Tech in D.C.

An internet company’s new legislative office revolves around food, not foosball.

A recent workplace design project undertaken for an internet company’s legislative office had us pushing the boundaries in our design concept. The tech sector is largely optimistic about design, they truly believe in design as a tool to do marvelous things. Design is not a commodity or an accessory in their world, it’s something that can be molded to create something really spectacular. There’s nothing as inspiring as designing for a client who takes design as seriously as you do.

How did we get to this unique workplace design? Oddly enough, we got to it in our usual way, by listening to the client and designing to their culture, values and identity. That said, it resulted in a design that’s anything but run-of-the-mill Capitol Hill.

1. Visioning began before we even had the job.
At the interview, we decided not to focus on our portfolio of work but rather on the process, asking the client to help us extract a vision that would kick-start the project. We asked them about collaboration, personal space and working in tech. We used picture association and asked them, “If you have to pick a picture here that best describes what collaboration means to you, what would it be?” We had already started the process when we won the job.

2. Two guys tubing = inspiration
During the visioning, we had the client choose a method of transportation that described the speed and style of their office/workforce. Some people picked the Cadillac, some picked the racecar, then they explained why they chose that picture. The pictures we collected became somewhat emblematic of the whole process: “This is what defines the client.” The key image turned out to be two guys floating down a river side-by-side on inner tubes. They had sunglasses on, no shirts and were looking up at the sky on a beautiful day. They were totally relaxed; seemingly unaware of their surroundings. In a perfect world our client said that’s how their workspace should function; people would feel free, unencumbered, and relaxed.

The Innovation Lab

The Innovation Lab occupies the building’s distinctive rotunda and has views of one of D.C.’s main thoroughfares.

3. Innovation = inspiration
We hit on the idea of designing an engine for innovation. We started with diagrams where we imagined elements and attitudes toward innovation becoming actual spaces which one could physically occupy. They were generally situated in the more public areas to encourage employee engagement and freedom of expression. We used tunnels and portals to connect these unique spaces. The tunnels and portals became themes of their own; some display anamorphic graphics that only become realized when standing at a specific spot, others take on a more literal representation, referring to the halls of the Senate office building for instance. The idea was to create a circuit that you could identify; walking from one space to another was really moving from one idea to another through these connecting pieces. In each section, something cool would happen.


4. The café design was key.
This company provides their employees with free breakfast, lunch and dinner, 24/7, 365. In our office design, everything revolves around food, and it’s everywhere. People travel between these places to get snacks during the day. Food is the fuel for innovation. The idea for the café in D.C. was to create an urban, eclectic space inspired by a coffee shop that didn’t resemble a corporate cafeteria. We worked on it for a month before moving on to other parts of the design. We introduced wood timbers in the café to make it look like something other than a concrete office building.

Experience Center_1_No logo

5. Enter the Internet.
The entrance was designed to conjure what it would be like to be inside the internet­­–like Tron. We imagined the internet as this pristine, white place with information flowing up and down the walls. This is exactly what the space became: white, celestial space with projectors streaming information that will flow like the Matrix, but less ominously so.

The '50s diner-inspired Cafe Car

The ’50s diner-inspired Cafe Car

6. It’s jarring… by design.
We wanted to turn the space into an ‘engine for innovation,’ which happens in different places for different people. You’ll walk from one space to another and get a new look and feel. We meant it to be crazy in that way. In our design every time you pass through a door, you enter in a different universe. We wanted the design to shock one into different emotional states: going from a serene space to a crazy one, to one that was more neutral. For example, The Café Car looks like a diner from the ‘50s, while the next room looks very ‘space age.’ It was about jarring the senses as you walked around.

Open office work areas are buffered by huddle rooms.

Open office work areas are buffered by huddle rooms.

7. Lawyers get five feet of desk space just like everyone else and like it.
The client’s lawyers moved to this building not to have a corner office but because the U.S. Capitol Building is a stone’s throw away. They wouldn’t have it any other way. The work areas are basic but functional; primary tables have sit-to-stand capabilities so each individual can work from their preferred position. The desks also move, allowing for further manipulation of personal and group work areas. The layout uses walled in spaces like meeting and huddle rooms as “buffers” for the open work areas to support privacy and confidentiality.


8. Workspace is tight, but “free space” is plentiful.
Areas including the café, the diner, the library, the event space and the reception area are all free thinking space, and together they comprise a large part of the office. In these areas, there are no rules, no desk assignments, no conference rooms, you just roam. The promise of working at a great tech company, among other things, is to enjoy yourself while you’re working and to have ownership of how you structure your environment. This client is very deferential to its staff, they will bend over backwards if someone has a request that their desk be painted yellow and turned upside-down because that’s the way that they work best.

9. Iron Man = inspiration
The inspiration to make the walls interactive in the demo area actually came from the film Iron Man, where he manipulates the computer by moving and tossing images and information around. Again, the contrast occurs when you go from a bright space to a more cavernous one. This is about changing up ways of thinking to inspire innovation.

10. The phone rooms are terrible… by design.
The phone rooms were designed to be tiny and uncomfortable. They are not meant for a three-hour conversation, but rather a short call. It is a private space, but not a place to ‘hide.’

Micro Kitchen

Farmer’s market-inspired kitchen

11. Farmers markets inspired it.
In the kitchen spaces, we tried to create this “farmers’ market” aesthetic with vintage crates that we found, naturally, by searching the internet. It features a blackboard which tells staff what’s available to eat that day. Behind that is a “mini kitchen,” basically a food prep area.

The Library

The Library

12. It has secret doors.
At the end of one tunnel space, there is a bar which is cut out like a diorama. It leads you to a secret door in the library behind it. The door doesn’t have any hardware; you have to hit it in a special spot to open it.

The Pub

The Pub

13. The third place is “the pub.”
Workplace designers think a lot about “the third place”—it’s not work, it’s not home, but needs to be exciting, engaging and fun. A successful third place is not a game room, or a place with distracting stimuli. It retains the elements of privacy and personalization but it is distinct from the home or office; it is a place to relax and get work done without sitting at your desk. These offices occupy one and a half floors. You go downstairs and find the pub outfitted with dart boards, chess and a pool table. It’s designed for lounging or working.

14. It’s green (meaning sustainable).
We already knew that we were going to seek LEED certification. A month into the design, the client asked us if we would be willing to undertake LEED version 4 certification. This is a pilot project for LEED version 4.

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