In offices of the future, receptionists are virtual, walls are for writing on and flexibility trumps all

Stepping off the elevator, you would never know you were in Crystal City. At least not in the year 2014.

The building, at 251 18th St. South, is one of a slew of 1970s-era government office buildings that emptied after Defense Department cutbacks. On the outside it looked as nondescript as any in Crystal City, but inside displayed top architects’ best guesses at the future of office space: small suites with shared work spaces, movable walls, whiteboards on every surface and virtual receptionists.


VOA’s concept, WORK4TANK features a table where mobile workers can work, eat and socialize.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

This week, the building’s owner, Vornado Realty Trust, held a competition called DesignLab showcasing how architects see the world of office space changing as millenials pour into the workforce and Internet-based businesses make up a larger portion of the American economy.

Vornado has traditionally focused on attracting law firms, government agencies and associations to its Washington area properties.  But the  owner of about 20 million square feet in the region is now  turning its attention to creative and tech firms, one of the few office sectors showing any signs of growth. Vornado has lured TechShop, a manufacturing workshop for creative types of all stripes, to Crystal City, and it is bringing WeWork, the start-up incubator, to one of its buildings in Dupont Circle. (WeWork also has locations at the Wonderbread Factory building in Shaw and in Chinatown.)

Mitchell N. Schear, president of Vornado’s Washington division, said the competition was an extension of Vornado’s effort to re-brand Crystal City as a place for talented young workers. “What we decided to do was take a typical floor in a typical building and show the community ‘Hey, you can do creative space here just like you would in the Wonderbread building or somewhere else,’ ” he said.

Schear argued that unlike in Lower Manhattan, where creative companies poured into neighborhoods already branded as cool by artists and restaurants, the Washington area has no natural hub for growing tech firms. D.C. officials would beg to differ, given the burgeoning start-up community in the District’s East End, but Schear said he sees an opportunity for Crystal City to own a part of that niche.

“I absolutely believe that this is a strong trend in the future of office occupancy. We think at the moment there is relatively unabated demand from the creative community and there aren’t any natural locations,” he said.

The rules of the competition were simple. Six firms were invited: RTKL, Perkins & Will, OTJ, SmithGroupJJR, VOA and Fox. Each was given a portion of the sixth floor and $65 per square foot to turn their space into whatever they wanted. Other than that there were no rules. Among the biggest ideas:


Perkins+Will incorporated flexible Steelcase furniture.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

1. Shared work spaces

All the architects pushed concepts with open floor plans and work spaces used by different workers at different times, with either cafeteria-style bench seating, half cubicles or tables that looked they’d been lifted from Starbucks.

Pabo Quintana of VOA said that for tech companies, even established ones, assigned desks had almost become a thing of the past. His firm designed a 125,000-square-foot space for IBM near Dulles without a single assigned desk. For DesignLab VOA built a long wooden “power bar” where workers could stop in with tablets and phones. “This is what we do for Google. This is what we do for IBM,” he said.

All the sharing and openness is aimed at an egalitarian, collaborative feel with less emphasis on who is in charge. OTJ called its office “The Hive” because of bees’ capacity for collaborative work and social interaction. SmithGroup built a nicely lit corner space for a pod of workers so everyone could look out at the view.

“It’s not about who is at the top anymore,” said Mike Johnson of SmithGroupJJR. “It’s about what we can do as a team to create something. So the corner isn’t going to be for the CEO anymore. It’s going to be for everyone else.”


RTKL’s approach uses open space, green recycled building materials and LED lighting that reduces energy costs by 50 percent.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

2. Supreme flexibility

Most teams pitched their office as something of a blank canvas, with furniture and walls that could be moved overnight. Don’t like where these desks are? Roll them over toward the windows and electrical, heating and cooling can accommodate the switch. Want the color pallet to match your company’s? The colors in place can be swapped out or re-painted.

Desks in the office designed by OTJ could be pulled apart and reconnected like Legos on wheels. Fox architects designed their entire space in 10-by-10-foot squares and built an app that allowed prospective tenants to move around each block by swiping them around on a flat screen television. Enclosed offices could be against the wall or the window. The conference space could be at the entrance or in the middle. Modular glass walls made it work. 

VOA built an office for an executive that could also be used a meeting room, something some executives are already employing. “The person that sits here is only in this office 20 percent of the time. That should not be dead space the rest of the week,” VOA’s Quintana said.


Mitchell N. Schear, President of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, launched and funded the competition to try to help revitalize Crystal City.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

3. No receptionists

The days of having a desk at the front entrance with someone sitting there to greet you are apparently going by the wayside — few of the architects made that a priority and some eliminated it altogether. Visitors to Fox’s offices were greeted by a “virtual assistant,” a woman from one of the company’s offices elsewhere in the state speaking via wall-mounted flatscreen monitor. Visitors buzzed her by triggering a motion detector and spoke to her by looking at a wall-mounted camera.

Sabret A. Flocos of Fox said it allowed one person to greet people at many offices, without subjecting visitors to an unreliable doorbell or buzzer. “It’s more personal,” she said.

Perkins & Will included a reception desk in their plan but one that was on wheels and waterproof, so it could make way for a presentation or used as a bar for a reception. In some of the floor plans, kitchens took the place of the receptionist area. Linda Jackson, of OTJ, said offices are becoming an extension of open floor plans in homes where people show off their kitchens rather than hiding them.

“HGTV is the trend,” she said. “They take what they know from their homes.”


OTJ’s project, the Hive, emphasizes open space and flexibility.(Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

4. Environmentally friendly materials

In the Perkins & Will office, nearly everything was built from sustainable or recycled materials, from the movable carpet tiles, to the pin board made from recycled plastics to the movie screen that descends electronically from the ceiling but is made of canvas, not vinyl, which can be harmful to the environment. Jon Penndorf from Perkins said the firm rarely uses vinyl any more as a result.

Throughout the planned offices there was very little storage area and almost no space for paper. More and more work is being done in the Internet cloud, workers are moving between multiple locations and desk sharing doesn’t allow for someone to pile reports on their desk. (With all the glass walls, it would be particularly unsightly.)


ARLINGTON,VA. MARCH 10, 2014: DesignLab showcases innovation in office space in Crystal City Vornado’s challenge to six architects, here the SmithGroupJJR has created writable wall boards in colors that match the decor, in Arlington, VA on March 10, 2014 .( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

5. Walls you can write on

Without any paper around, office workers need something to write on and in the DesignLab offices that was almost everything. Entire walls of some offices were painted to act as white boards. Others encouraged writing on glass walls or painted walls to act as chalk boards or magnet boards. It all emanates from the core mission of fostering creativity and collaboration. 

“The real innovation in the office is the transformation of the office from being defined by individual square footage —  this part is for you, this part is for him — into a collaborative space,” VOA’s Quintana said.

 Nearly 200 brokers arrived at DesignLab earlier this week and voted to name RTKL the competition’s winner. Vornado will pick its own favorite next week. The real winner, however, will be the concept that lands the first tenant. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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