Amid the marble columns and solemn memorials of our nation’s capital, one imaginative architecture firm is introducing creativity, variation, and strategy into spaces where tradition and functionality once ruled unopposed. That firm, Greenwell Goetz Architects, has straddled both convention and innovation for the last 21 years. It has constructed workspaces for the staid and sturdy I.R.S., State Department, and NASA. It has also created smooth schemes of look + feel for new economy powerhouses like Microsoft, PeopleSoft, and Lucent Technologies.
Two decades, more than one hundred clients, and over 50 million square feet later, co-founder Lewis Goetz reflects on the changing priorities in workplace design, the fresh opportunities now available for free-thinking architects, and the renewed importance of projecting a harmonious image to clients and employees.
How have design priorities – comfort levels, aesthetics, etc. – changed since the birth of Greenwell Goetz Architects, and where do those priorities stand today?
We look at design like a strategic business tool that helps the company operate more effectively. Obviously you need to accommodate the basic needs of the business, but we also aim to provide flexibility and adaptability for companies that are changing so fast. The facilities that accommodate these companies need to adapt and change as well. And they need to do it in an easy way; they need to do it in a cost-effective way.
The space also needs to have the right image. And I don’t just mean that it needs to look nice. It also wants to project the right image. By the time a visitor walks from the front door to the reception desk they have a perception of what that company’s about just based on the image of their facility. When somebody comes to be interviewed for a job, they immediately have an image of what this place wants to be. So the image is really important. People have put that on the back burner for the last few years, but it does have an effect on your people, your customers, and even your shareholders.
We’re also looking to just enhance the quality of work life, which means we want to make sure that the space is comfortable, healthful, and safe. It must have the right lighting, the chairs must be ergonomic and comfortable. Computer trays must move and adjust to people’s postures, work surfaces potentially must move up and down or adjust to accommodate different people. We all come in different sizes and shapes, and furniture needs to adjust just ever so slightly, but needs to adjust to accommodate people to make them more productive.
And then we look at the layout of the office to make sure the flow of the space works, and in fact doesn’t encumber how people work, but it actually enhances and makes it easier for people to work. We like the idea of putting people in spaces that help collaboration or help teamwork — giving people more opportunities to work in different places so that they can actually work together better. A lot of work today is not just individual work, but it’s working in a group and you must have the right kind of spaces to do that. A lot of times people brainstorm ideas while sitting around in the employee lounge over a cup of coffee — those places are just as effective for work today as anyplace else.
What kind of research do you conduct to determine things like the pattern and the flow of work, and the most-utilized areas of the office?
Obviously we interview people, which is a fairly common way to do it. But I think the best method is just observation, because if you ask people what they do during a day, they’ll put down one thing, but then if you observe them, you’ll actually see something a little bit different. People don’t necessarily have a very good perception of what they really do every day. Sometimes we’ll just spend days in someone’s office and just basically meld into the woodwork and observe how they operate, how much time they really spend in their office, how much they really use their conference rooms, and how much time they’re on the phone or in meetings.
Do you find that your clients are now trying to keep their branded look and feel consistent all the way through their products — from their Web site to their offices?
Branding an image is very important. If you have a distinct image, you want everybody to feel it, not only when they pick up your product, but when they’re working in your space or when they come to visit your space. You want them to feel it, breathe it, live it, be part of that brand. And one of the ways to do it is with the facility. Physical space can be a very powerful element in one’s image.
Have you done any work with start-up companies that are just beginning to define their image?
Right now we’re working with Telebank, which recently became part of E-Trade. We’re also working with another start-up group called Varsitybooks.com, which is kind of the Amazon.com of college books. One of their big issues, obviously is growth. They’re growing so fast that you can’t even keep track of them. Every day they’re adding people at ridiculous percentages. And they don’t really know even how big they’re going to be, which is the other scary thing for them.
One of the challenges that we see for them is trying to put some organization to it all so that they can have some logic to this growth. Obviously we can’t fabricate space. Space is something that is very physical and you have to add space when you need it. But when they do add space, it helps to have some a predetermined program versus just kind of growing haphazardly without really thinking about it. These companies are starting out with nothing, basically, and they’ve got to kind of build it all as they move through the growth process.
I imagine this growth requires a shift in thinking for them as well.
A lot of these people start out in the garage or basement of their home. They don’t have the mentality of a 1,000-person company. They start out with a handful of people and the next thing they know they’re at 300 people. Well, the issues for a 300-person company are far different than that of two or three people working in your basement. It’s a big change culturally for them, and that’s not something to be played down. We see ourselves designing around those cultural issues because start-ups have a very different kind of culture than a company with years and years of history.
We’ve done Mobil Oil’s headquarters, for instance. The culture in a company like that — one of America’s largest and oldest — is very stable, and not at all like a start-up company that is very fluid, very young. So the design of the space wants to be different. We did a space for a company called Brann Blau, which is a marketing company. In their space they have all of these very informal think tank rooms where people can go and brainstorm. One’s filled with beanbags from the ’70s. The idea was to assemble a creative place where employees could sit on the floor and think. Mobil Oil would never have something like that. It’s not the same culture.
What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve completed over the years?
We’ve been around for about 20 years now, so we’ve seen a big shift in interior design. Especially in the last ten years there’s been a fairly major shift. Design has evolved from discussions about space that saves, smart real estate, and money. That came out of the early recession in the early ’90s, but as the decade moved along we started seeing companies grow very concerned about the process, the workers and the right space for efficiency and productivity. Now we’re seeing a shift into the cultural issues of space and how that affects the workers. How does knowledge flow within an organization? How does space help make that work better? How do companies learn from each other and what can space do to help that process? Everybody’s constantly trying to think of something new and more exciting and more inventive. What kind of space will help their people do that better?
In our own space, for instance, part of our reception area has a cappuccino bar. It’s not only for our guests, but our own employees go out there for breaks and schmooze instead of going down to Starbucks. We keep them here and it doesn’t cost them three dollars.
Instead of having a receptionist, we have a concierge out front, and that person makes it for them. It’s a different concept for an office. It’s the idea that the office is a place that we all spend a whole lot of our time, so we want it to be a place that we enjoy. We also see the office as a way of recruiting talent. It’s very hard to find good talented people today in almost any industry. The office is just one of those things that makes this a better place to work.
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