The first time Paul Mankins, FAIA, LEED AP, saw his firm's future office space, he couldn't believe his luck. The former 1920s car dealership in Des Moines, Iowa, had 15-foot ceilings, beautifully preserved wood trusses, exposed brick walls, and views in three directions.

Mankins and the firm, known as substance, saved and highlighted these features in their 2005 renovation. They designed a ribbon of Baltic birch that snakes around the office, forming bookshelves, clustered workstations for 16 employees, 45-degree divots for paper storage, and the sides and tops of file cabinets. A similar detail of plate steel travels down the wall and across the floor of each workstation before morphing into a central gathering table.

The added elements are easily movable and could be transferred to another space later, should substance ever relocate. And the open desk arrangement encourages collaboration. Work surfaces sit higher than usual, allowing staffers walking by to make eye contact with those at their desks. “I think it actually works,” Mankins says. “People are more likely to converse and collaborate if the physical environment supports that.”