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FIRST PERSON | Space Planning As Cliff Diving

Let’s say your firm decides to give itself some beautiful new offices and you’re asked to take charge of the space planning.

FROM: April / May 2005, PAGE 64 BY: Mark Tamminga

The responsibility for the space design and—oh, better yet—the move itself, will rest on your shoulders. Because your taste sucks a bit less than everyone else’s, you gamely agree. It’ll be interesting, challenging—heck, it’ll even be fun, you think. Such a welcome break from the routines of practice.

Before you jump off this cliff, you should know a few things. And trust me on this, I’m speaking from experience. It is interesting, challenging and even fun. But it is also the project that will eat your life. It’s not like your day job or the normal demands of the firm just stop. It’s not like your family just goes away. This is all extra. If you scratch away at it, even for a minute, you can see the way this sort of job can explode at every turn.

Staring over the precipice. For starters, there’s the obvious social stuff related to who goes where and how much space people will get. Are offices status indicators or simply places where work gets done? One size for everyone or trophy offices for some?

There’s also the heartache of leasehold improvements. Take everything you imagined about how much this costs and multiply by two. Or more. You are going to be held responsible for every red cent spent. And the pressures to spend will be enormous. Full spectrum recessed lighting? Ka-ching. Exotic woods and ceramics? Ka-ching. HVAC? Ka-ching. Furniture? Furniture? Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Wait. Speaking of furniture, you know all that nice furniture the firm spent so much money on maybe five years ago? Unless it fits perfectly in the new space (ha!), it’s valueless junk. You might actually have to pay someone to take it away. And if you’re renovating an historical building instead of some plain-old rectangular office building plate? Hoo-boy.

Banging against the rock face. Then there are the designers and architects. These are lovely people with lots of heart and a total devotion to the job. Too much so. They become personally invested in every single detail. If you decide that solid mahogany panel is too expensive, brace yourself for much weeping, moaning and gnashing of teeth. You, the philistine, have just sold the beautiful aesthetic dream down the river. You coward.

Your designers and architects will come up with some magnificent solutions to problems you never imagined would crop up and, yes, they will save the day from time to time. But you will be in a street brawl with them from Day One.

In addition, you have the constant badgerings of your colleagues and staff, incessantly wanting to know “how things are going.” This is a Chinese-water-torture kind of question—and one only blunted by frequent public progress updates framed in a cagey, noncommittal style that leaves everybody vaguely satisfied but doesn’t really bind you to anything. Whatever you do, do not promise specifics to anyone until you absolutely, for sure have the thing nailed down. You will backtrack. Frequently.

It goes on. But a strange thing happens as the space slowly takes shape and the finishing touches fall into place. When the dust settles, you will be left with the singular satisfaction of having literally shaped your workplace. If that’s the kind of buzz you’re after, grab hold of this one and embrace the challenge.

Mark Tamminga practices law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, ON. He agreed to be the partner in charge of planning the firm's new office space inside a gutted and restored vintage building.