Office design is a quickly evolving landscape. Designers have to build in flexibility to accommodate many work styles, work needs, technology AND have a crystal ball for whatever the future holds. (Who would have guessed Covid-19?)
The following is a discussion we had with the designers of the new CRSA Headquarters. Kathy and Ken Wheadon and Brenda Banz, about transforming a floor of an iconic, but staid, early 20th Century office to a modern design firm’s headquarters.
CRSA has been working with Vectra, the owners of the Walker Center since 2006, providing architectural services for the remodel of one of downtown Salt Lake City’s premiere historic office towers located adjacent to the Gallivan TRAX Station. Our work began with nominating the Walker Center to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2019, when CRSA was looking for a new office space for its own headquarters, the Walker Center was a natural fit for an architectural firm that was founded to provide design services for historic buildings, but now also designs contemporary offices that incorporate the latest workplace strategies.
Kathy Wheadon, the Managing Principal who led the design effort for CRSA, said:
“The Walker Center had a finger in the past, and a great connection to downtown with wonderful natural light. In moving to a downtown environment, we had to make some pretty smart decisions about how to spend our money over the long haul. We also needed to make smart decisions about how much space we needed for the firm. Both the building and the third floor needed to work for us, very specifically for us, not us trying to weave ourselves into the existing organization of rooms and spaces.”
Ken Wheadon, the principal designer said that they first approached the remodel as a preservation project:
“With architectural preservation, the first thing you do is want to preserve, which means you leave it alone. If you can't leave it alone, you gently touch it in such a way that it becomes compatible with what exists. If it's beyond repair, you restore it to its former glory.”
The building has seen significant interior renovations over the years, to accommodate the changing tenants and changing work styles. There was almost no historic fabric left on third floor, but what was there, the team utilized.
Ken: “The windows are original, sashes and everything; most of them are operable. We kept as much of the historic finishes that we could: the elevator, the lobby, the indicators, the mail slot.”
Since little else was original or usable:
Kathy: “We stepped back to the framework of the steel structure in the building to show its strength: the structural steel, the original poured-in-place concrete floors. This gives us an opportunity to talk about how the building looked in 1912 before the materials and finishes were placed on it, and highlight that as a really rugged industrial aesthetic.”
Ken: “We went back to the wood, concrete, steel and glass. So, you see the steel. You see the original exterior wall. From the floor up is concrete. We kept a lot of the original brick; we tried to take all of the walls back to their basic construction type. In 1912, they fireproofed by covering the steel and brick, then plastering over the brick. We removed all that and sprayed it with an intumescent fireproofing paint. In that way, we can express all the steel. You see all the aspects of the columns up to the concrete deck.”
Kathy: “We then wove that into a set of materials to make the building and space feel warm and inviting. Our impact really has to be at the front door. We have to bring in our visitors to a place where they see us, they feel us. They understand who we are and they're immersed in our culture immediately.”
Visitors arriving from the elevator enter directly into a lounge and reception area, and wayfinding is simplified with many meeting spaces and the administrative team close by.
Kathy: The lobby space is designed to bring natural light deep into the building and create an entry lobby that's warm, welcoming. It is filled with local materials, full of recovered materials, including materials from the Walker Center: some lovely metal and stone that is part of the reception desk. There's lots of warm woods, lots of nice stony materials on the floor, a set of a very contemporary furniture that represents this place and our time in it.
“The immediate expression is that CRSA is a design firm,” Brenda Banz, Senior Interior Designers says. “Clients really get to experience and feel how much we value the materials and detailing.”
Kathy: “We have a series of meeting room spaces that surround the lobby area that are our first touch with our client team. We drew out a large scale (thirty person) meeting room space into the interior of the building. That space is technology-driven space, and where we meet clients day in and day out. The furniture has a zoomy, contemporary look that harkens back to that structure of the building.”
Ken: “In these older buildings, the biggest challenge is the floor plate. Usually you'd like at least twelve feet. This one is ten feet, and once you put it in the structure with all the mechanical system requirements, you're down to eight feet.”
Brenda: “The Walker Center was constructed 109 years ago, for a much smaller and very different workforce. As you exited the lobby, there was one hallway that went to offices, and another hallway that went to offices in the other direction.”
Ken: “When they laid them out, they were trying to maximize as many little office spaces as possible: so, you have a path. The path doesn’t always line up with the current design standards for a modern office.”
Kathy: “The historic structure was a floor plate with almost all private offices at the exterior of the building, keeping the bosses in private offices, and everyone else was literally inboard with no windows and no views and, and really very little natural light.”
Brenda: “We actually took out every single wall and started completely new. We wanted to open it completely up.”
Ken: “There are a lot of transfer windows, a lot of glass in walls. So, the light that comes from the outside walls goes all the way to the interior space. We did that on as many of the sides as we could.”
Kathy: “The bonus is we have light that comes from both the south and the west and then from the courtyard. So, if you are in a private office that's outboard, that space is full of windows, that bleeds light into the interior. We also decreased the size of the offices so that we have much more appropriate-sized private offices that are still functional for work and for small scale meetings.”
Ken: “We captured space that is outside of the original footprint of the tower and the five-foot portion that goes east. It was a mechanical space and part of the roof. I think we have handled the differences in the floor heights very well between the captured spaces and the original building. We tried to keep it as simple a design as we could. We kept with the basic materials. The guardrails are just raw steel, with turned and eased edges for safety. The handrails are wood. A concrete product is on the steps and the ramps.”
Kathy: “We needed to design specifically to CRSA’s workflow, product, process and our engagement with our clients “
The CRSA office design team applied lessons learned while working on two and a half million square feet of space for the State of Utah to its own office design. The governor challenged the project team to help the state manage Utah's real estate resources in a better, smarter, more appropriate and sustainable way. They approached their own office design with these new-found strategies.
Prior to moving to the Walker Center, the design team conducted a seat occupancy survey in its “old” office space to determine how many desks were being used at any given hour throughout the day. This turned out to be a key planning element for the new space. With many of the staff members out attending meetings or at site visits during the day, and others gathering in collaboration areas, the assigned desks were less than half occupied much of the time.
Even at maximum occupancy, only 42 out of 60 desks had signs of activity –maybe ongoing work or a coffee mug. An open concept approach incorporating shared workspaces seemed logical, and the new office design would deploy three approaches – smaller workstations and offices, and more shared collaboration space that would join with 20 “hot desks” that could be claimed by anyone.
Kathy: “We needed to manage the amount of office space versus open office space. Very rarely do we do heads down work that requires privacy and separation. So we kept those private meeting room spaces and office spaces to a minimum to be able to support that kind of work, and then gave that space back to the open office area so the team has the space they need to get their work done.
“It was about creating a whole range of environments for different kinds of work and multiple spaces for collaboration. There are a total of 146 chairs, stools and seats at booths that are capable of serving multiple functions and facilitates impromptu meetings.
“We work as collaborative teams, and the teams really needed space to get together. So in the heart of each of those pods there are standing height work tables that have storage underneath. That gives people a chance to lay out drawings and have materials in front of them so they don't have to walk to another area. And then, also nearby, are small scale meeting room spaces and booth spaces that have digital technology. So anywhere you go in the office, you can have a collaborative conversation, look at drawings, and look at your computer and be able to pull things up.
“Those areas are very respectful of how people work; giving people an appropriate amount of workspace, an appropriate amount of technology and really focus on how to give them storage. We have so much digitally, but when projects are in process, there is no choice but to have all those nice carpet samples, tile, material samples. We're doing work that people look at aesthetically and you have to look and feel and finger those things to be able to make smart choices.
“We crafted a space for our interiors team, to give them spaces to store things and get them out of sight. It has really delightful northern and eastern lights so they can see their materials with great color rendition.
“We kept partitions low on workstations so that people have a seated height privacy, but when they stand up they can catch that great view of downtown SLC. Because we have the Gallivan Center to the south of us, we don't feel like we're in a tunnel of downtown, large, high-rise buildings. We have this great ground plane, which just gives us the opportunity of capturing some great natural light from the south.”
“There are two small ‘focus’ rooms that can be closed for private meetings, two large tech-ready conference rooms, and two micro spaces fittingly known as phone booths, ideal for an individual’s quiet heads down work or private calls. The redesign freed up enough space to accommodate a large commons area with chairs and tables, kitchenette and future rooftop deck access. Health and wellness are important for all our employees, and spaces to recharge are key to employee recruitment and retention.”
Brenda: “We wanted this space to be creative and exciting. We wanted this space to be full of natural light. To brand the space, we used CRSA green – Pantone 7490--in the carpets and the furnishings. We also used a lot of white to bring in and to play on all of the natural light.
“We have adjustable height desks for everyone: our people often sit at work for very long days. We also have areas where you can bring your laptop and just go somewhere else in the space--work in a different location. The workforce is looking for different ways and different places to work. Getting a different viewpoint helps the creative process.”
Kathy: “You can work almost anywhere in the building.”
The design team made a commitment to sound management. This was an effort given the open ceilings and the hard, concrete floor surfaces.
Brenda: “Because we have an open ceiling, we want it to be able to show all of the structure of the building. The acoustic treatment we have used, is a K-13 product that is sprayed on the ceiling.” (K-13 is a spray-applied thermal and acoustical insulation).
Ken: “We sprayed a lot of the K-13 into the coffers, between the concrete beams to help with sound transmission. The week after we went there and they had sprayed most of it, you could tell the difference already.”
Additionally, the design team, utilized absorbent surfaces and wood canopies to control sound.
Brenda: “In our large conference room, a decorative wooden structure hangs over the table, demonstrating how wood fits together. It's really kind of a puzzle that we've designed in a undulating pattern. In our other conference room we have acoustic panels that hang from the ceiling in a very linear pattern. We are the first space in Utah that has used this particular product in our office. They’re excellent in those areas where we were not able to use K-13 sprays.”
CRSA has long advocated integrating energy-efficient, sustainable design. The design team was mindful of integrating products and systems into the historic space. Sustainable design elements include: untreated natural hot rolled steel, LED lighting, daylight harvesting through borrowed glass lights at perimeter rooms, low VOC paint, FSC (Forest Steward Certified) wood, recycled marble from the Historic Walker Center, carpet, counter tops, and acoustical panels.
WELL (International Well Building Institute) additions include: approved ergonomic work stations, Mindful Eating Space – with daylight, tables and chairs. The patio, which will be under construction over the summer, will provide Restorative Spaces to relieve stress and mental fatigue.
Tech savvy meeting and collaboration spaces have eased the aches and pains of teleworking, and the staff in and out of the office are able to stay connected Even if and when the entire staff returns to the office, social distancing will not be a problem: all workstations have 6’ distance between staff. In addition, with the abundance of hot-seats and collaboration spaces, the team will be able to find the social distancing easy to implement.
Moving into a historic property doesn’t mean CRSA isn’t looking at the future. “In the last four years we’ve designed over 2.5 million sf of office space, both for public and private sector clients.”
Kathy: “Crafting our own office gave us a chance to test new ideas, become the early adopters, and we’ve been able to share our newfound wisdom with clients who are faced with the same challenges we were.”
Ken: “I think the coolest thing is to look out the window and see the dynamic nature of downtown. You just go downstairs and you’re in this lively outdoor space. That’s exciting.”
Read Utah Construction & Design's article, "Old Bones, New Digs" to learn more about the new CRSA office.