The design of a firm’s architecture office makes a statement about the values of the practice: Let the mess hang out or put on a monastic show? For their new office on the 27th and 28th floors of 7 World Trade Center (WTC), Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) adopted a philosophy of “radical reduction”: Their space sports concrete flooring, cork-lined walls, an impressive acoustic ceiling, and a cross-laminated timber (CLT) staircase. The materials contribute to a contemporary office design that seeks to eliminate excess and reduce energy use while maximizing comfort and flexibility. The goal of the new interior “was to integrate holistically the distinct programmatic requirements and architectural features into a refined and tranquil interior,” said Chris Cooper, partner at SOM, who led both the office redesign and the design of the 52-story 7 WTC. (Completed in 2006, it was the first tower built on the WTC campus since 9/11.) “The result is a piece of industrial design unto itself: an expansive, flexible space characterized by healthy materials, a responsible approach to the use of resources, and a focus on sustainable design and wellbeing.”
The entrance from the 28th floor elevator lobby opens eastward into an open, spacious reception area. A large cut in the floor plate overlooks a main conference area below, and the two levels are linked by a CLT stair inserted into this double-height space. What were once amenities typically found in a back-of-house area are brought to the front. To the left of the reception area, the firm’s extensive material library is housed in a cluster of wood shelves or below a countertop work surface. To the right, the pantry, where architects hydrate and caffeinate. The area surrounding the kitchen is generously furnished with cushioned benches and comfortable chairs arranged around tables for colleagues to chat over coffee or take a Zoom call.
A bevy of potted plants of all sizes are dispersed here and across the floors; the office employs an external horticultural company to take care of them, with plant sitters visiting one to two times per week. The floor-to-ceiling curtain wall allows for maximum sunlight for the tropical shrubs and vines to soak up an impressive view of the city. Cooper said the glass “allows our designers, engineers, and planners to immerse themselves in a city that they help shape, and to see projects from our past, present, and future in all directions.”
While the 1,200-person company was founded in Chicago and operates offices worldwide, this is its largest office: It hosts 422 employees, or about 35 percent of the overall company. On the west portion of one floor, SOM has retained configurations that could be considered traditional to the standard architectural office: clustered desks, conference rooms for pinups, and a fabrication shop (though tucked behind closed doors in the floor’s interior). Organizing the configuration of a few hundred desks was a feat of urban planning; the resulting layout arranged desks into “neighborhoods” with gathering spaces and private areas interspersed throughout, including break-out zones with monitors staged against the exterior glass, useful for each project team as it collaborates. Charles Harris, associate architect at SOM, said that they “embraced the concept of ‘working beyond the desk’ by providing a variety of workspaces and using cloud-based technology to help our staff work from any space within the office.”
“Flexibility” and “comfort” are the catchphrases of the post-COVID office design lexicon, but the terms were already in operation when SOM office designed this office before the pandemic. The project was largely finished before March 2020, but the pandemic meant that employees didn’t actually begin working from the space until January 2022. The design turned out to be prophetic—with a host of workstations, pods, rooms, and lounges, the office offers a variety of environments for working alone or together, in-person or remote. The pandemic accelerated SOM’s efforts to work “in the cloud”: Cooper said one of the most significant impacts of the era is “the ability to harness cross-office collaboration, to draw upon SOM’s worldwide depth of expertise across offices in the United States and abroad. While our offices had always collaborated, the ability to work together digitally with cloud-based technology helped make this collaboration even more seamless and effective.”
At SOM, there’s a rush of in-office activity on Tuesday which then tapers off through the rest of the week. Despite decent occupancy, on a recent Thursday morning visit the tell-tale cacophony of clicking mouses and keyboards is absent because most of the sound is absorbed by the ceiling, which has a high STC rating. Both the lighting and HVAC distribution is run in long, linear bands that follow the parallelogram plan of the building, leaving the rest of the gray surface for absorption. Sound is also top-of-mind in the conference rooms, which feature cork-lined walls and floors and additional curtains as an acoustic buffer.
Visual comfort is also important: Cooper said they avoided bright white paint, opting instead for a range of grays and wood tones throughout to avoid eye strain and glare. Similarly, Harris explained that the office uses “a network of daylight sensors that react to the sun’s position to maximize natural lighting and reduce artificial light to the smallest possible level,” which contributed to a lighting power density that’s more than 50 percent lower than typical offices and a 25 percent reduction in anticipated operational energy use. The abundance of daylighting was a refreshing change from SOM’s previous office in the Bankers Trust Building at 14 Wall Street—a formidable masonry-clad skyscraper where sunlight was far scarcer.
Harris also shared that the office was “one of the first projects for which we comprehensively calculated the embodied carbon of each material, because we wanted to measure our embodied carbon footprint.” Carbon was the primary consideration, but it was balanced with acoustics, durability, and functionality. Their work shows a 22 percent reduction in embodied carbon from typical offices.
The office anticipated the lifestyle comforts that work environments need as the pandemic slowly recedes, but in a larger sense, the interior points a direction for SOM’s future. It’s techy, sure, but both environmentally sensitive and materially rich. “I think what this office represents, historically, is the latest step in SOM’s evolution,” Cooper said. “SOM was founded in 1936, and to thrive for 87 years, you have to continually modernize and adapt.” Cooper said that they fully believe that “the design of a workplace has the power to shape an organization’s culture.”
SOM’s New York office builds on “decades of research, experimentation, and first-hand experience,” Cooper said. “It is built around the culture we’d like to create—as a flexible and sustainable workplace that helps build community, enhances wellness, and accommodates different styles of work to bring out the best in everyone.”