An architecture firm designs a new space for itself in Minneapolis’ IDS Center with a focus on mobility, flexibility, and adaptability

By Joel Hoekstra

After 15 years in the Essex Building at 10th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis, the local office of global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will was primed for a change. The space—leased pre-recession, when staffing levels were higher, and remodeled several times—had become a bit large for its 65 employees. Plus, the firm wanted to experiment with the kind of mobile work environments that its clients increasingly asked it to create.

“Our old office was beautiful at the time it was built,” says Perkins+Will associate Anne Smith. “But it wasn’t designed to be flexible and adaptive in the way that we’re working now.”

The search for a new space ultimately led the firm a few blocks up the street to the IDS Center, where it selected 9,800 square feet on the third floor, overlooking the Crystal Court and Nicollet Mall. “We liked the idea of staying in the central business district. We liked the idea that people who lived nearby could walk to work or have easy access to the transit system,” says Smith. “And the opportunity to work in an iconic Philip Johnson building was pretty appealing, too.”

With 15-foot-high ceilings and a perimeter composed entirely of windows, the space felt bright and open—an asset that Perkins+Will hoped to make the most of. “Rather than partitioning the space, we decided to leave it open, adding glass-box conference rooms here and there,” says senior associate Russell Philstrom, AIA. “We imagined them as volumes within the super volume of the overall space.”

With their eyes on achieving LEED CI Platinum certification, Philstrom, Smith, and designer Jamey Berg chose to limit themselves to a palette of just five healthy, Red List–free materials: plywood, tackboard panels, markerboard, glass, and some carpeting. Narrowing the material choices drove the team’s creativity and helped keep costs down.

What’s more, says Smith, no element of the new design is too precious to be moved or replaced as the company’s space needs evolve. “We didn’t want to put a lot of resources into expensive permanent fixtures and materials like granite countertops,” she notes. Perkins+Will also made a concerted effort to reuse and upcycle materials from its old space. When existing sit/stand desks were cut down in size to fit the new studio, for example, scraps were repurposed into a community café table.

The team also sought to demonstrate how a workplace could be flexible, active, and adaptive. Instead of assigning each employee a permanent desk or office, the firm invested heavily in mobile phones, laptops, and docking stations, and it set up a system where employees could choose where they worked each day—at a desk, in a conference room, in a lounge chair, in the café.

“It was a technology challenge,” says Philstrom. “We had to make sure there was access to power and Wi-Fi in every corner of the space. We switched to universal laptop docks so people with different computer models could work at any station.” The design also had to incorporate lockers where employees could store personal belongings and work materials.

Visitors arriving via the elevator lobby enter immediately into the company café. “We didn’t want to create a special little zone with chairs and a reception desk,” says Smith. “We wanted to welcome people right into the heart of our space.” Each day, several staff members work at the community table in the café, keeping an eye out for clients and visitors who might wander through the door.

Opposite the café is an enormous conference room complete with video displays, a project screen, and a glass-paneled garage door that, when raised, makes the total space large enough to accommodate all employees for a meeting. Perhaps the most “finished” space in the office, the large conference room features a drop ceiling of perforated plywood and can be completely sealed off from the rest of the studio for management meetings or conversations with clients.

A path through the center of the space leads past small rooms where phone calls can be made, midsized rooms where meetings can be held, and rows of desks on casters that can be moved and rearranged as needed. A custom-made maple credenza and some funky yellow Haworth chairs add personality and color to various corners, while cocktail tables and chairs along the perimeter allow employees to gaze out at the pedestrian traffic on Nicollet as they work.

Of course, the open work environment also required that Perkins+Will establish some guidelines for usage. What if someone leaves crumbs on a desk at night? (The firm asks that all food be consumed in the café—which also boosts social interactions.) How should you handle a call from a loud client? (Step into a phone booth, please.) But once such guidelines were established, says Smith, most concerns about the wide-open space were alleviated.

Not surprisingly, visitors have been intrigued by the studio. “Previously, we were only able to say what our clients’ experience had been with flexible work environments,” says Smith. “Once we decided to try it ourselves, there was no way to just dip a toe in. It was all or nothing.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Perkins+Will
Architect: Perkins+Will
Design principal: David Dimond, FAIA
Project designers: Russell Philstrom, AIA; Anne Smith; Jamey Berg
General contractor: Gardner Builders
Size: 9,800 square feet
Cost: $60 per square foot
Completion: January 2016
Photographer: Corey Gaffer