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Best Offices Ottawa: Putting flexibility at the core of design

Architecture firm IDEA Inc. strikes the perfect balance for hybrid work at new government co-working site


It’s not often that in-office federal government employees can edit a presentation deck while walking on a treadmill or lounging in a cozy diner-style booth. But that’s exactly the case at 141 Colonnade Rd., an older space recently renovated by the architects at IDEA Inc. for landlord Regional Group and its federal government client.

The building’s nearly 40,000 square feet of space, spread over two floors, previously had an “extremely dated” look and feel, explains Tal Scher, vice-president of Asset and Property Management at Regional Group. “It sat vacant for a few years,” he recalls. “We struggled to fill it. It was a dated, old-looking space.”

But after Regional responded to – and won – a federal request for proposals (RFP) asking for roughly the same amount of space and a new design concept, everything changed for 141 Colonnade.

Achieving the ultimate activity-based workplace

Through a competitive process, Regional Group partnered with architecture firm IDEA Inc. and PCL Construction to renovate the building’s two floors, right down to the studs. IDEA Inc. associate architect Debbie Yates says the team worked within the parameters of the federal government’s GCWorkplace office modernization initiative to deliver a flexible space that conforms to an activity-based workplace approach.

That meant facilitating a hybrid work environment capable of supporting multiple different ways of working that encourages workers to spread out within the space and that doesn’t tether individual workers to one workstation, she explains.

“Now that everybody has their own laptop, they’re not really tied to a desk. So, we created a whole bunch of different spaces to work in,” says Yates.

Fittingly, 141 Colonnade’s new look and feel features design choices that encourage a more inviting and flexible workplace for up to 275 full-time employees.

The space now boasts a range of different working spots, including traditional workstations, phone booths, focus pods, support/meeting rooms and lounge-style touchdown spaces (and, yes, a couple of treadmill desks).

The office’s multiple kitchenettes were also designed as collaborative workspaces, meant to be used any time of day. The installation of decorative resin panels, not solid walls, helps demarcate these types of rooms without completely closing them to the rest of the space.

“We didn’t want to completely close off the area,” explains IDEA architect Leah Guerra, “but still wanted to provide some kind of privacy.”

A central core of employee lockers in the middle of the floor plan act as a hub and buffer zone between the office’s collaborative and quiet areas, while also providing a place for drop-in employees to store their belongings.

IDEA draped the space in rich and earthy neutral colours, wood grains and other natural finishes, bringing a comfortable feel to the office. Biophilic design, an architectural approach that connects building design with nature, has been shown to enhance worker creativity, improve workplace productivity and even reduce the number of employee sick days taken each year.

That serene aesthetic is balanced with subtle yet bright pop-up colours like blues, purples and oranges to create an inviting and interesting space.

Maximizing natural daylight in any office is important, but isn’t always easy with expansive floorplates, says Yates. That’s why IDEA placed most workstations adjacent to the office’s extensive exterior glazing, while outfitting meeting rooms with large glass fronts.

“It’s glazing all the way around in most meeting rooms,” explains IDEA architect Danica Lau. “So even though you’re in an enclosed room, you have light coming through.”

Even the most beautifully designed office can be frustrating for workers without good noise dampening, which is why acoustics were a huge consideration during the tenant fit-up.

Acoustic controls include sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, felt wall coverings and tiles used as design features. Rich wood wall cladding in a warm and rustic herringbone pattern and suspended wooden slats in many of the space’s collaborative rooms also help balance noise throughout the space.

Special expertise required for a two-phase renovation

The current iteration of IDEA (short for Integrated Design – Engineering and Architecture) was formed two years ago, when IDEA Inc. merged with COLE + Associates Architects. Since then, the firm has tackled dozens of projects in the Ottawa area, including several for the federal government.

Regional Group’s Scher says that kind of experience is key when facing the unique considerations surrounding any federal government fit-up project.

“The architect needs an understanding of the process of working with the federal government to ensure a project doesn’t get drawn out over a long period of time,” explains Scher.

In this case, the project was a two-phase renovation, with the first phase consisting of “landlord’s work” – completely new HVAC systems, sprinklers, interior and exterior lighting, exterior glazing, flooring, walls and other base building elements – and the second involving the tenant fit-up.

“It’s always beneficial for everyone to get the work done in a very timely manner,” and the team at IDEA did that, says Scher.

The result: A very happy tenant

Even though the tenant hasn’t yet used the space to its full potential – the renovations were completed in early 2020, just as COVID hit the Ottawa area – the federal government client loves its renovated space.

“The team at IDEA is excellent,” the tenant says. “They provide impressive attention to detail, knowledge and solutions. The result is a project completed on time, on budget and most certainly with a wow factor that impresses everyone.”

Yates says the new space even has the potential to change the way the client’s employees work, with far greater flexibility and collaborative options now available – a key potential driver in getting employees back to the office.

“There are so many more points where you can interact with your colleagues,” she says. “At the same time, there are other areas, reflection points, so that if you need a little break to recharge you can sit and look out the window and you’re separated from the main office through acoustic material. There’s just a lot more variety and flexibility built into the space.”