The New Near-Term
COVID-19 Re-occupancy and Office Adaption

Along with all the startling changes brought by the pandemic, re-occupying the office with defensive measures is now among them as authorities try and devise and deploy best practices.

From what we can tell – sorting through peer posts, virtual roundtables, government guidelines, and updates – they are evolving.

Massachusetts announced new guidelines and checklists for Safety Standards for Office Spaces this week (Monday, May 18th), with offices re-occupying at 25% prior capacity on May 25th. Boston is delayed until June 1st; on the Safety Standards page, download “Office Spaces Protocol Summary” and “Office Spaces Checklist.” (Note: all the examples shown here look at occupancies of 50% or higher, once regulations allow. These exercises illustrate the unique challenges individual office configurations will present regarding existing aisle widths, workstation sizes, and panel heights, etc.)

On Wednesday, May 14th, there was news of an easier and non-invasive saliva test that could be rolled out quickly, making COVID testing much more agreeable than being subjected to the invasive nasopharyngeal swab. 

Rapid improvements in diagnosis and treatments will rapidly change the landscape of the public and common places. 

As we learn more about the virus and it’s spread, we are learning more from advisories about returning to professional work in commercial office space and what a new-normal day will look like there.

We’ll continue to do so.

Disruptive economic changes tend to produce radical changes in perception. Immediate changes in views on a remote workforce have reversed by necessity, but we also think that claims, such as “The office is dead,” are good headlines, but are likely premature as public health and economic conditions shift over the next year.

If resources were no concern, furniture could be reconfigured, Plexiglas guards installed, HVAC systems could be refit to minimize risks of virus spread. 

Resources, of course, are among the prime concerns for users and owners alike during times like these.

So, what might the near-term, feasible adaptations look like as the first phase of the virus plateaus and authorities decide a next-phase remobilization of the workforce? (The AIA has a very comprehensive “re-occupancy” checklist here.)

  • Doctor’s Orders: Any immediate steps should begin with disinfecting the workplace per CDC and other authority recommendations in mind. The psychology of remobilizing an office workforce begins with confidence that risks are minimized to the greatest extent possible. One tip that makes great sense to us is to clear off all desk clutter throughout the office so all surfaces can be disinfected easily and often. Multiple hand sanitizer dispensing locations should be the plan of any new restart.
  • Remote is the new black: There is no safer contact than no contact. Perhaps the one upside of the virus has shown that the productivity drops assumed from a remote, online workforce have not been crippling. In fact, many companies are extending remote work through the year. The health and wellness benefits of eliminating commutes are obvious. With that in mind, when a project can thrive remotely, it should. Teams also thrive socially, so ongoing online socializing should be kept in place (Helicon has a weekly “Show & Tell” hour which takes a look at co-workers’ avocations).
  • Workshare: No one envisions 100% of the office workforce returning immediately. Most companies are planning for some kind of plan with alternating teams in the office each week with, perhaps, half-week in-office schedules being the most practical. Some are taking Wednesdays to disinfect offices as best as possible, with Team A coming in for Mondays and Tuesdays, and Team B coming for Thursdays and Fridays. This immediately cuts the office population in half. 
  • Main Building entries and lobbies: One study showed virus transmission spread primarily from the main push-plate of one office suite entry. So, elevator buttons, and especially common area bathrooms, are of critical concern. We see these as Owner territory, and protocols should be in place. (We saw one ingenious Styrofoam-toothpick “porcupine” for an elevator button solution.) Tenants should be closing entries and exits not needed for egress compliance. Deliveries should be left outside suite entries for now.
  • One-way streets now inside: Many are now following retail protocols inside the office with clockwise directional floor arrows (top) indicating one-way circulation around the office. This simplifies estimating and keeping six feet of distance with everyone going in the same direction.
  • The 6-foot Office: There are a few very interesting graphical representations on how to keep people separated six feet while in cubicles and conference rooms. Elaborate new floor mats, new workstations, etc., will not be practical for most, but some temporary floor markings will work. The easiest fix, of course, is to eliminate every other workstation seat. That is not practical if those employees are to be phased in early in the return. Alternating work-share is probably a better strategy for the coming months.
  • Remote On Location: Helicon uses Google chat for general remote needs, but is also planning on sharing documents in chat within the office. You won’t be able to look over someone’s shoulder at their screen for a while.
  • Common Rooms: Close them, if you don’t need them. If storage is available, conference chairs can be taken away to leave conference table seating spaced six feet apart. Most will want to stay out of the break rooms and refrigerators anyway, but it’s a good idea to remove seating or cordon them off.

Office managers will have these and many more challenges ahead. Effects of public transportation, lunchtime protocols, households with family illnesses will all impact the daily life of a professional office as we once knew it.

Knowledge will be the most powerful tool in the fight as we all attempt to get back to business.


Bringing Home to Work: New Amenities Projects Make the Workplace Livable

The last decade has seen big changes in interior office design. New ideas about open, shared office space – and how it can be more reflective of how teams work and create – have resulted in radically different designs from the cube farms of yesteryear.

Now, developers and architects are doing the same with old office buildings. There is a new market for commercial tenants who want amenities available without having to drive off site for them, or build them within their own spaces.

And owners are accommodating. There is a current movement to provide these benefits in order to stay competitive in tenant markets. What were once thought of as luxuries, or things to be pursued away from the office, are now considered essential to the quality of daily office life – and for attracting and retaining new talent.

Responding to these amenity trends in the suburban real estate office market, Helicon Design Group, Inc., recently completed a renovation for FoxRock Properties at their 200,000 square foot Longwater Place complex in Norwell, Massachusetts (below). Following a 10,000-foot gut renovation, the project resulted in a brand new conference center open to all tenants, a full-service café operated by Sebastian’s, and ZoneWellness, a new wellness and fitness enterprise being rolled out by the YMCA.

FoxRock is also continuing this development strategy with another 10,000 square feet at their recently acquired property at 350 Granite Street, in Braintree (top rendering.). That project, also design by Helicon, will include similarly programmed café, fitness, conferencing amenities, as well as extended lobby areas for out-of-the-office work places.

The $2 million Norwell project, located in the Assinippi Office Park, was six months in planning and four months under construction, requiring structural alterations to the base building for the open areas needed. Helicon met extensively with the FoxRock, YMCA and Sebastian’s teams to coordinate extensive equipment requirements as well as to develop new palettes of finishes and furnishings.

Deep tones and exposed ceilings were used in the lobby and dining areas to evoke the modern and casual sensibilities of urban coffee shops and retail spaces.

Helicon also provided extensive acoustical design to accommodate the two ZoneWellness studios geared to provide group yoga and exercise classes, isolating them from abutting tenant offices.

New amenity packages allow FoxRock and other developers to position their properties in the market ahead of other conventional facilities with standard vending and fitness rooms installed as small necessities, usually in leftover spaces.
While high-tech companies and other tenants are also providing personal services like dry-cleaning pick-up, landlords and developers now consider fitness and healthy food options (Sebastian’s cafe, below) as part of their base building concept.

Tenant reaction to the Norwell project was immediate and positive after opening in January of this year. ZoneWellness and Sebastian’s reported brisk new business from the complex at Longwater Place, as well as drawing new customers from other nearby office developments.

Helicon and FoxRock are anticipating similar successful results in Braintree after that project completes construction in the fall.



The Architecture of Indoor Agriculture

2016 saw the completion of Helicon’s design and construction drawings for Mass Medi-Spa’s medical marijuana grow facility and dispensary in Norwell, Massachusetts. Construction is scheduled for spring 2017, with the company opening operations later in the year.

Helicon began preliminary design with Mass Medi-Spa in 2015, surveying a wide variety of grow facility prototypes, operations and mechanical systems. This innovative Massachusetts facility included the Owner’s plans for state-of-the-art indoor grow lighting systems that emulate the natural light intensity of morning, afternoon and evening sunlight, as well as sustainable techniques that will produce extremely low agricultural waste from the year-round operation.

Mass Medi-Spa is also engaged in studies with Vermont-based PhytoScience Institute to process specific product strains meant for use in alternative chronic pain management and for the reduction and dependence on opioid painkillers. Current practitioners are seeing substantial benefits with medical marijuana in the treatment of chronic pain, reductions in sleep disruption and other opioid side effects.

AKF of Boston has provided full mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering for the facility, which will average approximately five full grow cycles per year in the 2-story, 40,000 square foot facility.

The facility will also include a retail dispensary, corporate offices, a research and development lab, and extraction and processing areas to provide medical cannabis and medical cannabis infused products to Mass Med-Spa’s estimated 6,000 patients.

Along with the Owner’s design team, Helicon helped coordinate Massachusetts DPH regulatory requirements and finalize special finishes and other interior features which will control moisture and mold effects on year-round indoor crops. There will also be extensive interior and exterior security features to the building, including redundant monitoring, restricted internal access and other architectural fortifications.

The windowless nature of such production facilities often result in featureless warehouses. Helicon employed limited glass and a scheme of three different metal panel types to give the new Mass-Medi Spa building a modern exterior appearance. The effect is a crisp, geometric and forward-looking structure that compliments the budgetary concerns of a flagship operation.

Helicon is a full-service architecture and design firm in Boston emphasizing design innovation across a wide variety of project types and budgets since 1991.

Contact or 617-357-4437 for more information.


Thirty-Five Years of Design:
Building Everything from Shops to Dot-coms

You’ll find that header on the “Company” page about Helicon, on this newest version of Helicon’s website.

Over the years, in between the shops and dot-coms, there have been a bunch of cousins and newcomers. We’ve built houses, furniture showrooms, and doctors’ offices. We’ve converted an abandoned hospital into office space, designed offices for a start-up magazine and a venerable old one that’s been publishing for over a century. We’ve made stage sets for performance artists.

It’s been said that architects are generalists — knowing something about a lot of different things. Each client, each building, each function brings a unique blend of demands. Each has required us to adapt to changing lifestyles and changing materials.

We’ve come to understand the need for that role very well over the years — and its value. Each of the projects shown here required us to learn a lot about people and their specific environments and bring all that forward to the next one.

And the next one, and the next after that.

This version of Helicon’s site, our third since the firm began in 1991, gave us a chance to look back on that process — the one that has made us the adaptive generalists we are in 2016.

While markets and tastes change, one thing does not: the need for efficient design that also inspires.

As we looked back, we saw some projects with impossible deadlines, challenging budgets, and last-minute changes. We saw solutions that were hard-fought and hard-won. We also saw a common thread: the passion of the project’s owners. We were fortunate to have been involved with them. We were fortunate to have contributed to such energy and creativity.

We hope you will spend some time looking at and enjoying these projects along with us… and find design that works, design that delights.

– Eric Gould