LA Architect – Compulaw

March 2007

In 2003, THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY COMMISSION (CEC) released an intriguing study on the performance of office workers that revealed a connection between exposure to natural light and a higher level of concentration. The study also concluded that workers with a view through a window performed their jobs better and reported fewer cases of fatigue and illness. In a case study involving employees in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s customer service call center, the CEC found that individuals with views processed calls 7-12 percent faster than their windowless counterparts.

Though the CEC report might not come as a surprise, what is surprising is how few office buildings are designed with this concept in mind. Mid- to high-rise office towers are the main culprits. The fortunate few cubicle and office dwellers along the building’s perimeter benefit from twentieth-century curtain wall technology, but those workers relegated to the interior spaces are lucky to catch a glimpse of daylight beyond their artificially lit stations.

Jeffrey Kalban, AIA principal of Jeffrey M. Kalban and Associates, would like to change this archaic work environment. He’s designed a two-story building for CompuLaw, a leading software developer for the legal profession, that allows natural light to illuminate the entire workspace and makes outdoor views accessible to everyone. Kalban considers it a more democratic approach to office design and insists the concept can be replicated in building of any size with substantial cost savings.
“Before starting my firm I worked in major corporate architecture firms, and there was an approach to design there that was not focused on everyday users,” says Kalban. “It focused on the people at the top and the people in the lobby. This is a response to that. It’s so exciting.”

Kalban’s 12,500-square-foot concept building is located on a very small corner site in Century City, California, bordering a quiet residential neighborhood. In the near distance, office towers soar awkwardly above their surroundings. There’s a 12-foot change in grade, from east to west, which created an ideal opportunity for parking below the building. Considering CompuLaw headquarters abut a residence, the condition is less intrusive and minimizes the structure’s height.

The building fronts Olympic Boulevard, facing directly south – an ideal condition for capturing light. Sunshades above the first and second floors, reminiscent of an aileron on an airplane wing, temper the intensity and heat of direct sunlight. Simultaneously, the device proves useful in redirecting light into the deepest and darkest spaces of the building.

Inside, the effect is dramatic and further enhanced by a simple, suspended ceiling system that arcs up from eight feet at the core to 12.5 feet at the highest point of the window wall. The sweep is visually exciting and adds a sense of depth to a relatively narrow space. Workstations, filing cabinets and break areas are organized along the bay in front of the south wall. The area is open and awash with natural light. Kalban specified custom cabinets topped with bench cushions. These line the windows, providing sun-drenched (and sleep-inducing) seats for impromptu meetings or casual breaks.

A row of offices along the interior of the bay receives natural light through full-height windows. Cloistered at the east and west ends of the building are the departments that handle sensitive material, such as software research and payroll. Though these employees are not washed in the same south light as their co-workers, they are treated to calming views of landscape to the east and the low-lying city to the west. Restrooms, storage areas, a conference room and the shipping department consume the core and the north side of the building, where windows and doors are at a minimum – not because Kalban didn’t think they were important there, but out of respect for local zoning laws as well as the residential neighbors in the adjacent lot.

The raised-floor system allows CompuLaw to adapt the work areas to their ever-changing needs. Kalban used the eight-inch rise to run wiring for the electronic equipment, minimizing the aesthetic intrusion of outlets and cables. The space could be used for air ducts as well but Kalban preferred to keep them on the ceiling. “I like to use the architecture to expose the program,” he says.

Kalban’s concern for the welfare of CompuLaw workers was equally matched by his desire to create an environmentally responsible building. He specified sustainable and low-toxicity materials where possible and fitted three sides of the building with thermally efficient glass. The light green panes are layered with low-emittance (low-E) coatings. Virtually invisible, the metal or metallic oxide coatings suppress radiant heating. In other words, the glass helps to reduce the amount of heat entering and leaving the building.

Other energy-efficient systems include digital sensors and a time clock to activate lighting when needed, as well as photocells to harvest captured sunlight. In theory, the system minimizes energy use while maintaining a comfortable interior climate. But old habits are hard to break, and Kalban says that employees override the system and turn on lights in spite of the abundance of natural light.

Kalban is undeterred. “You see spaces like this in airline terminals, museums, hotel lobbies and penthouse suites. Every office could have this,” he asserts.
Or something like it. In essence, the CompuLaw building is a simple rectangle constructed of steel and clad in metal panels. There are no columns, and interior walls are adaptable. “It’s essentially a romanticized Miesian pavilion. It’s a wide-open space so that you can do what you want,” says Kalban. “I walk into this space and think ‘what a great place to live.’” Better yet, what a great place to work.

- Allison Milionis

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