The Design of Office Buildings

The Flatiron Building in downtown Santa Cruz, California displays characteristics of the postmodern style of architecture.

The Flatiron Building in downtown Santa Cruz, California with two floors of offices over retail. Stylistically, it’s facades display elements characteristics of the postmodern style of architecture.

The office building is the most tangible reflection of a profound change in employment patterns that has occurred over the last one hundred years. In present-day America, northern Europe, and Japan, at least 50 percent of the working population is employed in office settings as compared to 5 percent of the population at the beginning of the 20th century.

Interestingly, the life-cycle cost distribution for a typical service organization is about 3 to 4 percent for the facility, 4 percent for operations, 1 percent for furniture, and 90 to 91 percent for salaries. As such, if the office structure can leverage the 3 to 4 percent expenditure on facilities to improve the productivity of the workplace, it can have a very dramatic effect on personnel contributions representing the 90 to 91 percent of the service organization’s costs.

To accomplish this impact, the buildings must benefit from an integrated design approach that focuses on meeting a list of objectives. Through integrated design, a new generation of high-performance office buildings is beginning to emerge that offers owners and users increased worker satisfaction and productivity, improved health, greater flexibility, and enhanced energy and environmental performance. Typically, these projects apply life-cycle analysis to optimize initial investments in architectural design, systems selection, and building construction.

Building Attributes
An office building must have flexible and technologically-advanced working environments that are safe, healthy, comfortable, durable, aesthetically-pleasing, and accessible. It must be able to accommodate the specific space and equipment needs of the tenant. Special attention should be made to the selection of interior finishes and art installations, particularly in entry spaces, conference rooms and other areas with public access.

Types of Spaces
An office building incorporates a number of space types to meet the needs of staff and visitors. These may include:
• Offices: May be private or semi-private acoustically and/or visually.
• Conference Rooms
• Convenience Store, Kiosk, or Vending Machines
• Lobby: Central location for building directory, schedules, and general information
• Atria or Common Space: Informal, multi-purpose recreation and social gathering space
• Cafeteria or Dining Hall
• Private Toilets or Restrooms
• Child Care Centers
• Physical Fitness Area
• Interior or Surface Parking Areas
• Operation and Maintenance Spaces: general storage, food preparation, computer/information technology (IT) spaces, & maintenance closets

The Jack & Peggy Baskin Center for Philanthropy in Soquel, California displays hallmarks of the international modern style.

The Jack & Peggy Baskin Center for Philanthropy in Soquel, California displays hallmarks of the international modern style.

Important Design Considerations
Typical features of Office Buildings include the list of applicable design objectives elements as outlined below.

The high-performance office should be evaluated using life-cycle economic and material evaluation models. In some cases, owners need to appreciate that optimizing building performance will require a willingness to invest more initially to save on long-term operations and maintenance. To achieve the optimum performance for the investment in the facility, value engineering provides a means for assessing the performance versus cost of each design element and building component. In the design phase building development, properly applied value engineering considers alternative design solutions to optimize the expected cost/worth ratio of projects at completion. Value engineering elicits ideas on ways of maintaining or enhancing results while reducing life cycle costs. In the construction phase, contractors are encouraged through shared savings to draw on their special ‘know-how’ to propose changes that cut costs while maintaining or enhancing quality, value, and functional performance. For more information on value-engineering, see WBDG Cost-Effective—Utilize Cost Management Throughout the Planning, Design, and Development Process.

Tenant Requirements—The building design must consider the integrated requirements of the intended tenants. This includes their desired image, degree of public access, operating hours, growth demands, security issues and vulnerability assessment results, organization and group sizes, growth potential, long-term consistency of need, group assembly requirements, electronic equipment and technology requirements, acoustical requirements, special floor loading and filing/storage requirements, special utility services, any material handling or operational process flows, special health hazards, use of vehicles and types of vehicles used, and economic objectives.

Neoclassical revival style: Rittenhouse Office Building, Santa Cruz, California.

Neoclassical revival style: Rittenhouse Office Building, Santa Cruz, California.

The high-performance office must easily and economically accommodate frequent renovation and alteration, sometimes referred to as “churn.” These modifications may be due to management reorganization, personnel shifts, changes in business models, or the advent of technological innovation, but the office infrastructure, interior systems, and furnishings must be up to the challenge.

Worker Satisfaction, Health, and Comfort—In office environments, by far the single greatest cost to employers is the salaries of the employees occupying the space. It generally exceeds the lease and energy costs of a facility by a factor of ten on a square foot basis. For this reason, the health, safety, and comfort of employees in a high-performance office are of paramount concern. The designer should utilize strategies such as increased fresh air ventilation rates, the specification of non-toxic and low-polluting materials and systems, and indoor air quality monitoring. Additionally, provide individualized climate control that permits users to set their own, localized temperature, ventilation rate, and air movement preferences.

While difficult to quantify, it is widely accepted that worker satisfaction and performance is increased when office workers are provided stimulating, dynamic working environments. Access to windows and view, opportunities for interaction, and control of one’s immediate environment are some of the factors that contribute to improved workplace satisfaction. Natural light is important to the health and psychological well-being of office workers. The design of office environments must place emphasis on providing each occupant with access to natural light and views to the outside. A minimum of 30 foot candles per square foot of diffused indirect natural light is desirable. The acoustical environment of the office must be designed and integrated with the other architectural systems and furnishings of the office. Special consideration must be given to noise control in open office settings, with absorptive finish materials, masking white noise, and sufficient separation of individual occupants.

Technical Connectivity
Technology has become an indispensable tool for business, industry, and education. Given that technology is driving a variety of changes in the organizational and architectural forms of office buildings, consider the following issues when incorporating it, particularly information technology (IT), into an office:
• Plan new office buildings to have a distributed, robust, and flexible IT infrastructure, which would allow technological access in virtually all the spaces.
• During the planning stage, identify all necessary technological systems (e.g., voice/cable/data systems such as audio/visual systems, speaker systems, Internet access, and Local Area Networks [LAN] / Wide-Area Networks [WAN] / Wireless Fidelity [WI-FI]), and provide adequate equipment rooms and conduit runs for them.
• Consider and accommodate for wireless technologies, as appropriate.

The former Sentinel Building in downtown Santa Cruz, California is an excellent example of adaptive re-use and sustainable practice.

The former Sentinel Building in downtown Santa Cruz, California is an excellent example of adaptive re-use and sustainable practice.

Energy Efficiency—Depending on the office’s size, local climate, use profile, and utility rates, strategies for minimizing energy consumption involve: 1) reducing the load (by integrating the building with the site, optimizing the building envelope [decreasing infiltration, increasing insulation], etc.); 2) correctly sizing the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems; and 3) installing high-efficiency equipment, lighting, and appliances.


Consideration should be given to the application of renewable energy systems such as building-integrated photovoltaic systems that generate building electricity, solar thermal systems that produce hot water for domestic hot water (DHW) or space conditioning, or geothermal heat pump systems that draw on the thermal capacitance of the earth to improve HVAC system performance.

Additional consideration should be given to the applications of other distributed energy sources, including microturbines, fuel cells, etc., that provide reliability (emergency and mission critical power) and grid-independence, and reduce reliance on fossil fuel grid power.


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