoustics

October 3, 2019 • admin

The constant din of a loud workplace can be mentally exhausting, increase errors, and impact overall effectiveness. In a noisy world, it’s easy to overlook the power of quiet.

Last night my wife and I watched one of those medical television programs. (It doesn’t matter which one, they’re all the same). The main story featured a deaf patient who had undergone a procedure to receive cochlear implants after a lifetime of silence. In the end, the character had these implants removed since she didn’t like the person that she had become. With access to sound, the character felt that she was less sensitive, impatient, and had grown into a person she disliked.

I found this so interesting and began to wonder how my extroverted personality might be different without the constant buzz of life around me. As we rush from meetings to events, the sound never goes away. This may be why most people find the sound of the ocean waves crashing to shore soothing. Or why many prefer the calm brought on by the wind rustling through the trees during a brisk Autumn hike in Ohio. Nature sounds good. It is peaceful and is good for the soul.

Why is Acoustics Important in the Workplace?

Listen. What is that sound? If you’re reading this in a typical office environment, you may just not be able to hear a thing except for the constant din of distracting conversation. With the growing prevalence of open office plans, there is more background chatter, an increase in the distraction from proximate group meetings, and that one person who always talks too loudly on a cell phone. You know who I mean. This can reduce the ability for employees to be productive. Privacy is impacted, and these environments can even cause listening fatigue. Hearing many noise sources at once for an extended period can be mentally exhausting and the incidence of worker error can increase, and our overall effectiveness can be jeopardized.

Design Solutions

Small, private enclaves, such as these in our work for The Forge, can provide privacy when needed and reduce the echo in a large environment.

The designers at WSA Studio have adopted several strategies to mitigate the impact of noise in today’s open office and academic environments. These strategies have been monitored to measure their efficacy and we have found that many of the most effective solutions are not always immediately apparent.

The most effective methodology is to support mobility among employees. Our designers have worked hard to eliminate our client’s reliance on technology tools which tether them to a static workstation. Many projects benefit from a variety of rooms where associates can retreat for private conversations or media interaction in privacy.

It is very difficult to hold a Skype or FaceTime meeting in an open office environment on a private computer. These static experiences are distracting to those seated within close range and place pressure on participants and their colleagues.

In many of our recent projects, we have designed clusters of small, private enclaves as a destination for associates. These spaces can support small meetings, casual video conferencing, private phone calls, and one-on-one conversations. They establish a consolidated quiet zone and serve as a memorable destination to seek respite.

In larger, open office environments, we often specify products which help to reduce or mitigate noise levels. Even something as simple as the proper acoustical ceiling tile specification can make a huge difference. Did you realize that there are two basic types of ceiling tile material? Mineral fiber is absorptive since it is dense and bounces sound and collects the sound somewhat in the process. We typically specify mineral fiber in private office areas. Fiberglass allows sound to transfer through it where it may dissipate in a plenum, and we prefer this specification for large open areas.

Of course, there are troubling complications with each type and many additional considerations need to be factored with each project. In addition to ceiling systems, our team may suspend sound panels or apply them to vertical services, lighting products which help with sound absorption may be selected, and even the textiles which are used on furniture may be considered. Sometimes, we design spaces to encourage active learning or create an energized atmosphere. In these spaces, the design team may select crisp finishes and rely upon sound amplification to augment public address systems. The various design solutions to address acoustics are very complex, and the need for specialized acoustical consultation increases incrementally with the importance of sound intelligence in the space.

Results for People

With this all said, our collective goal is to reduce occupant stress in the spaces we design. We know that matching the proper acoustical properties to each space can lead to improved mood and overall health and may even increase productivity. So, the next time you are trying to get your team to concentrate or energize your peers, make sure that you select the type of space to fit these activities with care.

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