Offices that Work

Designing to Foster Creativity

written by Mimi Zeiger
photography by Dave Lauridsen


Blake Thomas '12 settles into a chair  in an outdoor plaza in Downtown Los Angeles. Most people think about L.A. and imagine freeways and sprawl, but here at the base of Bunker Hill on the corner of 5th Street and Flower Ave, skyscrapers sprout. For a few blocks in each direction, the city is as classically urban as Manhattan or Chicago.Office employees dressed in suits line up at the nearby Starbucks to grab a latte while on break. Thomas, a commercial brokerage associate with global real estate group Jones Lang LaSalle,  specializes in creative office space. He looks up at the Class A towers and sees a vintage model of working. The corner offices and rows of cubicles that rise 30, 50 stories in the air are part of a business tradition rapidly becoming  obsolete as a generation raised on Internet enters the workforce. 

"Now that our generation is a large chunk of the workforce, creative office spaces speak to us," explains Thomas, who earned his MBA at UCLA Anderson with an emphasis in real estate and finance in 2012. "A type of work environment where you don't entirely separate work from play is attractive. Creative office space is the frontier because demographics are really shifting, and the way people work, interact and communicate has changed. Back in the '70s, '80s and even the early '90s, nobody had e-mail. With the advances in technology, such as remote servers and cloud computing, people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And the intent for companies who seek out cre ative office space is to make a place that's comfortable for their employees, specifically the new generation, because we don't define our work hours by 9 to 5."

The Millennial Generation is categorized as people born after 1984. This group is poised  to make up 50% of the United States workforce by 2020, which, as Thomas predicts, means a greater need for a  "live-work-play environment"-the kinds of workplaces that cater to flexible work hours, foster collaboration and innovation and are designed as authentic, beautiful spaces to be in.

The history of creative office space, however, dates back before many of these workers were born. Artists' lofts, often adapted manufacturing spaces, first became popular in the '60s and '70s. They offered large, open spaces replete with industrial windows, exposed beams, and unrefined materials like brick and concrete. And ateliers, the expansive workshops and offices of designers and architects outfitted with rows of drafting boards, date back as far as the 18th century. Today's creative office space draws as much from those earlier examples as it does from start-up culture with their computer-filled warehouses that came into existence in the late '90s and early 2000s with the first Internet tech boom.

creative spaces - gensler firmClick to Enlarge

The contemporary market now demands offices that truly go beyond the generic definitions of work and  traditional company hierarchy. "First and foremost, it's an open floor plan, meaning that the barriers, the silos, the hard-walled offices-all get broken down and your executives are sitting right next to you," explains Thomas. Additionally, creative office space means adding sophisticated amenities such as cafes, outdoor lounges or even volleyball courts, where employees meet, share ideas and play together. Thomas points to The Reserve, a former U.S. postal facility on the west side of Los Angeles as an example. The building features a shady courtyard shared between tenants, where employees from different companies can mix and mingle. The LEED-certified property, which opened this past spring, also embodies an ethos of sustainability and active, healthy lifestyles. The Reserve includes a bike shop, so that employees can rent a bike and ride it down to the beach. Avid cyclists can commute  to work and have a place to store their bikes, as well as have them tuned up at work. The amenity promotes wellness and the use of alternative transportation. "When we talk about the creative workspace, the focus is on how space can enhance ideation and new thought. This includes functionality of the space, the character of the space and even well-being factors, like sunshine and air, align with fostering creativity and imagination," says Diane Hoskins ('87), co-CEO at Gensler, one of the largest architecture and design firms in the United States, and a UCLA Anderson alumna.


creative spaces - silver globesClick to Enlarge

Not far from The Reserve is the World War II-era hangar where Howard Hughes' engineers built the legendary aircraft, the Spruce  Goose. It's here that Wayne Ratkovich and The Ratkovich Company are in the midst of transforming eleven nationally registered historic landmark buildings (some on the verge of collapse) into a creative campus. Named The Hercules Campus at Playa Vista after the Hughes Hercules H-4 aircraft, the 28-acre site will be home to 530,000 square feet of adaptive-reuse office and studio space when completed later this year. Companies such as YouTube and ad agency 72andSunny are already tenants. The campus is landscaped with drought-resistant grasses and plantings, and the historic wood buildings that once housed the engineers who fueled early aviation innovation offer a perfect environment for creative offices: open floor plates spanned by bowstring trusses and large operable windows to let in fresh light and air. 

"Wayne is well known for saving buildings from the wrecking ball over the years, but this campus is special. We went out there and fell in love with the buildings," says James Phelan ('02), The Ratkovich Company's Chief Financial Officer. Phelan joined the business in 2001 as an intern while he was studying at UCLA Anderson. "This is a place where modern aviation was born," he explains excitedly. "You can't help but pick up on the sense of history." To illustrate the point, YouTube has a decommissioned Hughes Helicopter parked at the entry to its offices. And 72andSunny's space restored Hughes wood-paneled office to its original condition. The room is stunning, like the inside of a violin, and would make any executive drool. But true to the ethos of creative workspace, where no one gets a walled-off office, it's used as a conference room, shared by all. Or, as Phelan puts it: "The best spaces are egalitarian." 

creative spaces - hub conference tableClick to Enlarge

"Creative workplace design needs to be both stimulating and balanced," notes Hoskins, listing both tangible and intangible design elements that spark innovation. "Surprise, unexpectedness, delight in terms of proportions, light, and movement through the space all move away from the typical and towards creativity. Adaptive reuse is a great way to create the unexpected." Case in point is the hangar, Building 15-the campus showstopper. A volume large enough to house the Spruce Goose, the building is as meticulously constructed as the aircraft itself. Wood-laminated structural supports begin at the floor and then elegantly curve to support the roof, some four stories in the  air. It's a feat of engineering occasionally used as a soundstage for movies such as Transformers, but Phelan and Ratkovich anticipate that the right tenant will fall for the historic architecture. 

As a developer and CFO, Phelan always weighs the design and aesthetic demands of conservation and adaptive reuse on a property like The Hercules Campus at Playa Vista with the return on investment. He calculates the investment carefully to make sure that with every asset acquired, the company pays less for the project than what it would cost to replace the old structures from the ground up. Phelan is also aware that growing demand for creative office space is outpacing the number of buildings suitable for retrofit. "If you look at the creative office market, there's 7,000,000 square feet of creative office space available in the city of L.A., versus 200,000,000 square feet of traditional office space," he explains. "If creative office space becomes 30% of the overall market, that's 60,000,000 square feet. There are not enough bow-string trusses and warehouse buildings to convert. We need to evolve past industrial buildings and learn to adapt traditional office spaces. This requires asking the question: How do you take a high rise and create a vertical campus?"


Gensler designs thousands and thousands of square feet of office space each year and the firm recently released the findings of its 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, which polled 2,035 professionals about their work environment. The goal was to track changes in the American workplace that can be addressed by design. "Through our recent Gensler Workplace Survey, we are finding that the best workplaces support the individual's ability to focus and the collaborative activities that fuel new ideas. This means providing quiet places where people can focus, in addition to lots of places where people can gather and work together," explains Hoskins. "All of the principles we have talked about in promoting creativity in the workplace are not just for creative companies. Every business and organization is looking for ways to encourage creative problem solving and innovation. Workplace design is an effective tool to enhance creativity in any organization. This is a conversation that more and more of our clients are interested in." The Gensler Los Angeles office practices what it preaches. Their jewel box-like office in Downtown Los Angeles sits between two high-rises. The building was constructed in 1972 and originally designed as a bank hall. A three-story atrium brings daylight into the offices. Collective spaces, such as conference rooms and collaborative hubs, face directly onto the atrium, bringing life to the central volume. The design recognizes the need for both individual workstations and areas for client meetings and brainstorming sessions. 

Ultimately, the future of creative office space lies with the understanding that the future of work is collaborative. Two UCLA Anderson alumni run Hub LA, a collaborative workspace in Los Angeles' Arts District which emphasizes social enterprise. With over 30 Hubs across five continents, Hub LA is part of a global network of these kinds of member-based collaborative workspaces. Ann Le ('08), CFO/COO, and Eric Rassman ('08), President/Chief Strategy Officer, oversee the community that shares the open offices and media lab that occupy a converted brick warehouse. They organize a full roster of events and workshops for the community. Hub LA's layout is simple: a large room filled with farmhouse tables for group meetings and petal-shaped workstations that can be pushed together to form collaborative team spaces. Shared amenities like a kitchen, lounge area and conference rooms ring the perimeter. There's modular furniture that can be pushed together to form a stage. Coffee and Wi-Fi tie the diverse community of entrepreneurs from tech, design, food and social justice sectors together. "Hub LA is about leveraging the power of the group to work with each other," says Rassman of his take on creative, collaborative office space. "We just get people together who are all trying to do something better, something bigger than what it is that they can do alone."