At first thought, a vacation rental platform isn’t the most likely of candidates to transition into new offices with an interior design scheme steered by science. One might expect oversized murals evoking far-flung destinations, workspaces enlivened by exotic colors, maybe a Parisian bistro-themed commissary.
Vrbo’s nine-floor corporate home in Austin, Texas, however, eschews predictability in favor of a “science of work”-centric design approach in which data, ecology, and technology play key roles. The “House of Science” concept envisioned for Vrbo by Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary design firm Rios Clementi Hale (RCH) Studios might sound improbable but in reality, it’s, well, a miracle of science—and smartly considered design.
The project, now in its second phase as work commences on the final few floors, kicked off with a three-month information-collection exercise with Vrbo (then HomeAway, prior to a rebranding that brought the two Expedia-owned platforms together) to “help them redefine how they wanted to work and who they were as a company,” Andy Lantz, creative director of RCH Studios, explained. “What that entailed was an approach that combined anthropology with data collection.”
Focus groups held during this period revealed that employees spent a copious amount of time cloistered away in conference rooms and partaking in intra-office travel. “A lot of their day was spent migrating from place to place,” said Lantz. At the end of the data-gathering period, the data was presented to Vrbo’s executive team, headed by John Kim, who became fascinated by “the notion science behind what it meant to work,” said Lantz. “He found it extremely interesting that the project could find innovation in designing spaces that were exemplary to collaboration, and focused more on a science-based understanding of travel.”
As a result, Vrbo’s offices are filled with design elements that foster opportunities for effortless, spontaneous meetings among coworkers, including custom-built, tech-integrated “collaboration tables,” tiered seating areas, and easily accessible enclosed conference rooms. To make travel throughout the building less onerous and dependent on remote elevators and stairwells, interconnected double-height floors now link workplace “neighborhoods,” and do away with the confining nature of large office spaces.
As for the office’s five major neighborhoods, each has been assigned a different natural ecosystem and an associated scientific domain: astronomy (the desert), geography (coastal beaches), snow science (the mountains), limnology (lakeside), and topography (forests). Color schemes, furnishings, interior plantings, and even smells are reflective, from a sensorial standpoint, of a distinct destination/natural environment. For example, floors eight and nine, “The Canopy” and “The Thicket,” feature darker, more brooding hues as a means of creating a subtly sylvan atmosphere. As Lantz explained, this approach was a way of “designing for everything but the standard icons of what travel is” while allowing Vrbo to rebrand and reintroduce itself both internally and externally.
“It’s really interesting to try and imagine conveying the emotion of travel without conveying the iconography of travel,” said Lantz. “We tried to capture quintessential, ephemeral feelings of being in certain destinations.”