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January 10, 2008

Hacking the cubicle: Students learn to design for the occupants

OK, so you’ve bought a new house. You have more space, but unless you’re rich, you can’t buy a houseful of new furniture.

So what do you do? You reconsider what you’ve got and move in.

The UW, aided by two architecture professors and a group of graduate students, is studying ways to reuse hundreds of desks, chairs, bookshelves and office cubicles as faculty and staff move into the former Safeco building on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street.

The UW bought the 22-story property in September 2006 for $130 million, and the first new occupants are moving in this month.

In May, the School of Public Health will bring 13 groups, all but two of whom have been renting space off campus, to the 14th and 15th floors of UW Tower, some 22,000 square feet.

The furniture and office cubicles came with the building, and as a test case in repurposing, Public Health worked with the architecture crew who came together as Architecture 503: Hacking the Cubicle.

“We knew there wouldn’t be a lot of money to spend, and we didn’t want a lot of materials ending up in landfills,” said Jim Nicholls, a lecturer in architecture who specializes in architectural outreach. “We also wanted a more humane and crafted interior — more for research specialists and University people than an insurance company.”

Luckily, Nicholls, his teaching partner Terry Boling, a Cincinnati architect who has led student design/build groups, and their students had high-quality material. Nearly all Safeco/UW Tower furniture is from Herman Miller, the office furniture company in Grand Rapids, Mich., long known for its inventive, carefully considered designs.

The problem, however, is that the Safeco/UW Tower stuff dates from the 1970s. And while Safeco’s initial layout was colorful, Nicholls said, beige gradually took over.

Students and their teachers conducted extensive interviews with faculty and staff members of UW Biostatistics and Health Services. They found that their clients wanted good light and good work surfaces as well as privacy and security, including doors and cabinets that lock.

But how to do that with oceans of open space punctuated by an army of cubicles? Public Health Dean Patricia Wahl said plenty of faculty and staff worried about open, noisy, less-than-private workspace, so spending $15,000 on ideas for the old office components made sense. (Central Administration matched funds from Public Health.)

Eventually, members of the design studio took cubicles apart, rearranging them in spines — Herman Miller panels connected with steel angles. They located book shelves and work areas along each spine. They arranged six- and eight-foot cabinets along the spines, each cabinet with a work surface and storage shelves, so that each cabinet opens and closes like a large box and can be locked. The designers also proposed rolling carts which provide supplemental work space and can be nestled under work surfaces. Spine components can also be reconfigured as work groups change. These measures afford both control and flexibility, things staffers and faculty members wanted.

They also wanted those 360-degree views of Seattle. Safeco had cubicles in the middle of most floors and executive offices along the perimeter, but the design studio aimed for “a democracy of views” — spines perpendicular to the windows and common spaces (photocopying areas, conference tables, private-interview rooms) in the middle.

To maximize light, members of the design studio opened upper panels of cubicles and installed translucent screens. They also installed whiteboards where opaque panels had been.

As plans evolved, members of the design studio repeatedly talked with Public Health faculty and staff. Camille Cladouhos, a student member of Hacking the Cubicle, learned about diplomacy — how to handle multiple constituencies. “It was almost like working in a small company, trying to fulfill desires of clients,” she said.

Adopting the students’ recommendations would require major changes in the way Public Health faculty and staff operate, said Lawrie Robertson, director of finance and administration for the School of Public Health. For some, the changes involve too much risk in terms of privacy and workspace comfort.

Nevertheless, he said, some elements of the students’ work will influence final designs: the spines, the methods to maximize light and the ways to arrange elements as projects grow and shrink.

He and Wahl are pleased with their investment. “These studies made a major impact on the way people think about their workspace,” Wahl said.