Designing offices for nonprofits: Matching mission with workspace

September 27, 2019

by Ámbar Margarida, CID, IIDA

Photos © Kevin Chu. All photos courtesy Spacesmith[1]
Photos © Kevin Chu. All photos courtesy Spacesmith

From forks and phones to footwear, design is everywhere. While extolling the virtue of comfortable shoes, do design aficionados think—as the theoreticians would have one believe—good design can save the world? Whether or not one is inclined to agree it can, the lofty concerns of the field’s higher order often become obfuscated by the requirements of most jobs comprising commercial practice.

Enter the nonprofit client. Endeavors in this category are often governed by the creation of contemplative spaces, volumes conducive to calm, productivity-inspiring workspaces, and common areas for positively engaging a multitude of at-risk populations, both the young and old. Of course, nonprofit organizations have a large number of challenges attending their projects, many of which can drive a reasonable architect to secret fits of madness. However, the mission of these clients, who serve society’s most needy, exploited, and vulnerable members, can endow a humble designer with the nobility of a superhero.

After the imaginary wind in the hair has died down, tours of the facilities and spaces where the work is needed will likely reveal harried caseworkers and mountains of paperwork jammed into closet-size offices. One of the architecture and interior design firm Spacesmith’s (this author’s firm) favorite mental snapshots from those tours is of a big-box-store desk being dwarfed by the custom millwork installed by the white-glove law firm that previously occupied the property. Budgets, which pose an irritating thorn in any project, regardless of the level of luxury, are particularly challenging within the nonprofit arena.

However, like any good superhero, architects are problem-solvers. Additionally, architects bring innovations in spatial and non-spatial concepts to best support the nonprofit’s mission and operations. Evidence shows helping nonprofits implement new strategies, such as workspace sharing, mobile work techniques, and flexible collaboration spaces, not only optimize the use of existing square footage and reduce real estate costs, but also increase employee satisfaction with the work environment and boost productivity, as shown in a seminal 2014 study by the U.K. government[2] on worker well-being and workplace.

Spacesmith’s design for Part of the Solution (POTS) office in Bronx, New York, includes a full-service kitchen and dining area, food pantry, counselling offices, a clothing exchange, showers, a barber shop, and medical suites.[3]
Spacesmith’s design for Part of the Solution (POTS) office in Bronx, New York, includes a full-service kitchen and dining area, food pantry, counselling offices, a clothing exchange, showers, a barber shop, and medical suites.

As many of the nonprofit organizations who have undertaken these architectural approaches will attest, the improved workplace designs also optimize service delivery and successful fulfillment of their mission.

Helping nonprofits grow

Faced with budget limitations and with outdated infrastructure, many nonprofits avoid investing too much in facilities, or risk appearing as spendthrift. Yet, the reality is philanthropic groups and social service agencies need to remain relevant, attract talent, and appeal to sponsors, donors, and board members. They compete for resources to fulfill their missions. Additionally, flexibility is often essential, as teams change, grants evolve, and core services contract or expand.

Other unique design requirements for nonprofits include heightened security, durable materials and finishes, and increased privacy in areas for meetings, confidential client consultations, interventions, and giving health-related advice. Reducing the impacts of the facility operating costs and energy use are also beneficial to nonprofit organizations. Limiting these overhead expenses ensures more funds are invested in core activities.

Architects and designers can help nonprofits transform their facilities and spaces to better reflect their brand, mission, and cause. This is essential to attracting not only donors, but also the best talent in social workers, managers, grant writers, and development executives. Interior branding allows visitors to see firsthand what the groups and their missions represent, according to Marc Gordon, AIA, a partner at Spacesmith. He has designed facilities for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Part of the Solution (POTS).

Best design practices

Managing nonprofit organizations comes with many challenges, and design innovation should be one of their tools. According to experts like IDEO and Luma Institute, some of the best social entrepreneurs seek effective, yet, unconventional solutions by re-examining their work “from the point of view of the people being served.” This means nonprofit architecture and interiors solutions are centered around the individuals they serve, whether they are children, families, the homeless, domestic violence victims, or those with mental disabilities.

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.[4]
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.

In the Staten Island Family Justice Center (New York), woodwork is in a soothing white oak with green accents to create a calming energy in both the waiting and children’s play areas. Photos © Paul Rivera[5]
In the Staten Island Family Justice Center (New York), woodwork is in a soothing white oak with green accents to create a calming energy in both the waiting and children’s play areas.
Photos © Paul Rivera

“Nonprofits need to adopt this mindset and follow suit,” says Gordon. “Nonprofits must understand the research and best practices behind today’s innovative office layouts, amenities, sustainable design elements, and environmental factors such as acoustics, lighting, and ambient temperature. These and even emerging ideas like biophilia, the use of plants and natural finishes, play a role in a modern company’s success.”

New approaches to workplace design and innovation helped support the mission of the family services provider. Gordon worked with the nonprofit to consolidate its workspaces from three locations to two efficient, centralized facilities with new professional development centers. Adopting a mobile workforce program, staff now spends the majority of their time outside their offices, benefiting caseworkers and therapists. Mobile teams are equipped with tools and technologies needed to work from the road. Back at the offices, desk-sharing and an array of training and visiting rooms, ‘phone booths,’ and storage zones provide everything needed in that 8-m2 (90-sf) per person versus the 14-m2 (150-sf) per person for a typical nonprofit office in North American cities.

Since a large part of their operation is executed by field agents, the often-empty workspace itself was prone to feel abandoned. Benching, or bench desking systems, was a given from a budget perspective, but the informal office hours offer a greater sense
of space for those tending paperwork as well as quiet contemplation. To keep the workstations from appearing unused, some seats are assigned while others are utilized by visiting colleagues. Staffers can take the sense of mindfulness endowed by the work area into a café space for a screen-free dining experience.

For many nonprofit organizations, developing space standards help them grow quickly and easily at a low cost. For example, consolidating offices created valuable opportunities for the NYC family services provider by matching work processes and setups with mission.

Serving underprivileged families

The design for the Staten Island Family Justice Center had to address the needs of clients who are reconciling with a cascade of issues—from legal to emotional—dealt by domestic violence and abuse. At nearly every turn, the design team asked:

Daylight inundates the space. Woodwork is in a soothing white oak, green accents offer calm energy in both the waiting and children’s play areas, and biophilic carpeting references a pebble-and-slate pattern, evocative of a natural setting. Beyond atmosphere, material selections had to reflect a sense of security. Channel glass allows light to flow while maintaining privacy in meeting areas. Similarly, transparent partitions allow parents and caregivers to keep charges in their periphery while doing business. The relaxed setting, unusual for a city agency outpost, also enables more effective work from staffers.

Flexibility is delivered in the form of a furnished multipurpose room supporting group training and quickly resets as a conference room, presentation venue, or event space. By using tables on casters, stacking chairs, and other effective practices that are seen in workplace and higher-education settings, the purpose-built meeting center offers an example for other city agencies and nonprofits.

Community poverty solutions

Flexibility is a key concept in the nonprofit world as organizations find their missions broadening to meet the changing needs of struggling communities. POTS, a community-based organization in Bronx, New York, offers a simple single-sentence mission: providing services to the local working poor. Located for over 10 years in a three-story walkup, POTS has cooked and served meals seven days a week and provided foodstuffs for those unable to make ends meet. The group also has a range of social services to help the community, as well as clothing for people entering the workforce.

Spacesmith was tasked with the challenge of outfitting this operation with a new, 1394-m2 (15,000-sf) facility.

“The goal of the design was to provide a dignified, accessible facility that speaks to the mission of POTS and how design can inform the narrative of the organization’s goals and aspirations,” says Gordon. “Our guiding and organizing principles were mind, body, and soul.”

The project team identified and evaluated an existing structure for adaptive reuse, and the first task was to fit it with new industrial services and an elevator before building out the interior configuration and façade. The proposed program called for a full-service kitchen, community dining room, food pantry, and offices for social services and administration. Inspired by the ambitions of the organization staff, the final outcome is a facility welcoming the community to the kitchen, dining room, and a food pantry on the ground level, with counselling, legal services, and administration on the upper level. The lower level offers a full medical and dental suite, a barber salon, shower facilities, and a clothing program. The POTS building’s expression combines practical, low-maintenance, and durable finishes with a calming modern allure that fits comfortably in the Bronx.

“The project imbued the client team with a sense of pride in their new home and was a beacon to the community as a modernized facility,” says Gordon.

A neighborhood’s pop-up pool

A furnished multipurpose room supporting group training in the Staten Island Family Justice Center quickly resets as a conference room, presentation venue, or event space by using tables on casters and stacking chairs.[6]
A furnished multipurpose room supporting group training in the Staten Island Family Justice Center quickly resets as a conference room, presentation venue, or event space by using tables on casters and stacking chairs.

That sense of pride is not only found in purely charitable works, but also in helping civic entities offer valuable amenities to the entire public. Even before climate change took hold, NYC was legendary for its hot summers and the near impossibility of escaping climbing temperatures from subway platforms to blazing urban canyons. In 2012, the Brooklyn Bridge Park enlisted Spacesmith and partner firm Davis Brody Bond to amend its 35-ha (85-acre) recreation ground along the East River with a temporary community pool to be built on the uplands of Pier 2.

Dubbed the pop-up pool, the project’s program dictated no major construction, excavation, or disruption. The raw materials of the site included existing concrete foundations and slabs from the previously demolished structures, which were incorporated into the design of the in-ground pool by raising a section of the site to accommodate a 1-m (4-ft) depth. A large, dry-laid concrete block retaining wall was installed and fitted with a ramp for accessibility. The volume within the retaining wall, adjacent to the pool, was filled with several tons of beach sand and planted with sea grass, allowing swimmers to sunbathe or rest beneath umbrellas.

Department of Health rules dictate public pool facilities must include restrooms, lockers, and shower amenities, the plumbing for which would seem to demand some sort of a permanent construction. Since such building was not allowed, these amenities were housed in transportable trailers that were integrated into the overall design.

“One of our main concerns was shielding the pool, visually and acoustically, from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway [BQE] and Furman Street,” says Gordon. “Our solution was to stack shipping containers, two high, to block sightlines and noise from the BQE. The containers served a dual purpose as storage and even contained a small snack bar with a plaza populated with picnic tables.”

“The pop-up pool at Pier 2 made a true splash when it first opened and for years has been a summer hot spot for children and families from across our borough,” said Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams, when it was announced the pool would serve another season in 2018 after the organization Love Our Pool lobbied to keep the pop-up open with the hope of securing a permanent site.

“Let us keep a good thing going,” followed council member Stephen Levin. “This pool has a special place in the hearts of the community, and I am proud Brooklynites will be able to enjoy it for another year. Kudos to Brooklyn Bridge Park for its continued support of public amenities.”


The district’s representatives in Congress and the New York State Assembly added their kudos to the pool project, proving the point that everyone loves a success.

Further, nonprofit boards of directors with fiduciary responsibilities worry that directing funds toward capital expenditures is seen as diverting resources from programming.

“The challenges in designing for nonprofits are budget and perception,” says Gordon.

The perception problem being, an efficiently designed work and service place is not mutually exclusive from program support.

“The Part of the Solution project attracted corporate funding and elevated POTS’s standing as a stalwart community-based organization,” says Gordon. “POTS has grown exponentially and is able to serve a larger population due to the increased size and capability of the renovated facility.”

Nonprofit projects like these are developing a space standard for fast organizational growth at low costs.

“While many nonprofits hesitate to invest in offices and operations, evidence shows efficient, better-designed workspaces boost success among social entrepreneurs,” says business development director Roger Marquis. “By rethinking processes and reconfiguring layouts based on the needs of the people being served, we see nonprofits yielding extraordinary results.”

It seems as though good design really can save the world.

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