Chicago-based design and innovation consultancy IA Collaborative works across numerous industries, including many in the tech and health fields. But when it came to the company’s own offices, Dan Kraemer, the founder and Chief Design Officer, felt they could use an upgrade, one that did a better job of supporting an open workflow and the health of his employees. The company’s new office space, which they moved into in 2014, offers a more airy, light-filled and flexible environment compared to the standard rows of cubicles, with a long sky roof and rooftop deck. But according to Kraemer, who led the design and renovation of the space, the true selling point is the design of collaborative workspace, a flexible and transparent array of rooms that fit the pace and flow of the office.
"We designed a workspace worthy of the people that define it," he says.
When Kraemer first came upon the 20,000-square-foot space in 2013—the uninhabited ninth and tenth floors of the McClurg building on Chicago’s Wabash Avenue, filled with cubicles, carpeting, and low ceilings—it needed work. Designed in 1899 by famous Chicago School architects Holabird & Roche, the terra cotta-clad structure, once known as the Ayer, had seen better days. With great bones and a location in the center of the city’s Loop District, Kraemer decided to redesign with four main principles in mind—health, collaboration, choice and serendipity—and utilize the same user-focused process the firm uses when working with clients.
The plan called for stripping down the interior and opening it up to the outdoors. Five layers of flooring were stripped down and the original hardwood floors were repurposed. The original staircase between floors was maintained, and the drop ceiling on the top floor, an abandoned penthouse, was removed to uncover the original clay brick ceiling. Skylights, a 3,000-square-foot roof deck and kitchen were then added to the top level create a hybrid entertaining/meeting space. An Apple AirPlay equipped retractable screen and stadium-style stairs create a natural gathering space.
The original space had no connection to the outside world other than a few windows, and felt very dark and closed-in. That made the skylight and atrium a big priority, according to Kraemer.
"We believe it was essential to creating a healthy environment for our employees," he says. "If they are going to spend 8 hours or more of their day with us, they need to be able to see the sun, wherever they are in the space – and have places to take in long, restful views and contemplate."
Most similar work spaces are broken up into a series of desks and breakout rooms, but after observing how teams at IA operated, Kraemer wanted to avoid the endless cycles of shuffling workers and booking spaces. Instead, the glass-encased rooms on IA's main floor are organized by project; teams of researchers, designers, engineers, architects rotate between rooms, home base for different projects, and retire to open desks, tables or gathering spaces for small group meetings or focused work.
The space, which was included in a recent Chicago Architecture Foundation tour, offers not only a light-filled place to work, but also an excellent perch to see some of Chicago’s exceptional architecture.
"For others looking to create a similar environment, I’ll borrow from our own process of working with clients and say that you have to be relentlessly focused on the user experience," says Kraemer. "Immerse yourself in their journey, their needs, and you will uncover little things that will make a big impact on your employees."