The Reimagined Workspace

Unconventional design at Duke encourages colleague collaboration

The Duke Cancer Center lobby has a feature wall that pays homage to Duke Chapel archways as well as North Carolina trees. Photo by April Dudash
The Duke Cancer Center lobby has a feature wall that pays homage to Duke Chapel archways as well as North Carolina trees. Photo by April Dudash

Every afternoon around 3 p.m., the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafts down the halls of Gross Hall as a Social Science Research Institute student removes the treats from the oven and plates them for employees, students and visitors.Along with the lure of free cookies and coffee every afternoon, the rows of workstations and clusters of sofa chairs pull people in to encourage conversations and the birth of interdisciplinary projects.“No one needs to be tied to a desk anymore,” said Lauren Dunn Rockart, the architect with Lord Aeck Sargent in Chapel Hill who helped redesign Gross Hall. “It’s about being close to people with common interests. We see less and less departmental ownership. It’s more about what you’re working on and what you want to be working on.” When one thinks of open-office design, Silicon Valley workspace innovators such as Google come to mind, with playground-style slides and mobile office furniture. At Duke, departments are finding unique ways to marry academic needs with office design. In Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, associate professor Gráinne Fitzsimons leads her daytime MBA students in a case study that examines how workplace design can be utilized to fulfill business needs. Instead of confined private offices or cubicles, more open floorplans allow for coworker interaction throughout the day, Fitzsimons said. “People are able to say, ‘Hey, what are you working on there?’ ” she said. “Moving to this more collaborative workspace really makes sense if you want to spark a lot of impromptu conversations and if you want to have a lot of heterogeneity in terms of ideas.”

Creation of collision spaceA framed napkin hangs in Thomas Nechyba’s  office. Tiny squares on the napkin comprise a sketch his wife created of the dream layout for the Social Science Research Institute in Gross Hall.Nechyba and his coworkers moved into Gross Hall in August 2013. Once a bunker-like building that was built in 1968 for chemistry labs, Gross Hall was retrofitted to allow for more natural light and open space, a big change that Nechyba welcomed.“I’m a big believer in architecture helping to accomplish institutional goals,” said Nechyba, the institute director. “If we could figure out how to design a space well and make it something dramatically different, then it could essentially be the foundations of a reimagined institute.”Today, institute staff work in a “fish bowl” in which private office walls and doors are glass, allowing for transparency and colleague interaction. A portion of the institute’s 15,000 square feet is dedicated to common space, where employees and students can “collide” by meeting at worktables. There’s a micro-kitchen, writable glass walls and whiteboards, which allow people to “linger in the space and exchange ideas,” Nechyba said. The nearby Gross Hall atrium pulls in natural light from big ceiling windows, and chairs and tables are situated around rectangular space for studying and meetings.“It has fundamentally changed the organization,” Nechyba said.

Removing the cube farmThe home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight is part playroom, part art exhibit, part living room and lab space, where about 25 researchers spend odd hours studying human behaviors.As the center uses the power of hindsight to explain the present, from dissecting healthcare issues to studying dating behaviors, hindsight was also used to plan its current workspace. The play-art-living-lab room in Bay C of the Erwin Mill building was designed in 2011 with bright color and open space in mind to encourage researchers to share project information with each other. “We have lots of people who do things that are related, but not exactly, on the same project, and imagine multiple people running studies,” said Duke professor Dan Ariely, director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. “How do you help them see if there are opportunities to do things at the same time that would benefit everybody?”The center moved from the basement of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business four years ago, when the researchers worked in cubicles that didn’t accommodate group brainstorm sessions. Ariely led the vision for an open workspace; Duke Facilities Management responded with a large-scale demolition, and the drywall partitions were pulled out of the Erwin Mill space to create a large room.Today, natural light filters in from original textile mill windows onto a small kitchen and a modern purple couch facing a flatscreen TV. Computer workstations flank a white rectangular worktable, and the space is covered with commissioned artwork depicting interpretations of behavioral economics topics. “You don’t feel like you’re bothering anyone when you just walk up to their desk,” said lab manager Aline Grüneisen. “There’s no pressure to constantly be at your desk.”

Design elements honor historic Duke Most days, Holly D’Addurno will prop open the double glass doors of the Duke Cancer Center’s Resource Center, allowing beautiful piano music played by volunteers to reach her ears.  On the ground floor of the Cancer Center, D’Addurno, director of Cancer Patient Education, helps patients research diagnoses and treatments. Employees and patients enjoy the Cancer Center’s open ground floor lobby, from the atrium’s natural light to the café. The Cancer Center, which opened in 2012, incorporates design elements that honor historic Duke, such as floor patterns modeled after Duke Chapel’s stained glass windows and the atrium’s feature wall hinting at the Chapel arches. Even with historic ties, patients describe the lobby as a modern, upscale hotel. Adjacent to the front help desk is a fireplace and area rugs spotted with living room furniture. “There’s so much more interaction with people, with people at the front desk and transporters and security,” D’Addurno said. Greg Warwick, Duke University’s Medical Center architect, said the open, high-traffic areas are strategically planned to give patients, families and employees a place to comfortably meet or relax. “If the route to a destination can be made useful and pleasant, we are making quality environments in an economical way,” Warwick said. “We get more value out of the space we built.”