Beyond the Phone Booth: Architecture for Balancing Public and Private Space

by PlaceLab TeamNov 15th, 2019

The way we work is dramatically changing. Technology now gives us the ability to toggle between life and work, and has untethered us from our desks. Work happens everywhere from our living rooms to cafes to the screen of our iPhones racing from one meeting to school pick up. This shift is creating new challenges for architects when it comes to designing office spaces. Ming Thompson, a co-founder of Atelier Cho Thompson, has designed the interiors of everything from office spaces to schools to private homes. Her main philosophy as an architect is improving the human experience, so when it comes to the office spaces she and her team designs, she believes that the better you make your office, the more productive the people who work there will be. “Architecture supports office culture,” she says. “If talent feels their work environment supports them as individuals, they're going to stay at their job longer. I think creating architecture that makes offices feel more like home means that that people will feel happier at work.”

Gone are the days of fixed desks or a big stately office for the CEO.

PlaceLab: How do architects of contemporary office space think about designing for individual and group concentration as well as privacy within a public space?

A lot of companies are trying to fix the problems created by open office plans. There's no acoustic separation and it's really hard to concentrate with a lot of people around you. Architects are running with this challenge and trying to balance out different typologies of space.  

There needs to be a hierarchy of spaces that are open and cellular, meaning that offices offer break out spaces of different sizes that allow people to both collaborate and have privacy to concentrate. We design for a growing millennial workforce  who is used to working in a lot of different places, so we like to create spaces that support different work styles and draw from ideas of how people live outside of the office. We create spaces that feel like a kitchen table where you might be sitting around with your friends hashing out ideas, or that feel like a coffee bar, a living room or a restaurant.

How are architects designing for the phenomenon that people like to go to a communal space (i.e  cafes or co-working spaces) to find quietude in togetherness?

Our office is one gigantic room where we all sit together and people are very focused on their work until they need to tap other people for questions or feedback. Offices with a soft seating area, a farm table or a coffee bar are all ways for people to work “alone together” like in a co-working space or cafe.

100 Summer Street Lobby, Boston. Photo Credit: Nicole Franzen. Co-designer: Shannon Dunn.

We like to create spaces that support different work styles and draw from ideas of how people live outside of the office.

PlaceLab: How do you think about minimizing noise? What materials are involved?

There is a push away from acoustical ceiling tile (ACT), which is the traditional two foot by two foot white grid. The great thing about that kind of grid is that it absorbs noise and it also holds lights, sprinklers, and speakers.  But no one wants to see those anymore. It’s being replaced by a open ceilings using floating acoustic clouds or products like K-13, which is an insulation that you spray on exposed structural decks. We use products like felt or other acoustic panels to absorb noise, and those things can also be used decoratively; they can be cut into interesting shapes and beautiful patterns. For some of our clients, we used electronic solutions like white noise machines and running water that create a neutral acoustic environment.

PlaceLab: What kind of spaces help employees rejuvenate?

The best thing to do is to look away from your computer and get outside and take a walk. Within a space, it’s important to have breakout areas that are really comfortable, and that might offer a sense of quiet, both visually and acoustically.  They should feel a real shift away from for the work space. We also draw from biophilia, which is the human tendency to flourish around natural elements, so we try to bring in a lot of plants and use green walls to emulate a natural setting. In addition to having enough quiet space, office spaces should offer open social spaces like a coffee bar where you can be around your colleagues and socialize without work.

PlaceLab: What are the new trends that you’re seeing that offer more spaces for concentration in an open office environment?

A lot of furniture vendors  are trying to do this and offices are creating furniture clusters, but I think that architects need to answer this question better. We’ve started building spaces into the architecture that includes phone booths or smaller pockets of space where small groups can have  a more quiet chat away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the office.

PlaceLab: Are there different architectural trends depending on job function and industry? ( i.e. space for a quiet tech coder versus space for the more social sales and marketing team.)

The culture of the tech industry is so pervasive now that I think a lot of these ideas originated in the Bay Area, and now percolate out to everybody.  There are real technical aspects to each person's job that call for a certain kind of work space. For example, architects love to have giant monitors on their desks so we can see our drawings. Gone are the days of fixed desks or a big stately office for the CEO. Now it’s all about flexibility, which means plugging your laptop into an open “hot desk” as opposed to having your own workstation. This new kind of space also creates a need to innovate storage space for employees.