Focus on Leadership: Tom Polucci, HOK's director of interiors - Jun 19

Interview by Kemp Harr

New York City-based Tom Polucci is the director of interiors for HOK, and he co-founded the firm’s product design division, launched in 2009. Polucci’s focus is workplace design, and his portfolio boasts many notable projects for large, recognizable brands, including Teach for America headquarters, Starwood Hotels + Resorts worldwide headquarters and Avon North America headquarters. Polucci studied architecture at The Catholic University of America and then went on to earn a master’s in the field at Washington University in St. Louis. In April, Polucci was admitted to the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) College of Fellows, the highest honor the IIDA bestows.

Q: What led you to choose interior design as your career focus?
I studied architecture and urban planning in school and had an internship with Ellerbe Becket in Washington, D.C., where I was assigned to some interiors work. I felt interior design has similarities to planning and shaping 3D space, except at a more intimate scale.

Q: Tell us about the early stages of your development as a designer. Didn’t Lego play a role?
Yes! I played a lot with Legos as a kid. I’d build houses and bridges and towns. I also distinctly remember at eight years old my father telling me about architects.

Q: Which way is the trend moving within corporations in terms of working from home in a virtual office versus bringing the team together in an office?
Workplace has become more destination-focused and heavy on amenities, such as fitness, food and gathering spaces for the folks who come to work. As for those who work remotely or on the road, they need somewhere to go that represents the brand and culture of the organization they are a part of.

Q: With the ongoing movement toward open office design, what is the solution for workers who say they are distracted and prefer a traditional office?
It’s all about choice. Open plan work environments are best suited for when employees have options. For example, they can either work at a bench or move to an enclosed space for visual and audible privacy. They can also choose to move and work in areas that are less populated on other floors. Employees have to be empowered by their employer to move around with a culture that supports mobility.

Q: Are you seeing a trend back to traditional closed offices? If so, what sectors and professions are driving this trend?
We don’t believe there are “trends.” The best design office is the one that reflects the company’s brand, culture, style of work and mobility. There is not a one-size-fits-all for any profession any longer.

Q: What is the right balance of “me space” to “we space” in office design?
It really depends on the company. We prefer to do a full engagement of the employee population to truly understand how they are working today and how they should work in the future. Some organizations are more “we space”-focused because collaboration is key to how they do their business. Other organizations might be more heads-down focused on individual tasks, therefore the “me” space will outweigh the “we” space.

Q: What are the latest innovations that help make the open office environment work?
First off, the right planning of space should be focused on a variety of open and enclosed space types all within close proximity in the work environment. Secondly, connectivity and a robust Wi-Fi system is key to promoting ease of movement. And thirdly, booking systems for meeting spaces is valuable to ensure employees have access to those spaces and that these spaces have great AV technology that’s easy to connect with.

Additionally, what is coming is key. The IoT (Internet of Things), for example, will allow for great personalization of the workplace, giving employees the ability to set personal preferences for furniture, lighting, connectivity to AV and heating and cooling control.

Q: In what ways does indoor air quality impact the work environment, and how do you address it?
Air quality is crucial. We work collaboratively with our engineering partners to ensure that we are addressing the space with the most efficient systems possible and ensuring the right level of fresh air exchange as well as following LEED standards, ensuring that the right materials are used, ones that emit little off-gassing and have low VOCs.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the interior design community?
There are several. First is ensuring the professional registration is preserved. There are states that might try to end the registration of licensed design professionals. Our field is important; we bear the responsibility of the health, safety and wellness of the occupants of spaces we design. There should be licensure in all states so that responsibility is maintained.

Next, there are disruptors in the design profession and the real estate industries, and we need to change with the times-find ways to be faster, more efficient and less cumbersome, while still focusing on the design and delivery of spaces that are safe and provide for the wellbeing of its occupants.

And finally, as an industry, we need to make sure the materials and furnishings used in spaces we design meet criteria of organizations that ensure the health safety and wellness of people. For instance, it’s important that furniture specified is BIFMA [the trade association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers] rated.

Q: Frank Lloyd Wright wore a wool three-piece suit to work every day. What role does formality play, especially as we follow this trend of resimercial or informal workspaces? I do notice that you are still wearing ties.
That all depends on the profession, the culture and the region. Plus, it’s about what we like. I like ties and dressing in a less casual manner. It’s who I am.

Q: How big an issue is acoustics, and what strategies do you favor for acoustical abatement?
Space types are a must. There should be spaces that provide acoustic privacy. White noise systems are important as well to make sure the construction meets the highest possible standard for acoustic design.

Q: What was your most challenging project?
The most current project is usually the most challenging. It’s about getting people, the team, the consultants and the client all moving in the same direction, supporting a common goal of designing the best solution possible.

Q: What project are you best known for?
I’m really pleased with the work we’ve recently completed at 3WTC (3 World Trade Center) for WPP.

Q: What are the key roles that flooring plays in the design of a project?
Flooring is an important surface in a space because it signifies what the space is. Is it a lobby with stone flooring? A food service space with wood? An office with carpet? The texture and imperviousness supports the quality and intent of the space.

Q: What improvements would you like to see in the flooring category?
Not many. The flooring industry has done a great job of providing designers the right level of information in terms of specification and maintenance.

Q: Do you have a preference for natural versus manmade materials when you are picking interior finishes?
I have no preference. It’s about the right product for the design.

Q: When you are looking for creative inspiration, what activity puts you in the right zone?
I like getting away to take walks or spending time outside the city.

Q: Tell us about one or two of the most influential people in your life and what they taught you?
My parents taught me great work ethic, commitment and the seriousness of leadership.

Q: What do you do in your leisure time to escape?
I like to get out of New York City and head up to the country.

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