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At AE2S, a Grand Forks-based engineering and consulting firm, employees gather to the collaboration room when creative thinking is desired. IMAGE: AE2S

Innovation spaces: Advancements transform region's new and renovated offices

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- This is the rare story that can be summed up in a single word.

The word is, “Better.”

And the usefulness of the word is that it finishes this sentence: When comparing offices of the 1990s with those of today, we find that today’s offices are _____.

That pretty much sums it up, where renovation and new construction in the Prairie Business region is concerned.

Air quality? Better. Ergonomics? Better. Energy efficiency? Better. Work-life balance? Better. Versatility? Better.

Even, in the case of First International Bank and Trust’s new building in Bismarck, N.D., glare reduction from sunlight?

Better.

New and renovated offices in Sioux Falls, Minot, Grand Forks and everywhere else simply are more comfortable, congenial and cost-effective than offices used to be. And the degree to which they’ve improved is becoming a key competitive advantage, said Andrew Eitreim, vice president and principal architect at Architecture Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“More and more, the office environment is becoming a recruitment and retention tool,” Eitreim said.

“The company is saying to candidates, ‘Look at our space. Don’t you want to come and work here?’”

And just as residents will enjoy a new golf course while a city’s economic developers show it off, employees will benefit from a gym or other amenity while managers and HR professionals sing its praises to job applicants.

Think about it, Eitreim said. “How many hours are you spending in the office in a given week?

“These days, people want to work in a place where they feel comfortable and happy and enjoy a better quality of life.” And smart employers are doing their best to respond, he said.

Technology

Let’s go back to the sunlight example, in part because the glare reduction stems from a factor that powers many office improvements: technology.

The south side and the west side of the new First International Bank and Trust building feature windows made of electronically tintable glass, said Dave Mason, Bismarck president for the bank.

“North Dakota is great, but in the winter, you get that low sun,” he said.

“We have a gallery on our south side, and that winter sun would be blaring right into that gallery. It’s not like you want to hang curtains to block it, so we ended up with something called SageGlass.”

A product of Sage Electronics in Faribault, Minn., SageGlass is dynamic glass, meaning it tints automatically or on demand to control sunlight. The glass features an electrochromatic coating that darkens or clears in response to electricity.

“So the control is just like a thermostat, except it actually changes the tint of the window,” Mason said.

“And while you can program it to adjust automatically, everybody also has their own adjustment within their own office. It’s kind of a neat feature.”

The durability and energy efficiency of LED lights mean office lighting itself has changed, said Andy Bartsch, director of electrical engineering at Obermiller Nelson Engineering or ONE in Fargo, N.D.

“Most new buildings are going to have LED lights with dimmers, and the dimmer switches likely can be remotely controlled,” he said.

Likewise, buildings will have many other automated features, such as lights that turn on or off automatically when someone enters or exits a room. “That capability has been around for awhile,” Bartsch said. “But if you’re in a building that’s more than 10 years old, you probably don’t have it there.”

What’s next? Lights that can be adjusted for not only brightness, but also color temperature, he said.

Different light sources produce different colored light, as a photography website describes. “For example, a candle emits a reddish light, while the midday sun's rays have a blue tint,” the website continues.

“These different colors can be expressed using a number, and this number is known as the color temperature.”

Color temperature can affect people’s circadian rhythms and, like background music, their moods. So, research is underway to test the adjustments’ effects in places such as hospitals and schools, Bartsch said.

Low VOC

Some technological improvements in offices can’t even be seen. Take the carpets and walls you’ll encounter when you enter a new building, said Eitreim of Architecture Inc.

“That carpet looks like a carpet, and the painted wall looks like a painted wall,” he said. But in fact, the features could be real improvements, if they’ve been been engineered to emit fewer volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs “are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids,” and “include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.”

Moreover, “concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors – up to 10 times higher – than outdoors,” the EPA continues.

Said Eitreim, “choosing low-VOC products is part of creating as healthy an environment as possible.”

Then there’s the role of culture – specifically, the fact that CEOs very often want their corporate offices to reflect the company’s culture.

For example, the Sioux Falls marketing and ad agency Epicosity has a tradition called Craft Beer Fridays, Eitreim said. Epicosity’s website describes it this way: “CBF is a celebration. CBF is a movement. CBF is a way of life here. We take turns supplying a different craft beer or two to sample every week. Sometimes we invite clients or special guests. Sometimes we just hoard it and selfishly enjoy it by ourselves.”

So when Architecture Inc. designed Epicosity’s office, “we made a break room with Craft Beer Friday specifically in mind,” Eitreim said. Likewise, a mini golf course maneuvers through the office spaces, a further acknowledgement of Epicosity’s creative culture.

Along those lines, the Fargo office of AE2S, an engineering and consulting firm, features a collaboration room for brainstorming, said Brian Bergantine, operations manager. The room’s whiteboards and comfortable seating generate a relaxed dynamic in which ideas can fly.

And if you want to see these upbeat ideas taken to their happy extreme, stop in to see BNG Team’s new office building in Fargo when it opens later this year.

Three slides. A gym with smart cardio equipment. A game room. A bar and kitchen. A film production room. A patio and volleyball court. An auditorium that can be reconfigured for basketball or indoor paintball.

“We want people to walk into the building and say, ‘Wow!’” said Jason Gibb, chief operating officer of the payment processing and solutions firm, in an interview with Prairie Business last year.

Mission accomplished, we expect.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business

tdennis@prairiebusinessmagazine.com

701-780-1276

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