Offices That Work

Four entrepreneurs create spaces with impact

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Workplace experts have long argued that elements such as proper lighting and layout have a positive impact on employee performance. And they have some new numbers to back up their claims: 48% of employees say they would work an extra hour a day if they had a better office, according to a 2006 survey by Gensler, a San Francisco design and consulting firm. And 90% of respondents said good office design leads to better overall performance and increased competitiveness and productivity.

Good design can be as simple as switching from sawhorse work tables to color-coordinated modular workstations. It might mean displaying an art collection, going green, or creating flexible work areas. It can do everything from boosting productivity and lifting morale to polishing a company's image. "Art gives our company the vital creative spirit we aspire to," says Craig Robins, president of 60-person real estate developer Dacra Development, whose Miami offices are filled with contemporary art. Christy Webber expects her Chicago landscaping company's new green office building to give it an edge with customers. It has already changed how she runs her 50-person business. "Being green means being more efficient and productive and thinking about reducing waste and costs," she says.

How much your own makeover costs is ultimately up to you. Dacra underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, but Verb!, a seven-person graphic animation studio in New York, initially spent around $25,000 to rejuvenate its space. Take a cue—and some inspiration—from the four entrepreneurs featured in the pages that follow, each of which created a standout space that is both functional and beautiful.


Before founding verb!, Bill Bergeron studied sculpture at Yale University. So when he wanted to transform Verb!'s raw New York office space in 2002, he turned to Freecell, a Brooklyn (N.Y.) architecture firm that he says "was doing interesting things with forms."

Verb!, which creates openers for TV shows such as The Colbert Report, certainly got its interesting forms. The overhaul's centerpiece is an odd-angled blue-and-white counter that snakes through the office and is used as a reception desk and work area. Freecell also created rubber mesh curtains to partition video production areas. The building's tin ceiling and wooden floors were left intact.

The Verb! team worked in the space during the overhaul. The renovations took only two months, and Bergeron says they weren't too disruptive. Verb! was rewarded with a space suited to its own needs and to its trendy clients. "We wanted to be seen as a cutting-edge boutique, and cubicles aren't cutting-edge," Bergeron says.

Two years later, Verb!'s industry and technology had changed. "There were just some things we couldn't foresee," Bergeron says. Fewer clients visited, because they now had digital video monitors in their own offices. With advances in technology, tapes became unnecessary, so Bergeron's company needed less storage. He also updated the space by adding wood paneling to warm up the glass-partitioned offices. Solid walls replaced the curtains, providing a sound barrier, more solitude for production work, and a conference area. Those nips and tucks, which cost less than $10,000, gave employees more privacy and left room to accommodate numerous freelancers. Plus, there's always space at the snaking counter.


Dacra's Robins, who had developed a string of glitzy South Beach hotels in the early 1990s, chose as his new focus a stretch of Miami scattered with drab industrial buildings and not much else. He bought some land and buildings there, dubbed the Design District, and began luring high-end home-furnishings stores. Last December Robins' 60-person firm moved in, consolidating its four South Beach offices into a 20,000-square-foot building last used as a car dealership. With its design-savvy vibe and proximity to the nearby Wynwood Art District, the area is "on the edge, a creative lab that is an exciting place to be," Robins says. The refurbished space is an ideal venue to display pieces from his art collection as well as to host curators and art world bigwigs in town for Art Basel Miami Beach and other events.

To create an art-meets-industrial look, architect John Keenen of New York firm K/R installed free-floating walls for rotating art exhibitions, disguising the functional office spaces behind them. "There is a feeling of peace and calm, like being in a museum or gallery, but when you walk to the back it is bustling with activity," says Robins. Keenen installed skylights and left in place metal trusses and the original barnlike wooden ceiling. Robins' light-filled office features a table by Maarten Bass, a Dutch designer who "burns" furniture until it resembles charcoal.

The mingling of art and design with office tasks, Keenen says, parallels Robins' informal way of doing business. Robins says the renovation—which cost about $4 million, including much of the art—made art accessible in an office space. Says Robins: "I wanted to avoid being stuck in a traditional, stuffy, Class A office building in a boring neighborhood, where there is no sense of experimentation. A small business is all about talent and independence, and an office should reflect that."


It's not so easy to find storage space for 75 trucks, plus a whole mess of leaf blowers, trimmers, and other equipment. But that, in addition to work and office space, was exactly what Webber needed for her 50-person landscaping business, Christy Webber Landscapes. She had been leasing space in several locations scattered across Chicago's West Side ever since founding her company in 1990. Eight years later, with 750 clients ranging from suburban homeowners to O'Hare International Airport, she started looking for a more efficient central office and storage area.

In 2003 city officials were seeking proposals to develop a derelict site on the West Side. They let Webber know they'd be interested in selling the site to her if she would take over its development. Webber submitted a plan for an eco-industrial park, with her company as lead tenant. The city agreed, suggesting that Webber put up a green building there as her headquarters. In 2005 Webber bought 12.5 acres from the city for $700,000, with the stipulation that the city will get some of the proceeds from the site's further development. Then she hired Chicago architects Farr Associates, which specializes in sustainable design.

Farr designed a building that meets LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards at the Gold or Platinum level. Maple trees, grasses, and juniper bushes are planted on the roof for insulation, stormwater management, and to help extend the life of the roof. Rainwater collects in a central area, where it is pumped into trucks Webber's company uses to water nursery plants. Webber hopes the building will meet a significant percentage of its energy needs with its wind-powered turbine and solar water heater.

The 18,000-square-foot building, completed in December, cost $3.2 million, about 20% more than a traditional structure would have. Webber expects the green features to pay for themselves in energy savings in eight years. And eco-thinking now pervades company planning: Converting trucks to biodiesel is on the agenda, as is a composting facility. The building has become a showpiece for potential clients, government officials, activists, and others interested in becoming tenants of the eco-park. "This was a huge expense, maybe more than what we needed," Webber says. "But it will come back to us tenfold in goodwill."


Metalworking is a messy trade, but that doesn't mean the headquarters of a metal company can't have style. Before a 2004 overhaul, Bobco Metals did business in a South Central Los Angeles workspace that was gritty, rundown, and poorly organized, with each department in its own isolated space. "It was a dilapidated box that just wasn't working," recalls co-owner Joe Shooshani. He asked two L.A. architects, Arshia Mahmoodi and Reza Bagherzadeh, to redesign the space and provide more efficiency and operational control at the 50-person company.

Inspired by Bobco's business, which makes everything from ornamental ironwork to chain-link fences, the architects used bent and folded metal to form a dramatic ceiling canopy. They consolidated the scattered offices, which had low ceilings and poor lighting, into one 5,000-square-foot space. There are designated areas for management, administration, sales, and a showroom, all within sight of each other. The architects reclad the exterior of the building in metal, leaving a single long horizontal window. With supplies from Bobco's inventory and much of the labor from its skilled staff, costs were kept to about $300,000.

Now that everyone is in one space, Shooshani says it's easier to oversee both staff and customers at the sprawling facility, which also includes a warehouse and fabrication shop. And he appreciates how the architects made the most of metal. "This is a rough business," Shooshani says, "but what they did was to create a thing of beauty."

By Ernest Beck

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