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Designing for Tomorrow, Technologically Speaking

by Roseanne Bell and Ann Johnson

Without technology, interior designers would still be drawing documents with a quill pen. Instead, they use computers to design workspaces for people using wireless phones, laptop computers, Per-sonal Digital Assistants (PDAs), desktop videoconferencing, and the miles of cable connecting it all. These workers move frequently and take their "stuff" with them... maybe quill pens were not so bad after all.

When you consider these technological devices are often used in an open office setting, ergonomic and environmental factors become important. Acoustics, cable management, lighting, and angles of view play major roles in the design of productive work areas and presentation facilities.

Interior designers are meeting these challenges with open, flexible, and well-connected workspaces that manage noise levels, promote productivity, and help companies attract and retain the best employees in today's tight labor market.

Technology has also changed the way companies view their marketing and sales strategies. "Today, high-tech companies need different ways to present their capabilities to customers," said Roseanne Bell, president of Benham Bellwether. "Even in traditional, low-tech companies, multimedia presentations and interactive displays are augmenting the sales effort."

This new, technology-driven approach to sales and marketing requires a different type of space. Electronic media is artfully and often invisibly integrated into the space to create the all-important "Wow" response.

Benham Bellwether, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, specializes in technology-intensive, high-visibility spaces, such as executive briefing centers, control centers, trading floors, and videoconference rooms. The company also specializes in designing workstation standards and planning large scale space-use.

"The changes in today's workplace are unprecedented," Bell said of twenty-first century office environments. "Open offices and growing technology requirements mean we spend a great deal of time designing around sound and cables."

The integration of technology into corporate environments has created more than a few challenges for interior designers. The most notable are acoustics, cable management, lighting, and ergonomics.

"Because these areas of design change as rapidly as the equipment, we can't give you solutions to every situation," Bell said. The following comments are intended to highlight the issues involved and share a few examples of ways to handle them.

Quality Sounds Through Smart Designs
Noise levels and lack of privacy are the most common complaints from people working in open offices.

While workstation panels can have some acoustic value, it is not significant. Ceiling tiles with a high noise reduction coefficient (NRC), carpet with a cushion back, and sound masking systems (electronic or natural, such as water features) are guaranteed acoustic controls.

Demountable partitions are a solution to the ever-changing office landscape, but they don't offer the acoustic qualities of gypsum board walls. The modular, movable walls are usually frame and panel systems that do not penetrate the ceiling and floor. They lack the airtight properties of a monolithic wall for better acoustic control. Since sections of demountable walls are often glass, further decreasing the NRC, designers often find specifying insulated glass or an air space between two layers of glass creates an improved acoustic barrier.

Whenever possible, designers use fabric-wrapped accoustic panels in demountable walls and lay a blanket of sound batting over the top of the ceiling to minimize sound transference.

It is not uncommon for executive conference rooms to have one or more window walls. These glass surfaces combined with large screens create a lively room. It is important to compensate with ceiling, wall, and floor materials of excellent acoustic properties.

Fabric window coverings, upholstered walls, and acoustic ceiling panels are commonly used to absorb sound frequencies. Interior designers research and specify unusual finish materials, such as glass, metal, and wood, to solve acoustic problems. One company manufactures perforated wood panels with acoustic properties for use on ceilings, walls, and doors.

Using interior finish materials in unusual ways can sometimes have surprising results. When a 300-seat corporate theater was designed, the acoustic consultant was specific regarding the location of absorptive and reflective surfaces.

For aesthetic reasons, those involved wanted both types of surfaces to look the same, so the absorptive and reflective surfaces were camouflaged with layers of stainless steel over copper mesh. The audio/video (A/V) consultant was happy because using the metal camouflage inadvertently provided radio frequency shielding, thus preventing some stray radio waves from impinging on the electronic equipment.

Recently, Benham Bellwether planned to use a similar treatment in a control center. However, a potential problem was discovered during discussions with the information technology (IT) expert in the planning sessions. The IT expert said metal could interfere with signals on wireless phones the staff planned to use in the area.

Because the most absorption, and therefore signal loss, occurs when a whole number of meshes in the grill add up to the exact wave length of a signal, Benham Bellwether is experimenting with types of grill where the meshes are of different size. The size or gauge of the wire doesn't matter. For instance, chicken wire can cause a 70 db loss, while rebar lattice in concrete will not have a discernible effect.

Designing and building air pockets in the ceiling is another way to control sound. For example, designing gaps or spaces, either between sections of ceiling grid or between sections of floating FiberglasTM panels, will trap the low frequency sounds traveling up into the plenum above the grid.

Standard lay-in lighting fixtures can transform 30 percent of the ceiling into a sound-reflective surface. For example, pendant-mounted lighting fixtures can be used to increase ceiling absorption.

Sounds Underfoot
The floor is another major design area affecting noise levels. It is common knowledge that carpet absorbs sound better than hard surface flooring. For added sound absorption, lay carpet over a pad with adhesive on both sides for long-lasting placement. Cushion-backed carpet tile is another popular flooring solution because of its acoustic value and comfort underfoot.

Raised flooring presents another acoustic challenge. Because the metal panel-type flooring can be noisy even with carpet tile over it, apply insulation to the underside of the metal panels.

Wired for Change
"Today's workplaces must allow rapid movement of people to facilitate constant communication and teaming," said Ann Johnson, ASID, Benham Bellwether's vice president. "Increasingly, less space is being allocated for individual work processes and more for group or team functions."

Mobility is the operative word for furniture today. Walls are coming down, and space is opening up to facilitate constant communication and working in teams. Desks, filing systems, chairs, and even furniture panels can be specified on wheels. In frequently changing, tech-nology-intensive workspaces, maintain-ing access to power and data can be a challenge.

Designers are specifying spines, hubs, and flexible furniture systems to help companies manage technology.

Hub systems are "fat power poles," which carry more cables than traditional power poles. They can be fed from the floor or the ceiling to supply a cluster of workstations. Hub systems are commonly used in telemarketing centers.

Spine (or spline) walls take traditional panel systems to the next level. Spine walls—which come in 1.2 m, 1.5 m, or 1.8 m (4 ft, 5 ft, or 6 ft) widths and in multiple heights—are about 127 mm (5 in.) thick. Spines can carry more cables than panel systems, and the cable channels running along the outsides of the structural elements allow cables to be laid as bundles. The outsides are then covered with easily removable skins. The skins become functional when specified as fabric, marker board, tack surface, or tool rails.

Cables and electrical outlets can be placed in almost any position horizontally or vertically on the spine wall, giving technicians access to cables at any point along the spine. Compared with traditional panel systems, reconfiguring and moving cables in a spine wall is less costly and time consuming.

Wing panels acting as privacy screens between people can be mobile or attached anywhere along a spine. The flexibility of spines and wing panels means the size of the workspace is no longer determined by or dependent on a panel module.

For some types of spaces, even spine walls won't accommodate heavy cabling requirements. Technical consoles are made for such circumstances, although most are not flexible enough to survive rapid changes in equipment.

One company has used trading desk manufacturers to fill heavy equipment needs. For example, a customized trading desk with large open areas under the work surface accommodating great quantities of cabling has been successfully used in a control center. Access is easy from both the front and rear.

Another approach to equipment-heavy work areas is to take the equipment off of the desktop and place it in its own cart or rack. This approach minimizes clutter and maintains clear sight lines to LCDs.

Staying Connected
The ability to display information to a group has become a vital component of corporate environments. Conference rooms, data centers, control centers, executive briefing centers, and trading floors all require some kind of information display. Each type of space presents unique design challenges.

During a recent project, a client requested that all conference tables be mobile with built-in power and data ports. To maintain mobility, engineers were asked to specify jacks at both ends—one set in the table and another set in a floor box—rather than hardwiring them through the floor.

The dual jacks produced the best flexible design solution for the majority of tables, which were lightweight plastic laminate tops on metal bases with built-in power raceways and wheels. To distinguish the corporate divisions, granite-topped tables on heavy metal bases were designed for the executive areas. The bases were designed to accommodate the power and data ports and to sit over the floor boxes.

Because the connection was not hardwired, the electrical inspection would not allow the company to install the custom tables directly over the floor boxes. To maintain accessibility and protect the power cords from damage during a move, the table bases were altered to meet the inspector's requirements.

First, the tables were moved just enough to allow access to the floor boxes. Then the designers added spacers on the bottom of the disc-shaped table bases to allow the power cords room to exit the bases and plug into the floor boxes.

Illuminating the Issues
PowerPoint® has monopolized the world of corporate presentations, requiring only that a computer be connected to a large screen monitor or to a projector mounted on the ceiling or placed on a cart. However, rear-screen projection, large gas-plasma screens, and multi-image video walls are quickly replacing the traditional presentation media.

Designers consider the space's use before recommending light sources and equipment. For example, to adequately light a videoconference facility, the illumination level at the participants should be set somewhere between 75 and 100 footcandles. However, such light levels hitting a screen will wash out all but the brightest front-projection images because the image is light reflected off the screen surface. To keep the image bright, using a rear-screen projection system less affected by light levels in the room is recommended. In general, rear projection avoids more problems and provides sharper images than front projection.

Techno Savvy
When planning rooms with sophisticated A/V components, the size and location of the equipment room is critical. Place the equipment room adjacent to the presentation room and make the room larger than imagined necessary.

Equipment racks need access from both sides and often require supplemental commercial air conditioning. Large, rear-projection images require a longer throw distance than small images and must be placed several feet behind the screen.

Measuring Up
During one company's recent executive briefing center project, the client requested large screens be installed. For videoconferences, the client wanted the participants to appear larger than life and for the audience in the back of the room to read the text in PowerPoint presentations.

The company decided to use an acrylic rear-projection screen, available in sheets as large as 3 x 6 m (10 x 20 ft). Several sheets were supposed to be butted together with no frame between them. The screen wall was designed to be 3.7 x 9 m (12 x 30 ft) in a 145 m2 (1,562 ft2) room.

However, during the planning stages, it was learned that the acrylic screens would melt in a fire and emit noxious gases. In fact, the fire marshal's office said to limit the screen material to 20 percent of the wall surface. Rather than limiting the size of the screen, the company is considering using glass screens instead of acrylic ones. While a glass screen solves the code issue, it doubles the weight of the screen, thereby requiring a different support structure.

Clear View
Whenever large-screen displays are used, sight lines become important. Perform a sight-line study before designing all types of multimedia rooms. To ensure everyone is able to see and, in the case of videoconferencing, be seen, multimedia solutions range from wishbone-shaped tables to tiered flooring.

Another ergonomic consideration is the angle at which the viewer sees the screen. For occasional, short-term use, screens placed high on a wall can work well. However, workers looking at the screens for long periods should not have to tilt their heads up to see the screen. Screens mounted above 2 m (7 ft) high are better viewed when tilted down at a 15-degree angle.

Weighing the Costs
Most of the projectors and monitors being used today are either liquid crystal display (LCD) or digital light processing (DLP). They use significantly less power and generate much less heat than the older cathode-ray tube (CRT) projectors and monitors. The costs to change 160 CRT monitors in a control center to flat-screen LCDs were recently compared. The cost savings in power alone over a one-year period is $45,000; the flat-screen LCDs reduce the required amount of air-conditioning by more than one-third.

Data centers, control centers, and trading floors are generally very secure areas. Showcasing a secure area presents a set of new issues. Should bullet resistant glass be used? If so, which level is appropriate? What about fire-suppression systems? And what kind of information should be displayed on large screens that can be seen by the public? How is proprietary information handled? Should visitors be allowed on the floor, or is a secure viewing area needed?

All of these questions were considered and the design challenges were accepted when a bank in El Salvador, proud of its data network, wanted to design a data center containing a small network operations center (NOC) and an executive presentation room. The data center and NOC are the backbone of the bank's operations. Functionality was of utmost importance. However, the bank's executives wanted a data center that did more than work well. A controlled area with visual appeal to customers and aesthetic appeal to employees was created.

Technology continues to function as a sales tool in executive briefing centers. The concept behind an executive briefing center is to deliver the company's message to high-level executives in a memorable way. Designers are often asked to create the "Wow" effect in these spaces.

The role of interior designers is much broader than in the past. Together with architectural, acoustic, A/V, and engineering consultants, designers create spaces where people can respond quickly and efficiently to the changing needs of their workplace. And, with the artful use of technology, interior designers help businesses communicate their image and message to customers in brilliant style.

Additional Information

Lauren Ingram is a writer at Communicating Arts, a full-service marketing, creative, design, and technology agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ingram can be reached via e-mail at Benham Bellwether contributed to this article and can be reached at

MasterFormat No.
General Data-Design

Key Words
interior design

Considering the current and constantly changing technological aspects of office spaces—from wireless phones, laptops, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and desktop videoconferencing units to the miles of cables connecting it all—ergonomic and environmental factors are becoming increasingly important in the design of work facilities

Sidebar 1: Access Flooring- Not Just for Computers Anymore
by Jane D. Baker and Lauren Ingram

Access Flooring, 10270 as defined by MasterFormatTM, includes a "free-standing, accessible floor assembly of modular panels and elevated support systems, forming an underlayment cavity for mechanical and electrical services distribution."

Two decades ago a research visit to any company's "state-of-the-art" equipment room would take you into a stark room with an access flooring system made of plastic laminate or a metal floor replete with perforated panels. Chilled air was required to cool refrigerator-sized (and larger) computers and their related equipment all in the functional space. A short, steep ramp usually impinged on the room's space or disturbed the traffic flow in the outside corridor. People entered these spaces to perform necessary tasks, but I doubt many customers were impressed or that deals were signed over the access flooring.

Today equipment rooms, data centers, and control rooms showcase the heart of companies' operations. Innovative designs mesh with next-generation materials, making it difficult to tell you're walking or working on access flooring. Although unfilled, formed steel panels are still available; acoustic and comfort criteria frequently require designers to specify lightweight concrete-filled steel pan panels. Steel-covered wood panels, which offer increased thermal performance, are another flooring solution. Designers sometimes specify lighter weight aluminum panels; however, the aluminum does not provide optimum thermal performance.

Despite the panel material, access flooring systems offer varying levels of accessibility. A stringerless system supports the floor with only pedestals. Usually, the pedestals support the corners of four panels, thus creating a stable floor. When this is not structurally sufficient, stringers, which tie pedestals together, are added—sometimes across two or three modules. As with all great solutions, there are sacrifices. The additional stringers occupy space, thereby compromising the accessibility of the underfloor space. The loads and user requirements are carefully balanced to determine the most appropriate access flooring system.

System selection is not the end of the challenge—today's designers and users are faced with a plethora of floor finishes, ranging from exposed metal to plush, cushioned carpet tiles. Each option presents a new set of aesthetic and performance characteristics to consider.

Although many building users are not proficient in access-floor planning, one casino owner devised a unique method to make his flooring system truly accessible. Heavy gambling machines were installed on the large casino's access flooring. Machine regrouping or the addition of new machines required major moving of cables and wires. Rather than removing panels and disturbing multiple carpet tiles, an innovative owner attaches the new cable or wire to a small remote-control car and simply "drives" it to the new location. This simple method of moving underfloor accessories allows for lower pedestals and provides more space to the human activities above the floor.

In technology-driven spaces, access flooring must often be seamlessly integrated into the facility design with conventional construction. The transition from one structure to another can cause unexpected problems. For example, one executive briefing center that lacked appropriate bracing where the access flooring intersects with the regular flooring allowed a 6.4 mm (1/4 in.) deflection, causing an extremely heavy custom-door to slip out of its pivot.

There is not one "best" access flooring system. Each presents different design and functional problems that cannot be eliminated but can be controlled with focused research.

Because code compliance is not optional and often requires informed negotiations with jurisdictional authorities, sometimes the only way to make good decisions about systems and materials is to experience them. For this reason, designers should first narrow the system selection to the ones presumed acceptable. Then ask manufacturers to identify local installations of the systems under consideration. Often manufacturers have agreements with owners to use successful spaces as showcase pieces. Sometimes real-life solutions are not available to view, but it can't hurt to ask.

Remember, the time spent researching the best and most flexible solutions is always better than surprising an owner with a springy new access floor system or making a client angry when the utility costs of a poorly insulated access floor system are higher than expected.

Jane D. Baker, FCSI, is an independent specifications consultant and is a former president of The Construction Specifications Institute. Baker consults for clients and projects throughout the United States from her Tulsa, Oklahoma, based practice.

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