You Need More Than A Table And Chairs To Make A Conference Room Inviting And Efficient

Above: Photo: Orcutt Workforce | 1 Nov, 2009 |

A 2005 Microsoft Corp. survey of personal office productivity found that people spend an average of 5.6 hours each week in meetings. That meeting time may be spent in a well designed, comfortable conference space. Or it can be in an uncomfortable chair with no plug for the laptop or light to read presentation notes, or with the sun glaring in your face. It is only then that we wonder, did anyone think about the comfort and utility of this space?

Anne Elizabeth Hamilton and architect Nathan Leblang, AIA, both with the architectural and design firm of Orcutt Winslow Partnership, have given conference rooms plenty of thought. In fact, they recently finished designing new administrative offices for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arizona, which included conference and meeting space. Here are their thoughts on creating a conference room:

Corporate culture
Think about the culture of your organization. Is there a need for privacy and separation or does your work style favor an open and team-oriented space? The level of visual and acoustic privacy should also be considered. Does the space need to be “dressed to impress” or do you want to create a level of comfort and informality? The company’s identity/culture should be clearly communicated so the space can reflect and showcase that identity to visitors.

Room size and shape

Design always impacts function. A room’s proportions — the height and the width of the room — are important. If a room is small and cramped, it cannot serve a large number of people. If a room is too large, it’s like having an intimate lunch in a train station. A large room needs a higher ceiling to “breathe” or it feels claustrophobic and oppressive. Lighting, color and window walls can make a small room feel spacious.

Tables and seating
Integrate flexibility wherever possible. Tables should be designed to work together or pull apart depending upon the use of the space. Estimate the average number of people who might be using the space. Every person who attends the meeting may not need a seat at the table, and benches or chairs along the sides may provide additional seating. Many conference room tables today are “sight-line” tables, which allow each participant to have a good view to a front screen and create a definite front-of-room layout. Storage space in large conference rooms for chairs, tables or equipment also should be considered.

Materials and lighting
The selection of materials impacts the toxicity of a room. It’s important to select nontoxic laminates, cabinets without formaldehyde, carpet without off-gassing VOCs (volatile organic compounds), “green” paint and wall coverings.

Provide as much natural light as possible, as long as it can be controlled for glare. Avoid placing windows behind a speaker podium or where a presenter will be standing. A comprehensive light plan includes low-energy, high-output lighting with good lighting over the table, flexibility in lighting control to separate perimeter lighting, task lighting, and accent art lighting. Automatic turn-off when the room is not occupied is an available and essential extra. Drop-down electric shades with perforated material for transparency and a second roller for room darkening can add drama by timing all the shades to drop together. Coordinate this with dimming lighting controls to set an anticipatory mood for a presentation.

The interface between technology and room design is critical. A room that works great otherwise won’t be used if there isn’t a sound system to allow people to hear the presentation or if there are no outlets integrated into the table or floor space to plug in laptops and projectors. Provide connections in the center of the table or in recessed junction boxes in the floor below the table for electrical/data/Internet. Place ceiling speakers throughout a large conference room to distribute sound.

You also can have built-in, ceiling-mounted projectors. For video and Web conferencing and presentations, ceiling-mounted screens, LCD TVs, white boards, wall-mounted chart holders and teleconferencing systems integrate cleanly into well-designed spaces.

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