With its gleaming glass office towers and its broad, well-kept lawns, the office park that winds along Commerce Valley Drive West in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill radiates a look admired by many white-collar enterprises these days: modern and efficient, uncrowded and relaxed, bright; lightly at rest on the fabric of the city. The $20-million interior outfitting of engineering giant MMM Group’s new world headquarters on Commerce Valley Drive brings inside this contemporary office-park aesthetic, creating a working environment that is cool and buttoned-down, but never austere.
It’s also not just another sleek, chic office makeover.
“We took the space, which we wanted to be timeless and sophisticated and a little bit raw, and then did a full graphics and branding strategy,” says Chantal Frenette, partner in the Toronto design firm Modo (formerly BHdesign) and a leader of the team that executed the six-storey, 137,000-square-foot MMM project.
When Frenette says raw, by the way, she really means it: the ceiling over the cafeteria has been stripped away to reveal all the electrical and mechanical guts and gizzards it takes to make a modern building work. In addition to being a place where engineers work on projects scattered around the world, “it’s also a training facility,” says Frenette, “so instead of concealing the systems in the building, we are showcasing what engineers do day to day.”
Then there’s that branding strategy, which Frenette and her Modo collaborator Yvonne Campbell developed over two years of town hall meetings and huddles with staff engineers and executives. Like the lunchroom, the branding also strikes a note of contrast to tiresome, conventional “good design.”
Take the large, handsome graphic that spangles a first-floor wall, for example. This work celebrates the last half-century of MMM’s business expansion, from its beginnings as a surveying company in the 1950s to the full-service engineering consultancy it is today. Dramatic? Yes. In your face? No. The speedy graphic is in a long, narrow corridor connecting a glassed-in walkway and the cafeteria — meaning it will be seen most often by employees on their way to lunch.
What greets visitors and clients at the front door — as distinct from the morale-boosting jolt the engineers get when they pass by the graphic in the corridor — is a neat, underwhelming glass box with an open-tread stair and very little furniture. It features only the most minimal signage to tell people they’ve come to the right location: a small light-box off to one side — not boldly centred behind the reception desk — presents merely the company’s name and images of a few projects. To all who venture through those glass doors at the entrance, the vestibule seems to say, “You know what we do here, so you don’t have to be told. So let’s get on with it.”
Before the company moved into the new building, last September, getting on with it meant coordinating the work of 600 employees, each with his or her area of expertise, in six offices. This scattered distribution of forces and the intensely interdisciplinary work done by the firm were clearly out of sync. One task of the Modo intervention was to encourage a new, focussed corporate culture; another was to ensure that MMM put into action the green philosophy it broadcasts to its clients.
“The first driver was to provide a cohesive workplace for everybody under one roof,” Frenette recalls hearing from the various thinking-cap sessions, “and to really walk the talk. They work on a lot of projects that are sustainable, and it was very important for them to follow what they were preaching.”
That’s why Modo set about earning LEED Gold certification for its commercial design (MMM’s case is still pending). In a bid to get those points for acquiring goods locally, Modo stipulated that the wood applications throughout the project — cupboards, bookshelves, doors, ceilings and so on — be fashioned from logs that had long ago tumbled into Georgian Bay, then were later fished out, kiln-dried and cut up into the required shapes and sizes. The look of this rescued wood is rugged and unglamorous, but it instantly communicates the idea of sustainability and the commitment of the company to conservation.
Modo’s approach to acquiring moveable furnishings for the space echoes the same principle. The carpeting put down here and there on the concrete floors is composed of tiles, hence there was no cutting (and, as a consequence, no wasted material). And if some of the furniture is new and exotic — the large Italian table in the boardroom, for example — much is old and recycled: serviceable chairs and desks for the executive offices were harvested from the company’s former facilities.
In keeping with a welcome change in office design everywhere, Modo has also abolished the old rule that says light and views are rewards for good service, and that only the fortunate few can hope to get either. The Herman Miller workstations distributed throughout the top five storeys of the headquarters are well lit by the perimeter curtain of glass. The executive offices on the second floor are walled in glass, to permit maximum natural light flow into the interior of the building.
Modo’s design goes to the heart of what the contemporary office should be: a comfortable, safe place to work, a setting that takes seriously its responsibility to the environment, a medium that tells anyone who cares to listen about the core values of the business being done there. CI