Trends in Corporate Flooring: Designers discuss the shifts impacting workplace design - Mar 2019
By Beth Miller
Technology and evolving workplace mindsets are changing not only the way offices function but also how they look. Here, four sector design experts-Laurence Cartledge of Rottet Studio; Kelly Dubisar of Gensler San Francisco; Amy Nichols of JPC Architects; and Anne Pradenas of HOK San Francisco-discuss developments in the contemporary workplace and flooring’s role in these design strategies.
Q: Are office footprints generally expanding or shrinking today?
Cartledge: The corporate workplace footprint has seen many changes over the past few years. Specifically, when looking at who will occupy a private office, we consider what size it will be, who will occupy a workstation or shared work table, and how much open space versus private or focus space is required in order to provide a functional work environment for the end-user along with an environment that is energizing. Employers are looking for ways to increase overall profits for their company while reducing overhead costs. Employees, who have in the past sat in offices around 150 square feet, are now sitting in offices that are approximately 80 square feet and not along the window line, or perhaps even a 60- to 80-square-foot “woffice,” which is a term we use that describes a workstation that feels like an office and tends to have a bit more privacy than a typical workstation.
We have been designing office space for clients who are participating in “shared work space.” Employees sit at a different desk, workstation, private office or small focus room each day within their employee group, based on their need for that day. Technology has also played an important role in workplace changes, not only in the workplace but also among the workforce. Young professionals starting their careers seem to require less space to get work done. Computers are shrinking; laptops are thinner and smaller. You can take technology almost anywhere on your person.
Dubisar: I don’t know that we are necessarily seeing the office space shrinking or expanding. What we are seeing is a reallocation in space type in terms of dedicated percentage between the traditional desking/office space and the collaborative, focus and amenity zones. We are seeing a reduction in the desk space in order to increase a choice in variety within the work environment.
People are starting to recognize-and have been for years but are taking it more seriously now-that your desk is not where you spend the majority of your time. Today, an office needs focus rooms that are enclosed where people can work by themselves; huddle rooms designed for three to five people; larger meeting rooms; open collaboration space; and war rooms where teams can hunker down for hours to work on a big project. That transcends a lot of different work types in terms of job functions. This is complemented with coffee bars, social spaces-the things that help you get through your day.
Nichols: Office footprints seem to be remaining relatively constant or trending towards square foot reduction, but they are getting more compact and denser in the desk/workstation areas, with a greater number of flexible work areas, such as lounges, break rooms/coffee bars and a variety of meeting spaces. We are seeing less of an impact from remote workers and more of the phenomenon of “floating” workers, touching down in a variety of places around the office.
Pradenas: I would not say footprints are shrinking necessarily. I would definitely say the workplace footprint has changed in terms of space utilization. As benching comes into play, alternate locations for working and meeting are increasing.
Q: In terms of workplace design, what are the main design trends?
Dubisar: The one thing I’m seeing across all project types is a certain level of comfort, which is where the resimercial idea is coming into play. Within the soft spaces in their work environments, the hospitality spaces, people are looking for furniture that feels like it could be in their home. The notion of traditional corporate furniture has gone by the wayside. We are starting to see the expectation of these multiple work environments providing a certain level of hominess or coziness, but the style is manifested in a lot of different ways.
Back in the day, there were very specific things that people aligned themselves to. It was modern! It was classic! Now, because there are so many options, it has become more difficult to pull out exactly what clients want in terms of style. They could be saying “modern” but mean something else. It used to be there were specific ideals surrounding these trends, and now everything is so nuanced. It takes a lot of skill to figure out what clients are really looking for, but it also creates an amazing opportunity to design unique projects in ways we weren’t capable of in the past.
Cartledge: Workplace design always varies by client, space and location. Typically, you might want your interior space to reflect and/or respond to its core and shell. That can be done in many ways. However, a basic trend that seems to be sticking is creating and/or providing the end-user of corporate workspace an environment that lends itself more to a residential and/or hospitality feel, which may be achieved in planning, architectural finishes, furniture and fixtures.
Nichols: Mid-century modern is still very popular, but people are craving more warmth in their environments. We are seeing a greater emphasis in providing regional and geographical cues, reflective of the area and culture of the office location. Interesting and textural patterns are sought after, as well as strong environmental graphics and wayfinding.
Pradenas: Mid-century modern is alive and well; the classic looks fit into almost all design vocabularies. I see a big decrease in the “steam punk” aesthetic; I think the idea of faux industrial or faux reused is tired and not at all authentic.
Q: In terms of flooring, what are the important trends?
Cartledge: Technological advancements in the flooring industry are lending way too many solutions for flooring that have not been seen in the past. For example, vinyl wood-look flooring is looking more like real wood. It’s durable, easy to maintain and less expensive to install. The same can be said for ceramic tiles, which we substitute for stone when we have to consider budgets, maintenance and lead times. We are seeing a lot of interesting goods coming from the carpet industry that combine cut pile, loop and intricate weaves. The products make way for design to go in many new directions, be it an interesting carpet tile project, banded throw rug or broadloom installation.
Nichols: The expansion into a variety of product sizes and shapes has been a wonderful trend that seems like it was immediately adopted by the design community. More textural/abstract and “resimercial” patterns have also been hugely popular, as well as commercial carpets that are still durable and dense but look and feel luxurious.
Pradenas: Exposed concrete, whether stained or polished, is still on trend, though now in smaller doses. Concrete-look carpet and resilient flooring provide the aesthetic with acoustic considerations met.
Dubisar: Something unique we’ve experienced recently is a rash of Scandinavian companies as clients; each one is headquartered in Denmark or Sweden. They’re all looking for the Scandinavian style. It is amazing to be able to leverage the amount of wood products we have available on these projects, but for them the concept of honest materiality is important. A wood-look porcelain tile would be a no-go. They desire real products-actual wood, actual stone, actual terrazzo-and will forego a fake version.
Q: What are the biggest challenges with specifying flooring? What do you need that you’re not getting?
Cartledge: We specify many types of flooring from marine installations (ship deck carpeting, poured surfaces, engineered composite decking) to typical workplace installations (carpet tiles, broadloom, vinyl, stone, ceramic, woods) to hospitality installations, which includes a multitude of finishes such as Axminster carpets, area rugs, stone, ceramics, woods and vinyls. We rely heavily on the salesforce representing these products to help us make informed decisions about product selections. Challenges may come with using new products that the designer is unfamiliar with, which could mean issues with installation, maintenance and wear over time.
Lead times can also become problematic. In today’s fast-paced world, everybody wants everything yesterday.
What I typically need that I seldom get is more time-more time to look at the gazillion flooring options, designs and colors that are offered today.
Nichols: We have clients who are asking us for lighter schemes, but they are then afraid of the maintenance of a lighter carpet or are experiencing maintenance issues. Having a light carpet that is truly coffee/stain repellent would be great.
Installation options and patterns are getting more extensive and diverse, which is great, but having better tools with which to plan and convey these to an installer would be terrific. This can sometimes turn into a monumental time-suck.
We’d like to see additional creativity, customization and choices for hard surface/LVT. Now that these products have become so widely accepted and more attractive, we’d love to see the breadth of choices on these widened.
It would be interesting to explore tying the wall base selections more closely into the flooring to create a more unified look.
Dubisar: We’ve seen an interesting uptick over the past year where clients are anti-carpet. They feel carpet looks corporate no matter what it is. It makes [choosing flooring] more challenging when you have an open office with large swaths of open space. How do you mitigate acoustics? We all know how helpful carpet is in fighting that battle. With those projects, we’ve seen an increase in area rugs where the patterning and textures play a role in layering to create a home-like feel. We are seeing a lot more painted concrete, not stained, that leverages graphics and utilizes color blocking on the ground to indicate specialty areas.
It’s difficult to find products that aren’t traditional and that don’t look cheap or childish. We are leveraging products in different ways that we’ve never done before, like a walk-off mat used for office carpet. There aren’t enough products to create the level of variety that we need. We are turning out the projects quickly and don’t want to use the same product twice.
Pradenas: The flooring market is full of excellent, sustainable products with good performance and design. Educating installers on laying large format tiles, planks and other current sizes is lacking. We are always seeing a cost increase when we use other than standard sizes.
Q: With hard surface, including concrete, being used more extensively in workplace environments, how big an issue is acoustics, and how is it being addressed?
Cartledge: Lofty environments with hard floors, open ceilings and open office seating can be problematic for end-users who are seeking focus time or need the ability to have phone conversations that involve multiple people. Beyond the built partition type and the specified insulation filler, floor, wall and ceiling finishes all play a part in acoustics. A flooring material is typically the first acoustics finish that we consider for the workplace. Carpet allows for an acoustic buffer to mask foot traffic, movement of furniture and ambient noise. Wall and ceiling treatments tend to be secondary but are always considered. There are many new wall treatments, wall coverings, art pieces, fabrics and systems products on the market today that enable more choices on how to mitigate noise within the work environment.
Dubisar: We are seeing smarter solutions in terms of acoustics with spray products for ceilings that help absorb sound like SonaSpray and K13. People are growing tired of the 2’x2’ ceiling tiles. For example, we had two clients who refused to use acoustical ceiling tiles, forcing us to locate alternative products, like felt or even an open ceiling.
Nichols: It is for sure a challenge, especially with concrete; the sound from heel and boot footfalls are a problem for many. Typically, we are trying to address some of the acoustic issues with wall and ceiling treatments. Carpet is still seen as the best option for acoustics. We’d love to see more hard surface/LVT options that have acoustic benefits and properties.
Pradenas: Of course, floor finish plays a big role in acoustics and the feel of a space. Keeping the hard surfaces and mitigating large expanses with area rugs works for most spaces.
Q: Do you use a lot of concrete? What drives the choice to specify concrete?
Cartledge: The design intent/concept for a project might drive the choice to specify concrete for a project. Concrete can provide a beautiful floor, wall or counter finish if that’s a look that you are seeking. Concrete is not always inexpensive. Existing concrete floors can be expensive to refinish, depending on the level of finish that is desired. Carpeting over existing concrete may prove to be more economical than trying to polish it up to an acceptable finish.
Nichols: We have been using a lot of exposed concrete in main circulation areas. Acoustics may deter the use of concrete if there are sensitive rooms nearby, such as recording or audio rooms. Not every project or client is looking for that industrial aesthetic, though, and the existing concrete slab may be in such bad shape that it does not provide the desired end result. We try to tour a few installations with our clients to give a wide perspective on the appearance of polished concrete. If a client wants concrete but it’s not feasible, we often go to some of the LVT products that are large format with a concrete look.
Pradenas: We use a fair amount of exposed slab, though its use is deliberate and not simply to cut budget. Our clients are made aware early on of the pros and cons of this material if they ask for it.
Dubisar: Concrete is the bulk of Gensler San Francisco’s 15th floor. It transitions into our main pantry and then into our design lab. It defines all of our walkways on each of our three floors. It denotes the common areas that we all share. Carpet is relegated to the desking and workroom zones. I would say over half of our square footage uses concrete. It’s become so inexpensive to use. Only five years ago, the process for polishing and grinding was not very affordable and was an added cost to your project. Today, it still costs more than carpet, but, at the end of the day, it’s penciling out to be more cost effective.
Q: Is the collaborative-culture concept still alive and well, or are employees expressing their desire for more private spaces in which to work?
Cartledge: Collaboration varies depending on office type and the work that needs to be done. However, most individuals will still seek a place for quiet refuge at some point in their day-perhaps at lunch or on a personal call-or need additional privacy beyond an open office environment in order to have a conference call. Younger generations seem to adapt very well to open office environments and smaller personal space. The days of the grand, private office and corner office space no longer seem necessary for anything except egos. Corner offices make great conference rooms, focus rooms and lounges. Collaboration spaces, whether they be work-focused or social, tend to foster more pleasant, communal work environments within which employees interact with one another and simply enjoy being at work among the company of others.
Dubisar: I think we all need the benefits of a private enclosed space where we can focus, as well as the camaraderie that is developed in an open environment. It’s understanding the culture of the company, what types of jobs the employees are performing, what space types are needed to get a job done and allocating the right amount of room for each space based on the employee population within that company. When it comes to the environments that are well-balanced in terms of open and enclosed spaces and offer choice for work styles, it’s about understanding how all of those things work as an ecosystem to support the wide range of not only age groups within an office but also the wide range of job functions that happen within an organization.
Nichols: We have seen a continued emphasis on collaborative/community spaces as well as a call for private (most of the time unassigned) spaces. We have also seen a trend toward quiet, library-like, technology-free “zen” rooms.
Pradenas: Collaboration, casual meeting, formal meeting and alternate work areas are here to stay. With that, of course, comes a need for privacy and heads-down spaces that must be provided in a healthy work space.
Q: How has the use and role of flooring changed in the modern open-office workplace environment?
Cartledge: The use and role of flooring in the modern open-office workplace environment still lends itself to the client and the design intent of the space. If it is known that the space will have hard surface flooring, be it concrete or tile, and will most likely be loud, then accommodations should also be made for some quiet refuge within the workspace. Hard surface flooring tends to be easier to maintain and clean, but those products do open the door for acoustical issues. Vinyl and wood products today offer many new solutions to the design and aesthetic of a workspace. They offer more acoustic insulation than concrete, ceramic tiles and stone. Products can be sold with backings and sound insulators that reduce the level of foot traffic noise across the product.
Nichols: It doesn’t feel like it has changed that much, other than having to withstand a lot of wear and tear.
We are also seeing a larger variety of amenity spaces that make it easy for employees to stay “on campus,” such as hair salons, massage rooms, showers, music/jam rooms and bike racks inside the office. These varied uses challenge designers to use a broader range of appropriate flooring materials.
Pradenas: Flooring truly has a role in setting the tone of a casual or more sophisticated work space. I don’t think this role has changed and the conscious use of materials will be important when considering the overall space and aesthetic.
Dubisar: Previously, the open office environment was viewed as a space for carpet. However, the modern office is an opportunity to establish zones within an open office space without having to build physical walls, whether that’s by leveraging color or switching to a different material or laying area rugs. Now, there is an opportunity for flooring to support the style of whatever type of design is trying to be achieved-sleek and modern or cozy and warm. Flooring is an opportunity to drive design in one direction or another.
Q: What’s the next stage of evolution for workplace design?
Nichols: Exploring how we design for the opposing yet simultaneous needs of privacy/heads-down space as well as open, efficient and flexible desking. Technology is going to play a big role in how people interact, move and utilize space. Flexibility in how power and data is delivered and managed is also going to be a big topic. It will be interesting to see what the “clean and white” trend evolves into.
Cartledge: Over the next few years, we will continue to see density increase within the work environment. Our economy is good at the moment, and employment is up. Many companies that stopped their construction, relocation or planning back in 2008-if they survived-have been moving forward with workplace initiatives, signing new leases, consolidating and making better use of leased space by reducing the overall square feet per employee, and increasing density within their space. I believe we will also continue to see a more relaxed workplace atmosphere that lends itself to a casual residence and or hospitality environment, where people who work long and hard hours are supported with an environment that fosters a positive work ethic with a few comforts of home.
Dubisar: We are trending toward the experience of a workplace. People spend so much time at work. So, is it possible to leave work feeling better than when you arrived? Can an environment support you in all the different ways you need, not only giving you the tools to do your job effectively but also making you smarter, healthier or happier? Part of that is the company itself, but the other part is the physical space. Technology plays a huge role in that as well.
Take our office space now compared to five years ago. Everything is wireless, reducing the obstacles to getting our work done. Can the combination of a physical environment and technology enable an easier use of space to support a job more efficiently, breaking down barriers and taking away the stresses, such as trying to find a seat or trying to connect to your monitor? Right now, we are piloting facial recognition on our three floors. This allows access to a room without fumbling for a key card while trying to carry your glass of water and your laptop.
Pradenas: I think the trend toward alternate work spaces, hot-desking (essentially desk sharing) and mobile or virtual offices will continue with a drive to develop an inspirational culture that brings all workers together for collaboration and camaraderie.
Q: What trends does your firm specifically work to incorporate in its workplace projects?
Dubisar: Holistic design that factors in inclusion and wellness. What is the employee’s experience when they enter the workplace? What is the customer’s experience? What are all the things that make the day successful and easy? For us, it’s really just about trying to understand who our clients are and make a workplace that’s reflective of that, rather than who we think they should be. Also, it’s important to not simply grab a design out of a box and say, “You said you want modern, so here ya go!” It’s important that our projects not be carbon copies of what we’ve done or what someone else has done.
Nichols: At JPC, our emphasis is to do an in-depth and thorough job of identifying the culture and brand of each client and developing how the interior environment can both support and promote those key elements, as well as tapping into our experience and expertise to help push the boundaries so that the space supports their business into the future. We draw from the great breadth of ever-emerging products but strive to provide a design that will stand the test of time.
While there are many commonalities in space types and uses between clients, there are always personal cues or special features that are key items, and we try to establish those early in a project and use that basis of design to validate the decisions that follow.
Cartledge: At Rottet Studio, we strive to stay in front of the trends and maintain the thought that great design needs to be both fashion-forward and timeless.
Pradenas: Design aesthetics vary as much with the type of client (biotech, healthcare, corporate, etc.), location and culture. Successfully delivering a workspace is not necessarily due to “trends” but takes into consideration a multi-generational workforce and finds ways for them to excel and be comfortable. Inclusivity of sustainability and new technologies, whether from building materials or building management systems, will always be centermost in a successful end product.
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