Designing offices for nonprofits: Matching mission with workspace

Color and form

Spacesmith with partner firm Davis Brody Bond transformed a riverside stretch into a pop-up pool in Brooklyn, New York. Shipping containers painted in bold, primary colors were repurposed as storage space. They also act as a buffer to the noise of a nearby expressway.
Spacesmith with partner firm Davis Brody Bond transformed a riverside stretch into a pop-up pool in Brooklyn, New York. Shipping containers painted in bold, primary colors were repurposed as storage space. They also act as a buffer to the noise of a nearby expressway.

Color and form play essential roles in the design of nonprofit workplaces. Architectural expression can create calming atmospheres or energize buildings and interiors where needed. In a recent study published in the Journal of Architectural Engineering Technology last year, researchers examined six combinations of room colors and lighting types to show the likely emotional effects on the occupants, with descriptors ranging from ‘cold-lifeless’ to ‘warm-relaxed.’ Colored glass and doors, carpets in patterned hues, and other elements were shown to “affect occupant spirits positively,” the researchers concluded.

Color also affects performance factors such as productivity and task accuracy. A study by the Healthy Campus Initiative at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, correlated changes in finish colors in study classrooms on student quiz performance. Studies such as the Building Better Healthcare reinforce how hues affect client health and well-being in nonprofit facilities. The findings include specific recommendations for patient waiting rooms, corridors, and reception areas, such as the use of uplifting accent colors and varied hues to assist in wayfinding. Consultation areas tend to benefit from soft neutral tones to calm occupants, while areas for children benefit from visual interest and vibrant palettes to divert attention and mitigate anxiety.

Daylight and views

Studies also document the benefits of daylight, artwork, and views to the outdoors or nature for employee/volunteer productivity, as well as to benefit the clients and visitors who use the buildings and spaces. Art and outdoor views are termed “positive distractions,” and research by clinicians and professionals such as HKS Architects conclude “the introduction of distraction conditions” in children’s clinics led to “more calm behavior and less fine and gross movement, suggesting significant calming effects associated with the distraction conditions.” Similarly, biophilic design seeks to connect building occupants to the outdoors, using nature-based artwork, plantings, and natural finishes and patterns. Outdoor views and daylight also elicit the human response of biophilia.

Durability and efficiency

Architectural solutions for nonprofits should tend toward the most efficient, durable, adaptable, and reusable possibility. Reducing maintenance and operating costs help ensure nonprofits can reinvest in their core mission and survive swings in funding or workload. For these very reasons, principles of sustainable design and life-cycle costing are often considered in selections of furnishings and finishes. Specifications also call for easy-to-clean interiors that are safe for all users, similar to the public areas of transportation facilities, banks, and restaurants. Among the key references for fixed and moveable furnishings are the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), which was updated in 2008, and the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA). Durability measures include double rub count for fabric and upholstered furnishings, as defined in the U.S. Fabric Wearability Code (FWC).

Furniture, furnishings, and equipment (FF&E) specs should also consider occupant well-being. Minimum standards include the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting toxic substances including formaldehyde in high-density fiberboard, a common substrate, as well as antimicrobials embedded in textiles. Several states, including California, have their own rules for toxic materials that typically supersede the federal regulations. Standards issued by ASTM and the American National Standards Institute/Business and Industrial Furniture Manufacturing Association (ANSI/BIFMA) e3-2012, Furniture Sustainability Standard, offer guidance.

Security and privacy

Security is often a concern in nonprofit operations, especially for crisis intervention and other human services organizations. Similarly, many nonprofits also value privacy and confidentiality as part of their service mission. Considerations for protecting their user populations include site design and access control, including the use of ballistic glass in the doorways and partitions, as well as careful interior layouts to control circulation in public or front-of-house areas. Typical security systems integrated into nonprofit workplaces include advanced access control, closed-circuit television monitoring, and public announcement systems.

Inclusivity and diversity

Evaluating the needs of nonprofit groups often means matching their mission of inclusivity and diversity with architectural supports. Many charitable groups serve individuals with special needs, such as the elderly or people with sensory and physical differences. Several nonprofits prefer universal design over minimum adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even considering the emotional needs of their occupants and client populations.

For example, in addition to marshaling fieldwork, the offices of one family services provider in New York City (NYC) are used for client intake, foster-parent training, and pediatric clinics for both medical and psychological assessments. Since the served population is fairly familiar with institutional settings that can trigger anxiety, a reception area with a residential atmosphere sets a comfortable tone with soft lounge furnishings and medical equipment.

Workplace design

As for-profit companies have now come to learn, workplace design has a very profound impact on employee productivity, well-being, and engagement, as well as the retention and recruitment of talent.

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