Designers thinking outside the cubicle

Office: Some Howard County employees are trying out new modular work environments designed to keep people from being boxed-in.

May 17, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A billowing sail looks great on an ocean racing yacht, but how about on wheels, attached to a desk in a normally stodgy Howard County government office?

OK, so they call it a privacy screen, and it's part of a county experiment with new Erector set-style work environments as officials look for new ways to do business in a proposed 25-acre Ellicott City government office complex.

Prodded by James N. Robey, the county executive and 35-year civil servant, space consultant Cheryl Duvall said, "We really want to make sure we're being competitive - to challenge workers to be open to new ideas and new ways of working."

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information provided by the Howard County Department of Public Works, an article published May 17 in the Howard and Carroll sections of The Sun about new, innovative work stations in Howard County offices contained the wrong prices for the units. Howard County bought four Resolve model work stations, which cost $2,087 each, and 12 Ethospace work stations, which cost $4,023 each.
The Sun regrets the error.

The county used the opportunity presented by a needed renovation of the aging Carroll building to try out ideas about mixing office functions and new furniture. The idea is to build a minimum of private offices and keep the bulk of central space open, with adaptable workstations.

The combination retro/Jetsons look in office furniture is one portion of that experiment, though certainly the most striking one.

"It feels different than when I was at a desk, upstairs. I haven't gotten used to it yet," said Cheri Saltsman, a graphic designer in Howard's public information office.

Noise is an issue, and several workers wear headphones. Shelves protrude from odd places, and the desk surface is rounded into a kidney bean shape. A lamp sits atop one pole, with a plastic marker board attached and a plastic filing cabinet is to the right. The rolling, sail-like screen can be moved to block distractions.

It's not a setup for pack rats, as Beth Vessey, the graphic design supervisor, is learning.

"I'm a person who kind of collects junk," she said. "I had a private office upstairs. I'm getting used to it more and more. It's tough getting used to the lack of privacy," she said, unpacking boxes.

The county bought six of the futuristic work stations at a discount from Herman Miller, the Zeeland, Mich., furniture maker who invented the much-maligned office cubicle in the late 1960s. The new Resolve stations cost $1,400 each after a hefty discount. Ten more - more like the familiar cubicle - were bought for $4,800 each for adjacent quarters that house Planning Department engineers.

Robey said price was one big reason he decided to try the new furniture, but "you've got to step outside the box sometimes and try something different."

Mark Schurman, director of corporate communications for Herman Miller, said the Dilbert cubicle jokes are understandable, but a bum rap, because firms corrupted what was intended to be a flexible design to save money.

"The best application would not be a series of small rectangular boxes," he said.

That would be hard to do with Resolve, the pole-supported system with which Howard is experimenting.

"There are no small dark squares, just open environments. The rolling screen is an added enclosure with translucent material to shield bright light," he said, or to signal co-workers that privacy is required.

The county's experiment offers other, less striking aspects. The public information office is being paired - without an intervening wall - with the development engineering section of the Department of Planning and Zoning, The two groups will share space for fax machines and copiers, conferencing and eating on the renovated first floor of the Carroll Building, a two-story office edifice that dates from the late 1960s. Movers have been transferring boxes of records and telephones and installing furniture for the past few weeks.

Victoria Goodman, Howard's public information director, said the county is also asking other questions - such as, "Why do people in the field need office space that's vacant 90 percent of the time? They could use PalmPilots."

The engineers have more traditional-looking cubicles, called "Ethospace," with lower walls to lessen isolation.

"We don't want to box ourselves in," said Duvall.

As a county employee for 35 years, Robey has seen the once-futuristic county complex undergo repeated internal changes - until the open floor space was so divided by partitions, new walls and dusty shelving that the air-handling systems do not work well anymore.

Abaye Girina, a veteran county civil engineer, yearns for a bit more cubicle isolation, but he is philosophical about the changes.

"The bottom line is, it's up to me - I can like it. You can fit in any situation," he said, smiling.

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