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To reunite its workforce, this company carved a 9-story staircase into its new HQ

WM, the 50,000 person waste management company, has a green way for its workers to reconnect.

To reunite its workforce, this company carved a 9-story staircase into its new HQ
[Photo: Peter Molick]

Garbage and recycling management company WM is naturally decentralized, with most of its 50,000 employees in trucks picking up waste around the U.S. But at the company’s corporate headquarters in Houston, there was a similar sense of disconnect among the company’s few hundred office workers.

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“We were in two different high-rise buildings. The corporate headquarters was bifurcated, to say the least,” says Anne Fridrych, director of corporate real estate at WM.

So when the company began scouting a new office a few years ago, bringing workers together became a primary objective. Now the company has a headquarters in a downtown Houston office tower that went to great lengths to bring workers together. With a nine-story staircase cut into the building, WM’s new offices are a bold instigation to reconnect.

[Photo: Peter Molick]
It’s a major change from the previous setup, Fridrych says. Aside from being physically separated in two buildings before, each of those buildings were also siloed, with few spaces where employees could casually interact or even see each other. “People didn’t really leave their floors.”

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The design of the new space, located on nine floors within a brand-new 35-story tower, set out to make sure workers had a reason to leave their offices—and their floors. Designed by Perkins&Will, the nine-story grand staircase is flanked for its entire length by a lush living wall.

“Through the design process we knew that we wanted vertical integration and collaboration throughout the space. And it’s hard to get that when you’re vertical and not horizontal,” Fridrych says.

[Photo: Peter Molick]
The staircase, designed in an airy trapezoidal shape that mimics WM’s logo, is intended to weave the space together, and give employees a light-filled area to linger near on breaks or to use to venture from floor to floor. Fridrych points out that there’s even a little social engineering built in. “It would entice people to use it, but it would also allow different departments to access one another going up and down the stairway instead of going into an elevator where you’re a little more purposeful about where you’re going,” she says. “If you’re on the stairs you might stop at certain floors in between.”

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[Photo: Peter Molick]
For the architects such a space made sense, but actually building it was far from straightforward. For one, the tower was nearly complete when WM and Perkins&Will decided that the offices needed a nine-story hole cut in the concrete. “The slabs were already poured. It was a hugely difficult process,” says Jennifer Carzoli, an associate principal at Perkins&Will, noting that meetings had to be held with the city’s building department to get officials on board. “I mean, nobody has a nine-story stair connecting this many floors with assembly space.”

The office is more than just a nice staircase, though. In line with the company’s recycling business, the interiors were designed to use mainly recycled materials, including car windshields and plastic bottles. “We decided also to leave a lot of materials raw,” Carzoli says. (For example, by reducing the finishes on the building’s structural columns.) “Every material was scrutinized.”

The office space itself was also rethought, with almost all private offices eliminated in favor of large shared workspaces. Those that remain have been pushed to the center of each floor, ensuring that 90% of workers have seats near windows.

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To push the social interaction even further, a café was built within the office. It’s located just off the staircase. Now that the office is open for in-person work, Fridrych says, “It really gets people out of their suites and into all of the space.”

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