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The Best Business Architecture of 2008


This year's BusinessWeek/Architectural Record winners place productivity over luxury

As commercial construction falls deeper into recession, it seems fitting that the winners of this year's BusinessWeek/Architectural Record awards show the payoffs of investing in smart design. Of course, all of 2008's champions were completed and occupied before panic seized the global financial markets. But after a few years of opulence and of trophies for structures that generated buzz as well as business, practicality is appropriately front and center.

The contest, in its 11th year, honors buildings that adhere to the sponsors' semi-official tagline: "Good design is good business." A jury of editors from BusinessWeek and Architectural Record (both owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MFP)) analyzed more than 100 submissions from around the world, paying particular attention not to showy facades or flashy foyers but rather to the impact of a design on a company's bottom line.

Witness One Haworth Center, in Holland, Mich. Though based in the heart of the American office-furniture industry, workplace-design firm Haworth was having a tough time luring potential clients to come visit. So Chief Executive and President Franco Bianchi decided to replace Haworth's headquarters. Sure, he wanted his new building to impress those who made the journey from around the world. But he also wanted the space to act as an on-the-spot demonstration of the office systems he and his team sell, including equipment for every aspect of office life, from cafeteria to conference room.

The result includes a swooping glass-walled atrium that runs along one side of the building, flooding the three floors of offices with natural light. Furnishings are entirely from Haworth, turning the site into a massive showroom. The $40 million investment is paying off. This year, 360 potential clients stopped by, nearly three times as many as the year before. And while Bianchi won't share specifics, he says the number who signed purchasing contracts jumped by 20 percentage points from 2007. "That," he says, "is a big deal."

Other architectural winners are bringing in more visitors. The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington opened a new 774-seat auditorium in October 2007. By the end of the 2008 season, management reckons, the company had entertained audiences totalling 172,499, up 27% from the season before, when it had only a single, 400-seat venue. Donations of $1,500 or more to gain access to the elegant Patrons Lounge were up some 46%, thanks to the appeal of the design by Diamond & Schmitt Architects of Toronto.

Architecture influences employees, too. Edmunds.com, a publisher of automotive information, moved its staff of 300 to a new building in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2005. The 90,000-sq.-ft. building, designed by Studios Architecture, is meant to emphasize collaboration. It has only five private offices for executives. The rest of the staff, now numbering 423, stretch across the top and bottom floors of open-plan space, with an airy reception area on the middle floor doubling as an all-staff gathering spot and coffee area. Since relocating, the company's employee turnover rate has been halved.

Meantime, Skanska Building, a tenant in the office buildings of another 2008 winner, the Alley24 development in Seattle, which is certified energy-efficient by Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, reported 30% fewer employee sick days. Skanska attributes the decrease to the sustainable elements of the building's design, such as plentiful natural light and individually controlled ventilation systems.

The judges also liked the efficiency of Poly International Plaza in Guangzhou, China. The project, designed by architecture giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, consists of a pair of 34-story towers covered on the south side by an elegant lattice. The shading isn't merely decorative: It lowers air-conditioning bills. Similarly, the three large office buildings in the Elmpark development in Dublin, designed by the city's own Bucholz McEvoy Architects, exploit natural light and ventilation, requiring 60% less energy than a traditional air-conditioned office.

Architects are likely to see less work in 2009. The American Institute of Architects says architectural billings have declined for the past nine months, with October's plunge the steepest in the 13 years it has tracked such data. Kermit Baker, the institute's chief economist, predicts a decline of around 10% in nonresidential construction in 2009. "Architects and clients are battening down the hatches," he says. They should also shift their focus to costs, values, materials, and design, he adds. It's a back-to-basics approach embodied by this year's design winners.

To read more about this year's BusinessWeek/Architectural Record award winners, visit businessweek.com/go/08/architecture

Helen Walters is the editor for BusinessWeek.com's Innovation and Design Channel .

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