Designer Forum - November 2010

By Michael Lutz

When AECOM decided to consolidate its eight individual operating companies, located in and around Atlanta, into a single 50,000 square foot office location, it recognized the opportunity to create a dynamic workplace that would emphasize its unique brand and encourage the company’s commitment to collaboration between divisions and among employees. 

The design for the second generation facility, new to 
AECOM, had to push beyond a space that simply co-located the eight companies under one roof to create an environment that spoke to AECOM’s interest in creating a collaborative workplace and promoting sustainability. My firm, Atlanta-based VeenendaalCave, was tapped for the project because of its expertise in corporate design.

On the main floor, the design team created a “company village,” a collection of great public spaces including a gathering café, a video conference room, a resource library and a working charrette room that is shared by all of the employees. The majority of individual workspaces are composed of flexible workstations, and, in some cases, hoteling stations, which are shared work counters with convenient access to break-out areas, meeting rooms, work tables and creative client rooms spread among those areas. The overall design concept abandons the traditional hierarchy of private office space in favor of open workstations and shared collaboration areas. The result is increased interaction between employees on both a personal and business level. 

Budget and design were concentrated in these public areas to showcase AECOM’s innovation and ingenuity. Organized around the main reception area, these spaces are visually linked through open slat dividers, translucent glass, metal screens and oversized sliding barn door panels. They openly expose and celebrate day-to-day activity to visiting clients and vendors, and are unified through finish materials and flooring that flows from one room into the other, blurring the distinct demarcation between spaces.  

Materials and finishes used throughout the office reflect the nature of the operating companies themselves—an amalgamation of engineering, geotechnical, urban planning and landscape architecture disciplines. Because of the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship, it desired a workplace that reduced the carbon footprint, conserved natural resources and reflected its pledge to sustainability. The careful research and selection of interior finishes contributed to the project achieving its goal of LEED CI Gold certification. 

Flooring’s Role in AECOM’s Design
For the selection of flooring materials and patterns, the design team drew inspiration from the discipline of landscape architecture. The floor was a blank canvas that could be layered with movement and rhythms, and it needed to inform the pedestrian about circulation and borders between spaces as well as encourage them to linger. With so much going on with sliding planes in the architecture itself, it was determined that the ceiling and flooring needed restraint and simplicity to be the proper background for the architecture. To that end, the team decided to limit the flooring selection to only four different kinds. We chose porcelain tile, large format carpet tile, recycled rubber flooring and woven vinyl.

The flooring was conceived as an uninterrupted plane that led the occupants from one room to the next. So from the initial introduction at the elevator lobby, where a visitor would arrive, the tile floor flowed toward the reception and around to the gathering café in one direction and to the video conference room in the other. Marazzi’s Righe Sahara porcelain tile was specified for the elevator lobby and reception area for several reasons. From a practical standpoint, porcelain tile allowed us to use a larger tile, while keeping a 3/8” maximum thickness, which was critical for maintaining the given threshold height at the elevator cabs and transitions to carpet and other flooring in this second generation space, something that natural stone could not achieve. 

The tile is very textural and resembles natural concrete with aggregate, which appealed to the design team. It looks earthy and has that worn look of a well traveled path in a landscape. The fact that it was available in large format rectilinear sizes was also good because it allowed us to create patterns that are varied, asymmetrical and interesting, while minimizing the visual busyness that smaller format tile and additional joints create. We opted for a stacked or monolithic pattern layout with bands of varying width to create interest. This space has a contemporary feel: modern aesthetics with a warm finish palette. 

Metal screen panels, suspended with stand-offs, were introduced in the elevator lobby and continue into the reception area. As a visual surprise element, we selected a stainless steel trench grate—typically used for drainage in a hardscape—and recessed a narrow stripe into the porcelain floor as a bold mark that both echoed the light slot in the ceiling and pointed toward the reception desk. Unexpected elements like these were introduced to cause employees and visitors to pause and take notice of the pathway on which they travel.

Selecting Floorcoverings
For the majority of the floor, carpet tile was chosen for practical reasons such as cleanability, ease of replacement and sound absorption. A special backing with high recycled content was specified as well, to assist in gaining LEED points. A single carpet tile spec, Tandus’ Mayhem II, ran throughout the open office areas and into small meeting rooms and private offices. Time was spent in selecting the right tile with the right colors, a strong pattern and a large format scale. The selected tile was 36”x36” with bold stripes in natural warm tones. 

An entire box of sample carpet tile was reviewed at our studio in order to select the best installation pattern. Sample tiles were tested in monolithic, ashlar and quarter-turned patterns, filling a whole room at our studio. We would stand back and observe from a distance, from this angle and that angle, to note all of the varied complexities and larger patterns that materialized in the large fields of carpet tile. We have learned from experience not to be surprised when the small, single 24”x24” carpet tile that we spec on our drawings looks completely different in actual installation than we had envisioned in our mind’s eye. 

For this project, an ashlar pattern was selected, which broke down, ever so slightly, the linear quality of the pattern and allowed the stripes to flow in angular movement, thus complementing all of the architectural conditions in the space—walls that ran parallel to the pattern, walls that ran perpendicular to it and the exterior wall which gently curved across it. 

EcoSurfaces’ rubber flooring in EcoNights roll goods was chosen for the gathering café, which is positioned directly off the main reception, without a door between the two, beside the large charrette room and the video conference room. This café was designed to accomplish multiple objectives: to serve as the main gathering area during lunch with the goal of connecting the employees that previously worked for separate operating companies; to support the catering needs of the adjacent meeting spaces; to be a location for larger office-wide gatherings for announcements and after-hour events; and to become an informal meeting place with soft seating choices that would encourage collaboration on a professional level. It was intentional that a visiting client or vendor would see this everyday activity and collaboration, even as an initial impression from the reception area—one aspect of the client’s rebranding efforts that translated into a conscious design decision. 

Of course, acoustics were a prime concern to all. In addition to the sprayed insulation on the exposed ceiling structure, rubber floor was selected for this area and run throughout the adjacent charrette room as well, thus unifying and simplifying the relationship between these two spaces. The rubber floor cleans easily with water and a mop, and its dark speckled color easily conceals dirt. It is extremely sound absorbent, eliminates the noise of heels on a floor, addresses the concerns of a possible dropped dish during an important meeting, and offers a comfortable cushion to stand on for long periods of time. 

The last flooring material, the woven vinyl, was reserved for the library. In actuality, this library is a communal resource: a collection of guide books, sample books and test data reports. Such a library would typically be hidden in the back-of-house quarters, in a workroom or near one’s desk. However, a conscious decision was made to pull it out and place it up front, central to all. Since its location was intended to give a glimpse into the inner workings of the company from the reception, it became the natural spot for AECOM to keep marketing materials, a convenient location for a quick, impromptu pitch to a visitor or potential client. 

The Plynyl vinyl floor by Chilewich was selected solely for its visual appeal, containing no real sustainable or acoustic value. Its attraction lay in its simple, woven textures and its less common use in commercial interiors. The design process is one of re-evaluating, trying out new applications, and finding those finishes that best reinforce the overall design concept. When people walk across the woven vinyl floor and realize that it is not carpet, they stop, their interest piqued. Being inherently thin and resilient, this material allowed us a unique opportunity. We were able to roll the flooring up and over the bench located in the zone between the reception and the library. This connects and leads visitors from the reception to the library beyond, which is only visually separated by the open, wood-slat screen that cascades down across the front of the woven vinyl bench. 

From the initial entrance, the design and materials set the stage for AECOM’s visitors to understand that they have entered a new environment—one that beckons them to be engaged, even through a means as simple as asking, “What kind of company is this?” The AECOM project was completed in September 2009, and an in-house team shared the design story with employees to educate them about the green initiatives and to encourage all to utilize the collaborative spaces. Employees have responded positively to the openness of the plan, accessibility to the collaborative areas and the inherent flexibility of the space. In the end, the VeenendaalCave design team delivered a successful office environment because the concept 
was shaped by the client’s vision and identity. 

Copyright 2010 Floor Focus