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Quality Design: Be Bold, Human and Smart

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Quality design begins with a bold premise. “I want a place where Picasso would like to paint.”That is the statement made by Jonas Salk while talking to Louis Kahn about his design for the Salk Institute in California. Salk’s visionary words in the 1960s, and Kahn’s ingenious response produced one of the most iconic workplaces in the world. Salk’s words also foreshadowed and exemplify the attitude of today’s CEO’s who recognize the significance of a well-designed work environment. The intimate, outward focused human scale of the Salk Institute invites the most prestigious talent to work there and stay there.

Quality design for the Denver law firm, Bartlit Beck, began with an entirely different but very bold premise. “We want high-performing workspace with all attorneys on one floor, and an emphasis on acoustic isolation throughout.” In order to capture their intense focus on pure performance over aesthetic, the design team planned the top floor of prime Lower Downtown real estate to show universal 10’ x 15’ offices with generous corridors, commanding views and a variety of meeting spaces to offset their new density. As a result, their design efficiency is among the most progressive in Denver with ratios of 2.5 conference seats per attorney and 546 rsf per attorney, yet the space exudes restraint and refinement with a powerful message of precision and warmth. By abandoning any notion of “style” at the outset, a new “Bartlit Beck” style serendipitously emerged that capitalizes on their own individuality and acts as a symbolic statement of their values.

Now more than ever in America, we are embracing a longstanding European space model: quality over quantity. When it comes to commercial real estate solutions, this embrace couldn’t be more serendipitous as CEOs are faced with skyrocketing lease costs, record Landlord loss factors, and the attraction and retention of talent. With half of all Americans living in cities today, and 75% of us living in cities by 2040, we need to celebrate densification and offset it through great design. A quality interior design will emphasize the adage that “good things come in small boxes,” and great outcomes will come in the form of superior real estate, high efficiency and stimulated employees.

People often associate quality with a premium cost. There is truth to that perception when considering the tangibles associated with operational efficiency. Premiums associated with increased rental rates, greening the infrastructure of a space, and installing state-of-the-art technology do come at a premium. But in this “quality over quantity” course correction we are experiencing now, those premiums can be offset over a single lease cycle through the very reduction in quantity of square footage that resulted from the desire to move to more quality real estate. 

The less tangible, but arguably more impactful elements of the workplace, such as atmosphere, personality, and the human experience do not need to come at a cost premium. These core elements characterize quality engagement for the employee, and a skilled designer can make it happen on a budget if they have keen insight into their client. With companies now emphasizing quality design, they are partnering with interior designers who have proven expertise in design, workplace strategy, branding and building evaluation. They know that if the design of a space imbues their personality, soul, and values, then it will capture and engage employees, instill a sense of common goals – and make them want to stay.  

I see the emerging paradigm of quality design over quantity of space as a gift to workplace interiors. For designers and CEOs alike, it is a great opportunity to transform waste into opportunity. Rather than asking “what can we get rid of?” we need to ask, “what can we add?” It is a bold premise with a high impact on creativity, synergy, optimization, and most importantly on the human experience in the workplace.

Gillian Hallock Johnson, LEED AP ID+C

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