Open Offices

The open office may have been the conception of Frank Lloyd Wright, who transitioned his Prairie-style “open concept” from home to workplace in his 1906 Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY, and his 1939 Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, WI. Instead of separating workers behind office doors, he arranged long rows of desks across barrier-free floors to foster office-wide communication and collaboration.

Noting the lack of basic privacy here, the German design group Quickborner regrouped the desks as a Bürolandschaft (“office landscape”), an aggregate of workstations with or without partitions, in the 1950s. In 1964, Robert Propst evolved this into Herman Miller’s Action Office System of desk arrangements of varying heights. This progressed into Action Office II in 1968, the standard cubicle network combining broad surfaces for productivity with raised partitions for privacy and pin-up capacity.

Sensing cubicle-cramp here, office-space designers have taken cues from Wright by emphasizing long common tables and enclosing breakout/conference rooms and private offices in glass. The open office concept characterizes nearly 70% of America’s workplaces, intended to forge the teamwork necessary to collectively accomplish goals. This layout strategy was deployed to arrange 2,800-plus engineers within one sprawling 10-acre campus in Frank Gehry’s 2015 Silicon Valley design for Facebook’s headquarters, essentially getting physical with the social platform’s mission of ‘bringing the world closer together.’

Despite its clear assets—spatial efficiency maximization, furniture arrangement flexibility, cost-effectiveness through square footage reduction—the open office has been criticized for lacking privacy, confidentiality, and good old-fashioned peace and quiet. Despite aiming for flexibility, the open office design is challenged with accommodating individual employee work patterns

Architectural offices are among the most open of all, given the profession’s highly collaborative nature. So what can a firm do to combine the efficiency of an open office plan with the need for alternate work settings?

SGA Design Group’s solution, in large part, was to introduce oversized phone booths to the office. SGA recently added two Medium Pods manufactured by SnapCab. Distributed by Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, MI (which collaborated with Wright on his Johnson Wax workstations), they accommodate 2-4 people each. The pods are ventilated, sound-insulated modules with glass doors/walls and three sides of opaque laminate panels which also function as dry-erase surfaces. They come equipped with sensor-controlled LED lighting and a power module for plugging in laptops and mobile devices. SnapCab pods come in many colors and finishes to match a firm’s brand or palette, and can be fitted with Corning Gorilla Glass. SGA Design Group customized the pods with vinyl graphics on the glass doors/walls to enhance privacy.

A sleek modern addition to SGA’s office, the SnapCap Medium Pods offer an alternative workspace for our retail architects to review plans, have one-on-one meetings, and have telephone conversations which warrant a bit more privacy. They also give our intern architects a quiet place to study for exams as they are working towards licensure. The units come on casters, making them easy to relocate as the needs of the office plan evolve.

SGA has found the SnapCab Medium Pod to be truly a happy “medium” between privacy and transparency. Its sound-deadening intimacy allows for greater focus and confidentiality than a shared table across a broad expanse, and its mobile compactness preserves the integrity of the collaborative open office environment, avoiding the siloing that Wright worked to overcome.