Trends in Corporate Sector Design: A&D Firms Weigh in - Feb 2014

By Jessica Chevalier


Couches, conference tables and bar carts: Mad Men style offices, with their spacious private space for executives and expanses of back-to-back cubicles for underlings, are a thing of the past in the corporate sector. Walls are coming down. Spaces are moving from single- to multi-use. Employees are being offered options for how and where they want to work. And corporations are selecting spaces that can grow with them rather than spaces they will outgrow as their employee rolls lengthen. 

Choice and customization are highly valued in American culture. From frozen yogurt to fashion to flooring, the quantity of available options is expanding, and people value the opportunity to make something their own. That trend has impacted the corporate sector as well. No longer are employees satisfied with being told how they have to work: at a desk, in a cubicle or in an office. Employees want to be able to move about in the workplace, collaborating with colleagues and customizing their experience with varied environments and settings. Employees want the option to work alongside their coworkers in a café-like setting in the morning and retreat into a more private space in the afternoon. 

The same holds true for corporations investing in spaces. Programmability, the ability to adapt a space to one’s specific needs, is highly valued, says Michael Corby, executive vice president of Integrated Architecture in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Corporations don’t want to build or renovate a new space, only to have it less than optimal for their needs within the first months. Rather, they want to be able to adapt the space as needs arise. If every employee has their own cubicle, the addition of new hires may mean that employees are asked to double up, and those individuals asked to share may feel like second-class citizens who, as a result, produce second-class work. However, if a space is more free flowing, sharing becomes the rule rather than the exception, and the addition of a worker or two isn’t as impactful to the work environment. 


Raised access flooring is well suited for the programmability trend because heating and cooling delivery systems, wiring and data cables can be placed underneath it and reconfigured without disturbing the architecture of the building. Corby reports that raised access flooring is considered for nearly every corporate project of size on which he works, though that doesn't necessarily mean that it ends up in the construction documents. Recently, Corby and his team completed a 400,000 square foot, $90 million corporate center for Gordon Food Service in Wyoming, Michigan. The entire project is raised access flooring, as is another of Integrated's recent corporate completions, Rockford Construction.

On the Gordon Food project, Corby specified a metal stud platform system, built by the contractor, rather than a typical raised floor pedestal system, and covered it with ground and polished concrete. However, he notes that firms like Tate Access Floors are now offering raised access systems with finished flooring attached, eliminating the need for firms to first purchase the raised access system and then the flooring. Tate offers engineered hardwood, terrazzo, porcelain, laminate and carpet tile finishes. Of course, in terms of aesthetics, all these finished systems have a tile look due to the nature of the system, says Corby.

In the Washington market, JPC Architects notes that the trend is away from raised access flooring because clients are unwilling to lose the inches underfoot, preferring height overhead and visible ductwork.

And Rodney Stone, president of Environetics, adds that some leased space in the corporate sector does not allow the installation of raised access flooring, though he does believe that the system offers many advantages. "If an employee likes it colder, they can swap out a regular tile with a vent. Boom. It's very functional for the individual."

This trend affects both how spaces are constructed and what products are specified. Corby reports that the line between furniture and architecture has blurred. Workplace furniture companies like Haworth and Steelcase are getting into more architectural products: walls and door walls. Unlike standard walls, these products are relocatable, offering the option to adapt space to a business’ changing needs.

This drive toward programmability has a significant impact on flooring selections as well. Corby reports that he is seeing many flooring products on the market that fit in with trends towards reprogrammability. These include raised access flooring products, carpet tile and modular vinyl products. Rolled and sheet goods, including broadloom, have seen significant decline in corporate settings, says Corby.

Even corporate setting where privacy is of utmost importance—like law offices—are impacted by this trend. In the past, it was a standard practice for law firms to include three different office sizes, growing larger by rank. Corby is currently working on a law office design that standardizes offices sizes. His design allots less defined space for the individual and more shared space for the team, a zone that is more open plan. Additionally, files and offices were traditionally built into the architecture. Today, however, Corby utilizes systems that can flex, filing systems and workstations that are furniture rather than architecture. In another departure from the norm, Corby’s law office design has no defined lunchroom. Instead, the location will have little oases along the pathways that feel café-like. These can be used as touch down stations for meetings, for individual work or, indeed, for lunching. Corby says that he and his team look at contemporary community planning as a model for office planning.


Hospitality has influenced all other sectors, says Lee. "Today, in the corporate sector, we're more hospitality influenced, more user friendly, welcoming and, ultimately, more residential. Our designs offer the comforts of home. Before, the corporate office was carpet throughout, with maybe different colors in the corporate offices and pantry. Now, flooring is more architectural, defining zones and function. And there are additional materials: porcelain, hardwood, concrete. We're not so worried about cracking and scuffing. That's part of the charm. That's influence from residential."

Adds Stone, "We are seeing different flooring products—multiple carpet tile patterns or hard and soft surface—combined in conferencing areas, similar to what you see at hotels. The hospitality industry has really helped influence the open plan of today. Hospitality has always been playful and used patterning to define areas. That's what we do in an open office plan."

Tang notes that, like the hospitality market, today's corporate sector is more impacted by fashion trends. "In the past, everything was more vanilla. Today, it's crisp, clean, minimalistic with pops of color. Clients want something special, meaningful in relation to the local scene."

And while a law office is likely to have more private office space than, say, a tech firm, the nature of that private office space has changed, says Stephanie Boldon, project director and associate at Environetics’ Los Angeles office. “People don’t typically have meeting tables in offices anymore. They may have a guest chair, but they generally have meetings in other locations.” Even in locations that necessitate privacy, the trend is toward contributing greater square footage to shared space and less to private space. 

Will the trend ever ebb toward private, Mad Men style office space again? New Yorker Annie Lee, principal in Environetics, thinks not. “Mad Men offices took a long time to come out, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever go back. But many people have trouble functioning with ever-running benching systems, so today we have quiet areas, phone rooms, lounges, private areas and shared private areas.”

Lee’s colleague, Rodney Stone, the Los Angeles based president of Environetics, agrees, “Maybe in 50 years they will go back to walled offices, but for the immediate future corporate space is evolving. The majority of the space remains open, and this open space is becoming more functional, more user friendly, providing the user with the ability to choose what area they want to work in. We use flooring to help define spaces: quiet areas with carpet, hard surface for more active locations.”

Like most trends, opening up the workspace isn’t only about increasing communication and offering options; it’s also about saving bucks. Constructing permanent walls is costly, as is demolishing and reconstructing them. Choosing movable partitions rather than permanent architecture can save money. There is also a cost to working in a space unsuitable for the population that inhabits it, both in terms of productivity and morale. 

Says Yvignette Tang, a designer at JPC Architects in Bellevue, Washington, “Companies that are leasing space feel that they need to create denser populations. Open work stations yield a smaller footprint and increase productivity and communications.”

“Flooring creates a bigger statement as the office opens up,” says Ann Derr, partner at JPC. “Doing something on the floor makes a big statement.” And in most cases, the flooring making that statement is carpet tile. Tang reports that the majority of her clients choose carpet tile because of its functionality and reusability and that, over the past three or four years, the increasing affordability of the product has been a significant boon as well. 

Says Environetics’ Lee, “Carpet tile has evolved; it has changed attitude. Before, the goal was not to show seams, to try to make it look like broadloom. One day, manufacturers decided that the product was beautiful as tile—different colors, blocks, patterns and purposefully showing the lines in some areas—and began accentuating the beauty of the tile. From that moment, the whole industry shifted. With the LEED aspect and the fact that carpet tile is easier to maintain than broadloom, the whole thing coincided and the market shifted. Herringbone, inlays, hexagons: design-wise, you can do so much more with carpet tile.”

All the designers with whom we spoke agree that broadloom has a very small presence in the corporate sector. Corby estimates that broadloom accounts for less than 5% of his specifications. Environetics’ Stone sometimes uses broadloom in private office space and in locations that require a more conservative aesthetic, like bank branches. “And if you want less expensive, broadloom is the way to go,” he adds. 

However, in New York, Lee reports that her Environetics’ projects use almost no broadloom. In fact, she can recall only one corporate specification in the last seven years on which she chose broadloom, which she had serged and bound to make an area rug. 

Tang agrees that the carpet tile market has really made strides over the past three or four years. “We see a lot more leading edge style, creating carpet tile in different patterns and colors. Broadloom is more subtle.” In other words, if you are going to make a statement with soft surface flooring in the corporate environment, carpet tile is the material of choice.

Carpet tile offers another benefit of great worth in today’s open office environments: acoustical value. Says Lee, “Now that the office is more open, the acoustical value of the material plays a larger role. Finishes are functioning for design.” 

While carpet tile continues to command the corporate sector, Corby reports that materials like cork and linoleum are making some headway in the market because they offer acoustic benefits over other hard surface materials and a degree of softness underfoot, in addition to providing maintenance advantages over soft surface flooring. The placement of a material has a significant impact on acoustics, he points out. A woman walking in a high-heeled shoe on porcelain tile, for instance, makes more of an acoustic impact that several employees working in a seating area atop a porcelain floor. It’s all about what is placed where. For a connection zone, Corby reports that he would never consider porcelain, regardless of its durability, but he would consider a hard surface material like cork or linoleum. 


Keep innovating. Designers value options, so manufacturers should continually push the envelope with new looks, shapes, patterns and colors. In addition, designers want flexibility with regard to how a product can be installed.
    • Provide unique, cost effective options. In many cases, designers are working with tight tenant allowance budgets.
    • Offer quick ship products. If a property manager is standarizing a product, they want something that they can have on-site quickly.
    • Create stateside stocking programs. These are crucial on projects with an abbreviated time frame. If products aren't available in a reasonable time, designers are forced to choose from what's readily available, which may compromise the integrity of the design.
    • Design quick-install flooring. Spaces need to turn over quickly. Corporate sector projects often have particularly tight time frames.
    • Offer more case studies and practical reports that explain why a particular product was specified, how it performed and how the client perceived the material post-installation. These are useful in helping designers sell a client on a product that is new to them.
    • Innovate better transitions. Transitions between flooring types are frequently clunky, dangerous or ineffective.
    • Support the movement of programmability with a good variety of aesthetic choices.

JPC often uses a combination of soft and hard surface flooring in the corporate spaces that it is designing. On the hard surface side, the company specifies porcelain tile, hardwood and polished concrete. Porcelain in hardwood and stone looks are popular choices, since the porcelain comes at a lesser cost than the real material and offers excellent durability. 

Polished concrete is another favorite for JPC’s corporate projects, though the firm generally limits its use to public areas due to acoustic concerns. However terrazzo is not often specified because it is typically too expensive a material to use in a leased space.

Opinions regarding vinyl products are, it seems, quite varied. JPC once used a fair amount of LVT; however, Tang has noticed a trend away from vinyl due to the perception that the material isn’t sustainable. 

Stone of Environetics notes that LVT is taking some share from carpet in more active areas of corporate sector design. “Carpet tile has come down significantly in price, but LVT prices are really good now too, especially when you factor in maintenance.” One reason, Stone believes, that LVT is taking share is because of its installation options, “Now that you don’t have to glue it down, installation is quicker. The LVT planks lock together; it’s phenomenal.” In the Los Angeles market, Stone and his team use a lot of wood look vinyls. 

However, in New York, Lee doesn’t use vinyl products that recreate hardwood and stone looks, explaining that her market has a prejudice against materials pretending to be something they aren’t and believing instead that each material should embrace its own look. Lee chooses vinyl products that have the warmth of wood, like those with linear striations, but not explicit wood graining. Lee notes that she is seeing more vinyl used in pantries and copy areas.

“Companies will make a move if it’s going to help them improve something about their business or change their image, because that is the biggest factor,” says Stone. “They’re looking for a hip, open plan.” The designer doesn’t see much difference in activity between the leased or owner-occupied properties in the Los Angeles market. “Over the past couple of years, there was very little activity in either. People were renewing leases and not doing anything with regard to renovation. Corporate America is owner-occupied, and it wasn’t spending a penny. Starting last year, we saw more activity in both markets, people realizing that they need to make decisions and to improve their work environment to retain and gain good employees and to move forward with business. It all comes down to the availability of money and the perception that the economy will grow. Without these, neither large nor small companies will do anything. People only started making significant moves last year, and business picked up significantly. This year it should be equal or better.” 

In JPC’s market, most of the corporate work is in leased space. Some larger companies in the area do buy and own their own spaces, but that’s unusual, reports Derr. “Some of that is due to the uncertainty of growth, companies not wanting to lock into square footage for a long time.” However, it’s also due to the nature of the industries in the area. Tech companies are prevalent, and, within those firms, things often change quickly, which leads to a lease environment. Derr says that the Bellevue area was hit hard in the recession but that it came out of the downturn sooner. For now, however, most of the work is in remodeling, rather than new builds, though Tang reports that they are seeing cranes starting up as of late. 

In Michigan, Corby also reports that renovation work is leading. “In the last four or five years, the percentage of renovations went up. This is related to economics more than anything else. But we are starting to see more projects come on, and we are seeing a demand for space.” Corby reports that around the year 2000, Integrated was working on new builds all around the country for companies such as Royal Caribbean and Ebay. However, once the lending markets dried up, the focus transitioned to getting value out of existing structures.

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