Facilities Planning—Part Two

PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE

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Last time, we discussed how to calculate the total amount of space needed for your design firm and how that space might be divided up into personal, team, and public areas. Now we’re ready to look at the process of getting everything arranged just the way you want it.
Nov/Dec 2006
PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE
Facilities Planning—Part Two
by Shel Perkins

Last time, we discussed how to calculate the total amount of space needed for your design firm and how that space might be divided up into personal, team, and public areas. Now we’re ready to look at the process of getting everything arranged just the way you want it.

If you’re planning to lease a space that’s completely raw and unfinished, it will require a build-out. If you’re moving into a space that has been occupied previously, chances are it will have to be remodeled. Both situations require careful negotiation with the owner of the building. Discuss how financial responsibility for the necessary improvements can be shared. Most landlords are willing to provide subsidies for improvements that increase the value of the property and make it more desirable to future tenants. A commercial real estate attorney can be an invaluable resource to you when negotiating these aspects of the lease agreement. The negotiation might focus on the cost of specific improvements or it could lead to a general build-out allowance that’s calculated as an amount per square foot. Depending on the size and condition of the space, this rate can vary greatly. You’ll also need to clarify who will oversee the work, and what the required process will be for getting the final plans approved by the landlord.

In general, leasehold improvements are structural or functional. They tend to be permanently attached or integrated into the building, such as plumbing and electrical wiring. In contrast, the term “fixtures” is used for items that could be removed and taken with you if you relocate. Your lease agreement should specify whether you are allowed (or perhaps required) to remove any fixtures at the end of the lease. If you have a long-term lease, it’s fairly common to make comprehensive leasehold improvements—permanent modifications that tailor the space to your needs. With short-term leases, however, fewer changes are made. Often there’s a narrower focus on the arrangement of furniture and equipment, and some of these items might even be rented from vendors rather than purchased.

As you make financial commitments, speak with your accountant about how they should be recorded in your books. For tax purposes, different items will be depreciated in different ways. In the U.S., most leasehold improvements to commercial buildings are depreciated over the course of 39 years. With some leasehold improvements, however, it may be possible to shorten the depreciation schedule to match the term of your lease. Other categories such as fixtures, furniture, and equipment are depreciated more quickly. Federal tax codes change periodically and state requirements sometimes vary, so you’ll want expert guidance from your CPA.

Build-outs and remodels require specialized expertise. As a designer, you may be tempted to take on projects like this entirely on your own. Think carefully before making this decision. Do you have the appropriate skills and experience, and do you have time to spare from paid client assignments? It usually makes sense to bring in professional advisors from outside your firm.

Advice from a space planner might be free if he or she represents a company that sells contract furnishings or modular office systems (the consultation might be viewed as a marketing expense by that company). An interior architect can work with you to analyze needs and develop plans, guide the selection of materials and fixtures, prepare blueprints and construction documents, coordinate any necessary permits, seek competitive bids from contractors such as carpenters and electricians, and monitor the quality of contracted work as it’s being done. Obviously, all of this can make your life a lot easier! You’ll also want advice from a computer network consultant on data and phone connections, on-site (and perhaps off-site) servers, and wireless capabilities.

The best configuration of your space depends on your particular situation and needs. Keep in mind that three of the most essential elements for creating comfortable work areas are good airflow, good lighting, and noise control. Many design firms have high ceilings but low interior walls. Private offices are few and tend to have a glass wall or glass door opening onto a larger, shared space. Open areas are not divided into boxy, corporate-style cubicles. Instead, flexible infrastructure and modular furniture systems allow team members to be grouped into reconfigurable “pods” that place several collaborators (staff and freelancers) in close proximity to each other. Many firms put everything on wheels, making it easy to move desks, whiteboards, and partitions as needed.

As you go through the planning and construction process, be sure to keep employees in the loop. Get early input from everyone who will be using the finished space. Ask what elements they would like to see. Be open to ideas, but don’t let this request for input devolve into decision making by committee. It’s important to have the involvement of all stakeholders, but it’s also important to maintain strong project leadership and clear decision making authority.

A large project like this will take weeks or months to complete. During that time, provide regular updates to the staff. Uncertainty and lack of information can lead to anxiety. Reduce the stress of moving or reconfiguring by giving employees as much information as possible. As the process moves forward, take employees to see the new space, show them blueprints, and perhaps even build models to help them visualize what the finished workplace will be like.

Many design firms also factor in some flexibility for individual employees by providing options for the final components that will go into their personal spaces. Allow workers to control what they can. Give them a chance to personalize their new workspaces by choosing from a preselected menu of items such as chairs, desks, tables, file drawers, bookshelves, or lamps.

When you’re ready to occupy the finished space, orchestrate the actual move very carefully to minimize disruptions to daily activities as much as you can. There will be an adjustment period as everyone settles in, but client projects must go on.

When it comes to facilities, the biggest challenge for creative firms is that needs are not static. Personal and team requirements change over time. Your firm will have turnover in staff, bringing new employees with different personal preferences. You’ll also have to cope with larger adjustments as your mix of services evolves. For example, the space, lighting, and equipment needs for print design are different from those of web development. What’s ideal today may be less than ideal three years from now if the services that you provide to clients change. When laying out space, be sure to allow for growth and flexibility.

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