The Minneapolis architecture studio of a global architecture and engineering firm fuels its own imagination with a winning blend of transparency, brand color, and technology

By John Reinan

Amazing things can happen when a group of architects decides to step into the future. When the Twin Cities architecture studio of the global firm HDR moved into a St. Paul skyscraper a decade ago, “We looked like a really nice law firm,” jokes vice president and managing principal Jim Thomson, AIA.

In January 2016, HDR made a jump across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis—and a quantum leap into 21st-century office design. The firm’s sparkling new space opens off a skyway in Mayo Clinic Square. With a coffee bar up front, whiteboard walls covered with sketches and ideas, and nary a cubicle in sight, HDR’s new Minneapolis studio exudes creative energy.

“It’s been a game-changer for collaboration,” says vice president and design principal Mike Rodriguez, AIA. “It has changed the way we work. People are actually talking to each other instead of IM-ing, emailing, and texting.”

A key to the new space: Nobody has an assigned seat. Each day, employees have a new neighbor, exposing them to different projects, different ideas, and different ways of thinking. In the old space, amid a sea of cubicles and private offices, “we had to sort of force ourselves to go to the whiteboard,” says Rodriguez. “Now it’s just natural.”

Thomson says the studio carries a whiff of “back to the future,” evoking the open rooms of drawing tables that were once a staple of the profession. “Now you can look over someone’s shoulder,” he says. “You can jump into a discussion based on what you see on someone’s screen or on a whiteboard.”

Clients are also energized by the environment, says Thomson. “I’ve never seen them so excited about coming into a space,” he says. “They see our people creating things, and we can include them in that process.”

A flexible gathering spot near the entrance, dubbed “The Big Think,” is a critical locale for larger gatherings and brainstorming sessions. The space is equipped with virtual-reality capability, allowing designers and clients to walk through a concept and make changes on the spot.

Rodriguez likens the overall vibe to a coffee shop, a good reason for placing a generously proportioned coffee bar right up front. Depending on your mood, you can curl up in a cozy corner or plant yourself in the middle of the action. The space offers a range of seating options, from adjustable workstations to comfy couches to freestanding Brody WorkLounges.

After the firm decided to make its big move, there were some cold feet among the staff. It was a seismic change, and not everyone was sure they’d be able to adapt. A key moment came at a staff meeting when Rodriguez held up his backpack and declared: “This is my office.”

People got the point. And now they wonder why they ever doubted it.

Julie Robertson, a senior interior designer, admits she had her concerns about giving up a dedicated workstation. “It was actually liberating to purge everything,” she says. “The new space is so fresh and invigorating for everyone. I wouldn’t want to go back to where we were.”

The firm also appreciates its newfound connectedness. More than 15,000 people a day pass by its glass wall. In the old building, says Thomson, “We were 19 floors up, and our connection to the world was an elevator to the food court.”

The new space is about 40 percent smaller than the former office, giving up personal space for collaborative space. It’s worked out just as everyone had hoped. “The staff has gotten a lot tighter,” says Rodriguez. “It was a leap of faith, but now we wouldn’t change a thing about it.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: HDR
Architect: HDR
Principal-in-charge: James W. Thomson, AIA
Project lead designer: Mike Rodriguez, AIA
Interior designer: HDR
Energy modeling: Paulson Clark Engineering, Inc.
General contractor: Gardner Builders, Inc.
Size: 7,790 square feet
Cost: $575,000
Completion: February 2016
Photography: Courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc.; © 2016 Corey Gaffer