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Culture of space: How office environments affect productivity, creativity

  • Interior designer Amy Porch with Hansen Architects likes the windows that allow a lot of natural light in her office. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • The half walls at Hansen Architects facilitate team collaboration and communication among the employees. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Soft surfaces, like the carpeting at Hansen Architects, can help keep sound to a minimum and create a warmerfeeling.(Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • A row of DIRTT modular designed offices create a private space next to a public space. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • A DIRTT created office space. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Chatham Steel is one of several local companies to have installed DIRTT Environmental Solutions moveable modular walls. Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Many Americans spend nearly half of their waking hours working, thus it’s crucial that the spaces in which they work ignite productivity, alertness, and comfort.

“There are a number of studies on the effects of the volume of the space, the colors of the walls, and the light — both natural and artificial — on the psychology of a space,” said S. Maggie Ward, vice president of Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, a prominent Savannah architecture and urban design firm established fifty years ago. “Bright colors promote creativity; proper lighting, especially natural light, can improve our attitudes.”

The office of Gunn Meyerhoff Shay itself stands in a large, open space with high ceilings and exposed brick, and overlooks the Savannah River.

“The river gives us delight when we come in. Clients, too, get a good idea of what the city is all about,” said Gunn Meyerhoff Shay President Patrick Shay.

The firm previously resided in a garden-level apartment downtown.

“We were all on top of each other,” said Ward. “If one of us got sick, we all got sick.”

The firm needed a change and two years ago, the firm settled into their riverfront space on Bay Street. “We were able to spread out, have quiet spaces, and open collaboration spaces. We have a large communal table that is never clear. We like the idea of the tangibility and leaning over [the table] as a group,” Ward said.

There are also spaces where the architects and interior designers of Gunn Meyerhoff Shay can settle in if they need solitude.

Changing the goals of space

Gunn Meyerhoff Shay designs, for example, hotels, art centers, and civic institutions. Shay explained the firm dedicates much attention to their clients’ office spaces.

“In a way, the office is the most important space for the client,” Shay said. “In a hotel, the rooms are what they’re selling, but the way they’re managing it is all done from the office. It’s where the overall asset is managed.”

Gunn Meyerhoff Shay was responsible for designing The Creative Coast’s former building at 415 Boundary St., which Ward’s cites as an interesting example of a way to manipulate office space.

“The whole concept was to have tiered levels of incubation, starting with the collaboration space, then to the smaller offices to activate a small incubation, then to blossom into a larger space.

The concept was, as your business grows, the building grows with you,” said Ward.

One of The Creative Coast’s primary goals is to help businesses conceptualize, then emerge.

“I think that happens within a space, and can be reinforced with the space,” said Ward.

“If a worker isn’t comfortable in a space, it will affect their mood and in turn their production and creativity,” added Ward. “We spend a lot of time at work, so we, as designers, have the opportunity to make the space not just bearable, but to help actively promote well-being.”

Flexibility for collaboration

At Hansen Architects, the interior of the office is designed using half walls, so that it facilitates team collaboration and talking amongst each other.

“We also have all white walls for the brightness; the building is all windows and the natural lighting keeps people awake,” said Cassie Beckwith, Hansen’s Director of Marketing and former architect intern.

Beckwith said she formerly worked in an office which had no windows. “I’m so much happier now,” Beckwith said from her ninth floor office with large windows overlooking downtown. “If you want your company to be successful and want to keep your employees there, you have to give a lot of thought to your office space.”

Hansen’s interior designer, Amy Porch, who’s been with Hansen 12 years, said it’s also important to consider if privacy is necessary.

Many traditionally styled offices are designed so that the executives’ offices are along the windows and sequestered off because executives are likely to be handling matters that require confidentiality. But that puts the other workers out of the natural light, said Porch.

“We moved most of our project managers away from the windows so that everyone can get windows and light,” she said. “We have glass walls so they can still feel [sun] come in. Everybody here gets natural lighting.”

Porch advises using materials to help with sound. Soft surfaces, like carpeting, can help keep sound to a minimum and create a warmer feeling. For a more modern, sleek approach, use a tile surface.

Evolution is key to environment

It’s important to consider what’s good for the employees, the bosses, and what everyone is trying to accomplish — it can be a balancing act of trying to figure out the goals, Porch continued. An alternative to traditional design is using modular design that is environmentally friendly.

At DIRTT Environmental Solutions, which stands for “Doing It Right This Time,” the company’s goal is to create custom prefab interiors that can change and adapt according to office needs.

This approach also yields minimum waste, reducing the negative environmental impacts created by conventional construction.

The company, which is national, partners with local companies to have on the ground help and delivery. In Savannah, DIRRT partnered with National Office Systems. DIRRT opened a facility in Savannah in 2009 and today has over 100 employees.

Building with DIRTT materials and designs that can adapt and move when office needs change, can be sensible, both from a financial and sustainability standpoint because the entire space doesn’t have to be destroyed and rebuilt every time change needs to happen, said Heather Lott, vice president of interior design at National Office Systems.

The company allows clients the freedom to work with architects and designers to create office spaces that reflect their visions, giving them tools necessary to design custom spaces.

“Complex building parameters and unique base buildings pose no challenge to our approach as our solutions meet stringent building codes and industry requirements,” said Laura Lee Bocade, DIRTT’s Savannah-based marketing and development director.

DIRTT’s acoustics allow clients to have a private space next to a public space with no issues, said Scott Center, president and CEO of Savannah’s National Office Systems. “As time passes, spaces can be easily changed and adapted to make the areas perfect for what is happening then.”

“The office is where we spend more than one-third of our lives,” Lott said. “If employees are happy and content at work, it will reflect in their overall personality and performance.”

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