From Dumb Office To Intelligent Workplace

First, a confession: Sometimes, toward the middle of the afternoon, I close my office door and lie on the floor, to give my back a little stretch. The first time I did this, I noticed that the floor vibrated steadily, evidently from the exertions of powerful machines. These machines keep working hard, cooling, heating, or just circulating the air in this Pittsburgh office building. You would think they could take a break today, a warm fall afternoon with the temperature around 70F. But how many office buildings have windows that open? Not this one.

I had little reason to dwell on the workings of office buildings until I joined a group of students and reporters in a very small room with Volker Hartkopf, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He makes a case for vastly different offices, telling us about an experimental office he and his colleagues are building at CMU: The Intelligent Workplace.

The idea is that in up-to-date offices, America's 50 million office workers would stay healthier, communicate better, and produce more. With this goal in mind, CMU has enlisted corporate sponsors such as Westinghouse, PPG, Bechtel, Siemens, and Johnson Controls, all of which want their products to play a part in this year's version of the Office of the Future. Five government agencies, from the Pentagon to the Environmental Protection Agency, are chipping in $1.5 million for the $3.8 million project.

GRIM PORTRAIT. You already may have suspected as much, but Hartkopf explains that most of us work in dumb office buildings. They waste energy and deprive workers of sunlight and fresh air. Worse, office machines--computers, laser printers, fax machines--are raising indoor pollution levels. Hartkopf paints a grim portrait of America's offices, all of us breathing each other's exhalations mixed with the ozone spewing from machines. And those hard-working ventilators? They merely redistribute the fumes. "Twenty-five percent of Americans work in sick buildings," he says.

Of course, the professor isn't blind to irony. He's delivering his talk in a windowless cell painted a lifeless white. We're sitting in chairs that dig into the smalls of our backs and talking over the hum of an overhead projector. This room, he says, is one last glimpse of the past. Donning hard hats, we follow him to the roof, to view a one-story prototype of The Intelligent Workplace.

To appreciate it at this point takes imagination. Instead of an office, it feels like a vast, empty greenhouse. Workers haven't yet built the 7,000 square feet of floor, much less moved in the ergonomic furniture, stackable walls, and individual climate-control modules.

LEGO LOOK. The Intelligent Workplace is not just intended to redress ergonomic and environmental crimes against office personnel. Employers also want changes to abet new work styles--that let workers move easily around the office, bounce ideas off each other, and gather for improvised work sessions at the click of a mouse. In the bargain, they would like lower utility costs.

With these goals in mind, the CMU architects have designed a veritable palace of natural light, with glare-resistant windows that open and vents that carry fresh air (on days when Pittsburgh air is so deemed) into the office. Each worker will have an autonomous climate-control assembly, built by Johnson Controls Inc., at his or her terminal, with computer menus to adjust heat, air-conditioning, humidity, even the white noise to dampen acoustics. Most of the machinery will be in a central service area with a dedicated exhaust system.

Stephen R. Lee, one of the architects, says that as a child, he used to play with erector sets. That's what the ceiling looks like. But the rest of this flexible office owes a bigger debt to Lego. Each worker will have blocks of stackable storage shelves that can be piled up to build walls or cut down as needed. The floor will have all sorts of ducts and wires, enabling workers to adjust their offices to any floor plan. Even the roof is flexible. "If we want to take part of it away," says Lee, "we unscrew it, and away we go."

When the office is ready for business next year, CMU's architecture staff will be the tenants. The cost, $285 per square foot, is triple the average. But Lee says it's not a fair comparison, since The Intelligent Workplace is designed as an ever-changing laboratory, with lots of competing heat and light systems.

A more down-to-earth experiment is going on downtown at the headquarters of Aluminum Co. of America. Thirty-five years ago, the company made a bold statement by building its headquarters almost entirely of aluminum. It became a landmark, and pretty soon U.S. Steel raised a rust-colored steel tower, and PPG erected a palace of black glass.

GUINEA PIGS. Alcoa Chairman Paul H. O'Neill, however, realized that the inside of the aluminum building does not meet the needs of a modern corporation. Only 35 people fit into the small floors, and they were all cloistered in aluminum cells. So O'Neill hired a Pittsburgh architecture firm, the Design Alliance, to construct an experimental open workplace on the top floor where O'Neill and his fellow top executives are the guinea pigs. Now, buffered only by precisely engineered blankets of white noise, the leaders of the world's largest aluminum company labor in nooks a little smaller than this floor-rattling office of mine.

Satisfied with the experiment, Alcoa is preparing to abandon the aluminum tower for a new headquarters across the Allegheny River with large open spaces like newsrooms. The hope is that employees will hear more from each other--and even overhear. "Creative eavesdropping is enormously important," says Martin Powell, lead architect.

Not all of us can expect our companies to ditch hierarchical headquarters and replace them with these new corporate prairies. But even those of us stuck in old-fashioned towers, with the disruptive elevator shaft right up the middle, might benefit from some retrofitting in coming years. Expect a little more sunlight, maybe some fresh air. Don't be surprised to see some walls come down.

Me? I find some of these trends worrisome. At Alcoa's penthouse, I saw dozens of the neatest desks imaginable. My mess wouldn't fit in. And I'll bet that even with the openness and camaraderie of the new workplace, not many Alcoa execs feel free to lie down on their floors for an afternoon backstretch, not with the chairman just a nook or two away.