Designing Space as a Strategic Business Tool

Design, San Francisco, Huntsman Architectural Group, architecture, Bay Area design news, Daniel Huntsman, Dan Huntsman, Sascha Wagner, Sasha Wagner

Sascha Wagner was recently named president and CEO of Huntsman Architectural Group, succeeding Daniel Huntsman, who founded the firm in 1981. Wagner reflects on the company’s mission of helping clients enhance their business culture with the strategic use of space.

By Sascha Wagner

I come from a family tradition of builders—my great-grandfather owned a housing company in Germany that my grandfather and father, who is an architect, helped run. Early on, I tried to escape the family legacy by studying other creative fields, even going so far as to get a B.A. in English Literature. But eventually I came around to seeing design as my true path. And once I attended design school, I really knew this was the right career for me.

Sixteen years ago, when I first arrived in San Francisco, Huntsman worked primarily with landlords and was known for its high level of client service. Since then, we’ve evolved into a firm that focuses on design and helping clients achieve strategic objectives through the built environment. That’s something I want to build upon while keeping up our strong service ethic.

Workplace design has evolved to be far more than simply accommodating employees while keeping overhead costs down. Physical space plays a key role in attracting and retaining employees, and it’s a means of communicating the unique brand of the company to workers and customers alike. That means the design process has to focus on not just the basic space needs of the occupants, but also the value that the built environment can bring to the company’s culture.

With mobile technology allowing us to work from pretty much anywhere, community matters even more now. So the office needs to provide a sense of place that attracts people and helps them connect to one another. It has to be authentic and meaningful.

In our predesign process, we take an in-depth look at the client’s core values and business drivers. We call this “visioning.” Asking questions without a preconceived design agenda helps develop a roadmap for the project, allowing us to create a physical environment that is a strategic tool and not just an overhead expense. We ask, “What kind of company do you want to be in 10 years? What are your employees truly passionate about? How do you connect with your local community?”

Delving into an organization’s culture up front usually unlocks a conversation about values and aspiration, which should be guiding principles, especially when a lot of construction dollars are spent. Some clients have a hard time thinking this way at first because they are so focused on traditional project drivers like headcount, schedule or cost. But the visioning process should focus on a company’s unique mission and how a project can move it forward. It’s about starting a project with “why,” not “what.”

One example of how office space can link directly to a company’s mission is the new San Francisco headquarters we designed for social media platform company Lithium. During visioning, we determined that the space needed to not only reflect Lithium’s own brand but also allow the company to create an environment illustrative of its clients.

So we integrated a multimedia experience into the workplace—a series of video walls, changeable graphic panels and monitor displays that feed live data about the particular client’s project during a presentation. When clients visit, they become immersed in their own social media brand experience. At the same time, the headquarters has unique fixed elements, so that people who work at Lithium feel like they’re part of a strong brand themselves.

Kaiser Permanente’s IThrive group in Oakland, California has achieved a similarly successful workplace using the company’s core value of wellness as the key driver for that project. The prototype incorporates not only fitness facilities, a variety of work settings and sit/stand workstations, but also a café area with healthy snacks and a place where nutritionists can come in to teach employees how to prepare healthy meals and shop for the right foods. Kaiser is now considering this workplace concept for its other facilities.

While many firms are embracing collaboration in order to encourage innovative thinking, one size does not fit all. The ideal mix of collaborative and individual workspaces will vary significantly depending on the company’s unique culture. A recent study conducted by office furniture provider Steelcase found that organizations make use of one of eight models of innovation, and that each model thrives with a different type of workspace.

For example, companies that fall under a highly centralized model are best supported with teams organized into neighborhoods surrounding a central project area that’s dedicated to sharing ideas and information. Companies with multiple specialized groups are slightly less centralized, with each neighborhood having its own “front porch” for sharing information with other teams while also providing private work areas to allow ideas to incubate for a while before sharing. At the other end of the spectrum are decentralized organizations, which rely more heavily on technology for communication, and they collaborate more extensively with outside companies, consultants and/or individuals. Here, partners work at geographically distinct locations and come together in shared spaces, potentially off site or even virtually. Within each of these models, an organization’s work culture will require different kinds and sizes of collaborative and private workspaces, from two-person “huddle rooms” to traditional conference rooms.

An essential part of using design as a strategic business tool is developing the right metrics to measure the success of the solution. The obvious metrics, such as first costs, maintenance costs, productivity and even absenteeism rates, are important to collect. But there’s also a cultural value that needs to be measured. During post-occupancy evaluations, we ask clients the same kind of in-depth questions we asked at the beginning of the process. Keeping an open dialogue about what works and what doesn’t, both before and after a project, helps all parties learn and improve for a better chance at success.

With escalating construction costs, skyrocketing rents, and tightening competition for top workers, real estate now has to do double and even triple duty. A good design firm will help their client organizations leverage these built assets. When workplace design not only enhances a company’s workflow, but also strongly communicates its unique culture, the office can become much more than just an operational resource. It can be a tool for transformation.