Planners bring helpful perspective


April 08, 1991|By Edward Gunts

In today's soft real estate market, finding the right space to conduct business may be one of the easier tasks for a company considering a change in its office environment. It's a buyer's market, and good real estate deals abound.

But planning how to use that space efficiently and effectively can be just as critical to a company's chances for success -- and far more tricky.

For corporate executives contemplating an office makeover or relocation, Maryland is home to a wide range of interior designers, architects and others with a wealth of space planning experience.

Whether a company is moving to a new location or remodeling its existing space, professionals say, the design process can provide an ideal opportunity for executives to assess their long-range goals, gain a better understanding of their operation and determine how it might work better in the future.

Two recent projects -- an overhaul of the Trust Department at Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co. by Michael Asner Associates and an expansion of the Towson office of the law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard by Nancy Foreman Design -- demonstrate some of the ways designers can help company managers solve space problems they can't solve themselves.

The Trust Department at Mercantile has occupied the third and fourth floors of the Mercantile building in Hopkins Plaza for nearly years, and it hadn't been renovated since the mid-1970s.

By all accounts, it was a classic case of an operation that had just become so cluttered and disorganized over time that there was no more capacity for growth. Boxes and filing cabinets were in the aisles. Work stations had been added helter-skelter. Employees weren't seated where they needed to be.

Last year, Mercantile officials decided they couldn't ignore the situation anymore and called in Michael Asner Associates to create a better space plan.

"It was like a lot of office spaces where you go in and see the evolution that has occurred over time," said Emily B. Heath, vice president of Michael Asner Associates and managing design director for the Mercantile renovation.

"Files were everywhere. People were out in the open with boxes, and they didn't have a sense of privacy. There was really no rhyme or reason to the plan," she said.

"It was pleasant because the people who were working there were pleasant. But it wasn't physically pleasant because it wasn't an efficient place to be.

Ms. Heath said the bank's goal was to upgrade the 30,000-square-foot area to make it more efficient, provide better storage and work surfaces, and give employees more of a sense of privacy, without increasing the square footage.

Mercantile also wanted to improve the reception and waiting area for customers of the Trust Department, many of whom are elderly people who come to the bank for estate-planning advice. In addition, they wanted to plan the project so that all the work could be done on a fast-track schedule and with a minimum of disruption to ongoing operations.

The solution called for the space to be gutted down to the bare walls, in phases, so an entirely new office setting could be created in its place. In employee work areas, the haphazard arrangement of unmatched chairs and desks was replaced with a mixture of private offices and partially partitioned workstations that provided better work and storage space.

Because the Mercantile building is long and narrow, Ms. Heath said, the work space was organized into "main streets" that run the length of the building and "side streets" that break up the long corridors. Private offices were built along the outer walls, and administrative work areas were created in the middle. Filing cabinets were recessed along the corridors to provide ample storage space without blocking hallways.

Ms. Heath said she tried to make improvements throughout the work space, not just for the visitors or executives in private offices.

"We didn't put all the best finishes in the reception area," she said. "We spread them throughout the space so everyone benefits from good design."

For the reception area, Asner tried to create a space that felt more like someone's residence rather than a stark waiting area. They replaced a freestanding receptionists' desk with a wood paneled counter that conceals computers, telephones and other visual clutter. They replaced the cold, 1970s-era furniture with warmer, more traditional pieces that might have come out of a depositor's living room.

"I was thinking about the clients who were coming in and where they might live," Ms. Heath explained. "We wanted them to feel very comfortable in the space." Completed last fall, the project was cited in the 1991 design awards program sponsored by the Maryland Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. *

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