August 22, 2011

In Charleston, An Office Becomes A Funky Mini-City That Fosters Friendliness

James Gaddy  /  Fast Company - Co.Design.

A new tech startup office in Charleston, South Carolina, by Fabric Urban Design Office, combines high-minded idealism with wallet-friendly materials.

Anyone who's ever worked in one of those shared startup offices knows how alienating it can be: the type of places where the only social interaction occurs awkwardly in line for the soda machine, with guys in headsets pacing behind half-cubicle doors just within earshot.

So when Jacob Lindsey, who runs the studio Fabric Urban Design Office in Charleston, South Carolina, got the chance to retrofit one of the city's decrepit former TV studios downtown into an office space for the headset set, he decided to make it more like an actual city. Called FS2, (official FS2 site) the space was pretty much left intact on the outside. But once on the inside, with ceilings 22 feet high, Lindsey and the rest of the team – design firm Brown Architecture, the general contractor Clambank Construction, and structural engineer Atlantic BCS – placed two 17-foot curvilinear walls that intersected near the center to serve as the sort of place where real-life social networking could occur. Lindsey, who considers himself an urbanist by practice, says the interior was conceived almost like a series of streets–with the lobby performing the function of a piazza–to maximize casual interactions.

This was actually the second retrofit of this type that Fabric UDO has done in Charleston. Two years ago, Lindsey was commissioned to retrofit a former retail store for The Flagship, (official Flagship website) now next door to FS2, as part of a government initiative to simultaneously revitalize downtown and create jobs. In fact, FS2 only became necessary because The Flagship, designed for one- to four-person startups, was such a success – its tenants were growing too large for the space and were leaving the city anyway. FS2, or Flagship 2, is for two- to 20-person startups and, as such, the building has multiple offices that can be leased by the same company. Some have "lockout" doors that allow spaces to be combined easily.

But for all the out-of-the-box idealism, the actual execution involved little more than paint out of a can. Lindsey used a design-build approach to save time and stay on budget. He did the shelving, cabinets, conference tables, coffee and side tables, and the wayfinding signage himself – first in 3-D then refined on site with the carpenter, often during installation. Everything else was pretty standard: drywall over metal studs, exposed fluorescent lights, and plywood tables, Lindsey says. "Our most exotic construction material was paint."

More information on the project can be found here.