The Office Programming Trap

The right design can make a workspace look great, but it can only truly be great when the right design comes from optimized high-performance workspace programming

This post contains the most important lesson you’re ever going to learn about the development of new office space, successful or otherwise. What you’ll discover is the outcome of any project depends almost entirely on what a design team is told to do. Their skills, expertise, and dedication serve only to transform expectations for the ideal workspace into a tangible reality for your business and what they don't know can hurt you.

Here we go.

In her article Five Reasons A Lawyer Should Review Your AIA Standard Form Construction Contract Sharon Lewonski writes, “When an owner or commercial lease tenant hires an architect, designer or contractor to work on a construction project, the contract documents presented will likely be based on a standard form created by The American Institute of Architects (AIA)."

There are obvious advantages to this. For example, BuildingAdvisor makes the point that, “In reality, both parties are at greater risk without a good contract – the contractor is at risk of not getting paid for work completed and the owners are at risk of not getting the work they expected at the price they agreed to.”

“Without clear guidelines, both parties are at greater risk of small disputes spinning out of control and leading to larger disputes and possibly lawsuits – always the worst, most expensive, most stressful, and slowest way to resolve a problem.”

The post continues, “using one of the standard industry contracts has the benefit that it has been honed over the years and tested in court.”

But Lewonski cautions readers that these contracts, “are designed to protect the interests of architects and to some degree by extension contractors, in their contractual relationships.”

Let's take for example the AIA Document B101 - Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Architect. This document explicitly states that it’s the owner’s responsibility to provide a written program, which among other things specifies the owner’s objectives and constraints, including space requirements and relationships.

This is not an unrealistic requirement given strategic alignment, but if the functional success of any new workspace depends entirely upon developing high-performance architectural programming like we’ve seen in the post Programming Matters, doesn’t that mean the burden of success rests squarely on the shoulders of business owners? This is an intimidating prospect when the costs of failure can be so high!

Also terrifying is the fact that the programming decision-space is so immense, especially considering how relatively short development times can be. The only reason a business invests in a new workspace is because the need is unavoidable.

Practically, there is a finite set of possible office feature-types that can apply to any specific project. For example, Aenvision has analyzed 3 million square feet of office space with a library of fewer than 40 unique office features. But even for a small 2,300 square foot location that includes only 15 features total, finding the right collection out of a staggering array of possibilities can be a formidable challenge (think of a 1 followed by 24 zeros possible combinations of 15 office features from a simple library). Even eliminating the absurd or unlikely possibilities (for example, you wouldn’t specify a workspace made up entirely of phone rooms), clearly the odds of choosing the wrong set of features are overwhelmingly in your favor. And if we consider that the cost of real estate is second or third only to payroll costs as the leading overhead expense for a business, defining anything less than high-performance programming can present an undue financial burden like we saw in the post Big Cultures Small Spaces.

Before seriously assuming the obligation to provide effective workspace programming, business owners must first consider several important questions. Foremost among them is, regardless of whether you’re looking for new office space in a prebuilt location where you’ll want to know if the in-place program adequately suits your needs or in a raw space where a new program will have to be implemented from scratch, what level of comfort do you have in your ability to successfully accomplish this goal?

If every business is different, so too is all high-performance workspace programming, but what does the ideal program look like and how will you know when you’ve achieved it? Naturally, business owners are in the best position to describe strategic business objectives, but they generally lack the expertise to redefine these in terms of effective programming. How then will this critical task be accomplished? And in what form should these requirements be presented to architectural professionals to guarantee they'll be understood and implemented faithfully?

If the standard AIA contract absolves architects of any legal responsibility for achieving the results that matter most to businesses and if as we've also seen in the post Probable Pain that programming is the least significant portion of the total architectural budget, is it unreasonable to wonder how anyone can be assured of success beyond blind luck?

Experience and An Unfortunate History suggests that the industry has largely failed business owners and tenants in this regard. The weight of the architectural programming burden eventually forces business owners to yield to the expertise of already busy design teams who must assume the responsibility as a matter of necessity. At this point the only thing left to do is just cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Historical data has revealed that design teams may take a one-size-fits-all approach to this predicament, which confirms a dirty little secret that one graduate-level computational design lecturer once confided in me as an ‘industry sham!’ The overwhelming complexity of the development process generally forces tenants and business owners to compromise on the one thing that has the greatest influence on the successful outcome of new office projects: programming. This is why even the least productive workspaces still come from beautifully drawn floor plans.

Of course, it’s not so much a conspiracy as a lack of transparency in the traditional workspace development process. And a conspicuous lack of tools has perpetuated the now Challenged Beliefs that you won't know anything about a workspace until you actually see a floor plan and that the performance of this workspace can't be known until after the space is occupied.

The reality is that the right design can make a workspace look great, but it can truly only be great when a good design comes from optimized high-performance workspace programming.

Do you want to see what high-performance programming looks like for your business? Stop crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. Avoid the office programming trap. Click here to learn more. You can also call us with questions at (631) 493-7504 or send an email to Richard Boz <>.