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Do Offices Even Need Conference Rooms? Culture, Rapid Change Top Houston Design Considerations Now

When Kirksey worked with MD Anderson Cancer Center to plan its office space a couple of years ago, Kirksey found that it would not be designing an office for its CEO.

CORE Office Interior's Grant Canning, Kirksey's Brian Malarkey, Cheyenne Construction's Brent Richardson, CannonDesign's P.J. Glasco, PhiloWilke's Yong Gan, MaRS Culture's Kelie Mayfield and Perkins & Will's Mide Akinsade.

MD Anderson had a clear vision of the functional workspace it wanted. That included the option for its CEO to drop in whenever needed and take his pick of available 8-by-10-foot offices for the day, just like other employees, Kirksey Executive Vice President and Director of Interior Architecture Brian Malarkey said. 

Times are changing for office design, with MD Anderson representing just one example of architects working with companies racing to fit evolving office needs, Malarkey and other panelists said during Bisnow’s Houston Annual Architecture & Design Summit at POST Houston on Thursday. 

MD Anderson hoped to make its top executive “more visible and open to the rest of the organization,” Malarkey said, adding it “saw the writing on the wall and fully embraced connectivity-based design, 100% desk sharing.”

But as hybrid work becomes the norm and fewer people are going to offices than before the pandemic, a number of clients are requesting similar flexible workspaces.

Pinnacle Structural Engineers' Adam Cryer, Gin Design Group's Gin Braverman, Gensler's Dean Strombom, Method Architecture's Eric Hudson, Powers Brown Architecture's Jeffrey Brown and Page's Arturo Chavez.

No one wants to work in an office that feels dead or to show up in person just to sit on Microsoft Teams all day long, Malarkey said. But designing around that takes more thought than it did a few years ago.

This has led Kirksey to do more surveys than in the past, offering clients varying space typologies to find what is fitting for their different departments, he said.

“It’s not just about ‘What size conference room? How many people?’” Malarkey said. “The word ‘conference room’ is kind of antiquated, really, because you need to have a variety of spaces. Some with soft seating, some with front-row, back-row seating for presentations, [and] almost all of them need technology.”

Kirksey has prioritized asking companies whether traditional office spaces still make sense given the way they operate now, honing in on how they plan to work in the future.

That can be a difficult question to answer. That is why building in design contingencies and allowing for flexible future use of spaces is imperative, said Mide Akinsade, design director and principal for Perkins & Will. 

“In the face of the future that’s quite acutely unpredictable — Covid has shown us that — we don’t know what’s going to happen with office spaces,” Akinsade said. “What we find ourselves grappling with is, ‘Which area do we leave to be flexible enough to accommodate if it does revert back to the way we used to work?’” 

That can mean ensuring each space is wired and has access to technology, he said.

Yet every institution behaves and works differently, so it is important for designers to understand idiosyncratic work cultures and what priorities C-suites are driving when determining solutions, CannonDesign Health Practice Leader P.J. Glasco said.

“The solutions need to fit that model,” she said.

POST Houston

The future is also an important consideration when planning adaptive reuse projects, Powers Brown Architecture CEO Jeffrey Brown said of a growing desire to convert office buildings and complexes to other uses.

Adaptive reuse isn't the simplest or most financially feasible option for a development, though a 2022 Texas Historical Commission report showed 355 buildings completed since 2015 that have benefited from the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program have an economic value of $4.5B, he said. 

POST Houston, a building with retail and office space, a food hall and rooftop green space that was formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office, hosted the Bisnow event, and it was a participant in that tax credit program. 

“In the framework of the marketplace, this building didn’t make any sense,” Brown said. “It papers out as a teardown, period.” 

Developers have to be committed to a project, and financial incentives are required to make it work, he said, but it can be well worth it. That was the case for POST, which has unique architecture and is the most Instagrammed building in Houston, he said. 

“It’s a cultural institution at this point,” Brown said. “When you’re here, you will see a lot of people who are here on vacation from foreign countries with camera crews, I kid you not, setting themselves up on the various stairs doing videos.” 

The building “didn’t have to be this way,” but its architectural details and historical values make it a valuable part of the city, he said.