Imagining the Post-Pandemic Office

Imagining the Post-Pandemic Office
Oct 19, 2020

Wellbeing initiatives are driving design for work environments of the future, and architects are up for the challenge.

With the coronavirus pandemic pushing many people into work-from-home positions and office space costs well into six-figures, many business owners might be asking: Why maintain a physical office at all?

“The benefit of building a space is that it gives the culture a place to live,” says Kelly Dubisar, a San Francisco-based design director for architecture firm Gensler. Speaking in a virtual panel in early October about post-pandemic workplaces, Dubisar said her company conducted a study that showed 70 percent of employees still saw value in coming into the office."

In the same panel, Ross Zimbalist, senior vice president of commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE, said that a study his company conducted showed most employers plan to bring 40 to 50 percent of workers back to their offices by mid-2021, but emphasized, “It’s incumbent on business owners and landlords to make the office a place where people want to come.”

The post-pandemic office is coming. But what does that look like? Commercial architects and real estate developers say it looks like a ton of indoor-outdoor space to facilitate healthful business environments full of fresh air and natural light. One of the best ways to achieve this design is through moving walls of glass that blur the boundaries between interiors and the outdoors when open and provide security, noise reduction, and all-weather views when closed.

Post-pandemic offices are sunny, designed with lots of outdoor spaces, and incorporate touchless technology and the natural environment. Several examples are already in progress or completed around the U.S., including the 799 Broadway high-tech office tower in New York City, the 330 North Green office tower in Chicago, and the Western Window Systems facility in Phoenix. The latter project, designed by international firm Ware Malcomb, features almost every product the door and window manufacturer makes in a showcase of indoor-outdoor office spaces, including two patio decks.

Kevin Evernham, principal at Ware Malcomb, was lead architect on the project. He says the keys to creating indoor-outdoor office spaces are “controlling the elements, security, and balancing aesthetics with practicality.”

Evernham goes on to say because of COVID-19, commercial office design has shifted to mitigate coronavirus concerns through touchless technology, sanitation stations, and inclusion of nature. “Companies are looking for ways to incorporate more fresh air and natural light, including the use of windows and indoor-outdoor space.”

Robert Goodwin, New York-based principal and design director at global firm Perkins & Will, says before COVID-19, he designed a building at 799 Broadway to attract tenants in the TAMI (technology, advertising, media, and information) industries. The structure had a lot of the same design qualities of a healthy office: high floor-to-ceiling spaces, lots of daylight, and outdoor areas. “Almost every floor has a large terrace that’s not just an outdoor space but an extension of the workplace,” Goodwin said in the Archinect panel. “It’s a positive idea of making the workplace or office building into a place that’s really healthy. In a simple sense, you’re trying to mimic being outdoors. High ceilings and open spaces help achieve that.”

Architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill also had contemporary design trends in mind when it designed the 330 North Green office building in Chicago, Illinois. But the building’s five-story, 6,000-square-foot open-air terrace (called The Porch) will also make it perfect for pandemic-wary tenants when the office building opens in 2021. That space can be enclosed during winter by sliding glass doors.

“A great solution (for controlling the elements) is utilizing retractable doors as the barrier between the indoor-outdoor space,” Evernham says. “In climates where the weather can vary drastically day to day, the retractable doors are key to a flexible and dynamic indoor-outdoor space.”

Inside, conference rooms can be expanded for socially distanced meetings through products like 90-degree multi-slide doors which merge conference rooms with lobby areas to create more open space.

Some offices could dispense with walls and ceilings altogether in parts of their workplace to facilitate more fresh air in the battle against COVID-19. Even prior to the pandemic, there was ample research regarding the bacteria-killing properties of natural light and the health benefits of fresh air and spending time outside.

Evernham and Ware Malcomb studio manager Lynne Orlowski point out that energy codes and wellbeing initiatives are driving requirements to support large-format windows and doors. “Installing large sliding door systems is becoming more commonplace to increase employee access to natural light and the outdoors,” they say. “Employee wellbeing initiatives and programs such as the WELL Building Standard focus on occupant health and wellbeing and create a great need for these products as we move toward patron-focused design.”