Making office spaces less square

New trends emphasize public spaces, a blend of work and lifestyle amenities

Roger Vincent / Los Angeles Times /

Published Sep 15, 2013 at 05:00AM

With the lines between our work lives and personal time blurring as new technology unchains us from our desks, the notion of what a desirable office looks like is also changing.

Corporate America is moving away from conventional layouts where an employee’s status is measured by the amount of space he occupies. Instead, more compact, playful designs are coming into favor.

People can do their jobs almost anywhere with their cellphones and laptops, the reasoning goes, so let’s make the office a place where people are stimulated by close interaction at their workstations and chance meetings in inviting public spaces such as lounges and coffee bars.

This gradual but pervasive shift in workplace culture that packs more employees into less room has been a blow to conventional office buildings in downtown Los Angeles and other financial centers. Acres of space lie vacant even though the economy is improving and many businesses are adding workers.

Making underused office properties desirable again may require radical modifications inside and out, real estate experts say. Few owners have taken bold actions yet, but architects and urban planners are scheming about how such transformations might be accomplished.

Cutting out chunks of an office building’s interior to create an atrium, adding loft-like mezzanines on floors with high ceilings, or grafting on outdoor staircases are among the ways that structures could be dramatically remodeled to be more efficient and appeal to changing tastes.

Such changes could also make it possible for office buildings to accommodate multiple uses. In a real estate industry idea competition last year, architecture firm Gensler suggested that the 40-story Union Bank Plaza in Los Angeles could be renovated to have auditoriums and classrooms for a school on its lower floors and a large fitness center above.

Higher floors could house hotel rooms, apartments and a spa — and still leave room for offices.

Union Bank Plaza is nearly fully occupied with office tenants, but other buildings including US Bank Tower, the tallest tower in the West, suffer from persistent vacancy.

Big changes in conventional offices are eventually going to be needed because formal workplaces where men and women arrive “dressed for success” in tailored suits after long drives from suburbia are dying out, said Peter Miscovich, managing director of strategy and innovation and real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle.

“The 1980s work-style model and lifestyle model is over,” he said. “I don’t think people enjoy commuting two hours each way every day. Young people in particular do not want to sacrifice their lifestyle for their work style.”

Many of them are moving to urban centers to be closer to their jobs and leisure activities. The population of downtown Los Angeles, for example, has swelled since 2000, yet office vacancy has hovered stubbornly around 20 percent in the same period.

Both landlords and tenants are under pressure to make their offices less square — in both senses of the word — as they seek to attract top workers while using space more efficiently.

One tenant that has taken the plunge is Gensler, which moved downtown in late 2011 after 20 years in Santa Monica, Calif. Architects at the firm came up with a plan to transform a building that was once a prominent branch of Bank of America into an example of a futuristic workplace and a showcase for Gensler’s work.

Gensler demolished the core of the granite-clad 1970s building, creating an interior staircase under a new skylight cut into the roof. The firm also suspended a new mezzanine, turning a staid building into a three-story showplace that hosts numerous public events in its built-in amphitheater.

“Our office is the first ‘hackable’ building example,” said Gensler design director Shawn Gehle, using a new industry term for transforming the way that conventional structures are used.

Some of the best candidates for hacking were built in the decades after World War II, when high-speed elevators and air conditioning made it possible to build tall buildings with deep, wide floors. Their cookie-cutter sameness and predictability was considered part of their appeal.

Such homogeneity is no longer an asset, Gehle said. “Now we understand that companies are unique.”

Blurring lines

People also like it when the workplace feels a little less like work, with inviting spaces where they can eat, chat and relax.

“We are in a time of great domesticity in the workplace,” he said, something people crave in part because work now routinely invades personal time. People respond to business email on their smartphones and finish projects on iPads while attending their children’s Little League games.

“We are bringing our lifestyle to work and our work home,” Gehle said, “creating a real blurring of our professional and private lives.”

Mixing uses in new real estate development is also becoming more common. Residential buildings erected near Los Angeles-area rail transit routes, for example, typically include ground-floor shops and restaurants. The only major office project under construction in downtown L.A. will be part of a skyscraper hotel that will also have three floors of retail space for rent.

The days when the region was divided into business and residential sectors are over as more people take up residence in formerly all-commercial districts, said real estate broker Carl Muhlstein of Jones Lang LaSalle.

“You have to create work, live and play areas” like the boroughs of New York, Muhlstein said. “You can no longer have an office area isolated from residential, or retail isolated from office.”

People’s desire to work in places that nurture them both professionally and personally has grown strong enough that top managers are being forced to adapt and give them what they want, said Kevin Ratner of Forest City Enterprises, one of the country’s largest developers.

“Why did Google buy up half of Venice? They want the environment, the vibe of Venice,” Ratner said of the Los Angeles neighborhood. “Now the workforce is driving company location instead of the boss.”

There will always been demand for offices, Ratner said, even though the nation’s white-collar workforce is changing to what some observers call a human cloud.

“Heads-down time you could do anywhere, but if you want to run ideas past people and get inspired, you don’t do that by yourself,” he said. “People want to be around other people who are active and energetic.”

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