On Oct. 18, New York creative agency The Bloc hosted an AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee event called "Walk the Talk: An Example of Successful Social Science and Design Integration." The company, which specializes in producing engagement tools specially geared towards the health and wellness industries, knew firsthand of how integrating social sciences when designing a built environment benefits its inhabitants. This is because a year ago it commissioned local designer Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, and her firm Fōz Design to design their new office space, in collaboration with The Mufson Partnership, who served as the architect of record—a space that served as a case study for the committee's latest seminar.
Moderated by committee co-chair Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, founder and executive director of social research and design consultancy Plastarc, "Walk the Talk" aimed to facilitate "a discussion with experts in social science for design, exploring ways to create exceptional spaces via research and engagement," according to the event page. Co-chaired by fellow designer Evie Klein, Assoc. AIA, the local AIA chapter's committee was officially formed in February and encourages practicing architects and students to combine the disciplines of architecture, design, and social science to create functional (and healthier) spaces for their users. During the presentation, founding partners of The Bloc, Susan Miller and Rico Viray, also had the chance to explain how their new space has benefited from this approach, and took attendees on a comprehensive tour of the office as part of the event.
In 2015, Khanani designed the 55,268-square-foot space in New York's Financial District—an area of the city that has slowly been recovering from tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy—and offers stunning views of the East River and a (temporarily) less intimidating Brooklyn skyline. "I did not create the views. We kept the views," she says.
Khanani—who studied sociology as an undergraduate at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and worked in public health before attaining her master's in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley—explained that immersing herself into The Bloc's office culture provided her insight in order to shape the design: "I would take my work and be working [in their former office], but at the same time I’d be a fly on the wall seeing how people interacted in this space," she says. "In doing that, I got to know a lot of [employees], and had direct input. A large part of the social science component was all the pre-research we did, but it was also the research that continued to happen through the process and the collaborative nature of the project."
And so, each element of the workspace was deliberate, and catered to not only what the leadership wanted but to what employees needed. Miller and Viray made it clear that they would like an open space that allowed employees to interact regardless of hierarchy, yet also provided some privacy. Desk partitions that were once akin to cubicle partitions in their previous office were cut down to almost nothing so that employees didn't feel separated. But desks were arranged so that the employees also weren't inadvertently staring at one another every few seconds.
Another important checklist item was that they did not want a cold, corporate feel that felt segmented. Khanani avoided the unfriendly office-feel by customizing Teknion's District collectionDna Lounge Seating in gray and orange wool, as well as the Dna square tables. These were selected for their modular qualities, as the founders wanted to encourage teamwork and creativity among their staff. In fact, these lounge pieces were reconfigured as audience seating for the AIA event, and later returned to their lounge layout for employees to use in the morning.
One of the biggest challenges was making sure that the site's stellar views were unobstructed for everyone. The previous configuration of the space (in its past life as a Wall Street trading floor) had higher-ups' offices lined along the windows, which completely closed off views for any other employees. Instead, Khanani broke up the office through levels, and added private offices on a slightly elevated platform, behind the open-plan workstations. The private offices are fitted with glass facades that ensure they also benefit from the views and natural light.
Khanani's crowning jewel, though, is her custom-designed wooden bench that stretches along the windows on the main floor. This long bench accompanies the modular lounge seating, and was also created to provide seating for more than 200 employees during the company's quarterly meetings. The natural wood was a conscious nod towards the Financial District's maritime history, says Khanani, "We have lots of wood throughout, but the bench was a very literal reference, in that we have the planks running horizontally and the undulation in the design was to sort of mirror the currents in the river." Besides its aesthetic appeal, the extended and tapered bottoms of the bench satisfy different types of seating. "So, on the ends, you will see the lower part of the bench fans out, while the back reclines so that it accommodates lounge seating. Whereas as when you move towards the center, the bottom [is tapered] and the back becomes upright," she says.
The small details of what went into designing this workspace, and taking human senses into consideration made a huge difference for its occupants. There have been tweaks—such as the addition of custom acoustic panels in meeting rooms—that had to be made after The Bloc officially moved in, but the space seems to work perfectly for Khanani's clients. "One of the best things I heard was [from a new employee who told me], 'In my decision to take this job, the number one factor was the space.' I was just floored."