M+A Architects


Designing Public and Private Spaces

  • JANUARY 19, 2017
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Designing public and private spaces in ways that allow people to socialize or recharge, as needed, is more important than ever. Over the past century, our lives have become more and more dependent on being able to successfully work and live in close contact with other people. 

“Architecture gives people cues about how to navigate through their spatial environment,” says Wes Hawkins, M+A’s Director of Healthcare Design. And if those cues are muddied or missing, occupants end up feeling unsatisfied, confused, or tense, often without being able to put their finger on why.

These architectural decisions aren’t one-size-fits-all, either; the needs of different environments and industries can vary widely, so it’s vital that design is tailored to serve the physical and mental requirements of a space and its occupants.

The Goldilocks of Open Offices

Before the invention of the cubicle in 1968, office workers were crowded together in open “bullpens,” surrounded by a cacophony of typewriters and phone calls while managers stayed sealed in private offices. Believe it or not, but the cubicle was originally designed to give office workers autonomy, privacy, equality, and flexibility for the first time.

Soon, though, the drawbacks became clear. As grey cubicle farms spread, workers became isolated, creatively impoverished, and demoralized, the proverbial watercooler becoming a rare source of social interaction.

In the last few decades the pendulum has swung back toward open offices. But just as companies went too far with cubicles, it’s easy to go too far with openness to end up back at the loud, crowded bullpens of fifty years ago if its unique design challenges aren’t taken into account.

Open offices promote creativity, communication, and team-building, but without good planning, the lack of privacy and higher levels of irrelevant background noise can lead to unfortunate side effects.

From a design standpoint, the problem lies in the lack of space appropriate for different social circumstances. It’s hard for workers in this situation to find the line between me-space and we-space, forced by their environment to rapidly switch back and forth between focusing on individual work and inadvertently tracking the conversations and movements of others.

The solution is a flexible compromise between the two extremes, adaptable to the needs of diverse situations. Different areas should be specifically designed for individual or group work, allowing creativity to flow in public or conference areas while allowing employees the option for quiet spaces for focused work or for taking phone calls. Daylight and amenity access should also be taken into account, and designing for good acoustic control can help mitigate irrelevant background noise and add to a sense of control and privacy.

Huntington Center Tenant Improvement (2).jpg Soundproof but transparent, glass-walled conference rooms feel inclusive and allow sunlight to reach the interior while being minimally distracting to others. Well-placed frosting on the glass can help control distractions and add privacy as well.

The extent of an office’s isolation or openness needs to be tailored to a company’s unique culture and set of needs. A creative design business, for example, might want a more open design to encourage creativity and the flow of ideas compared to an office where more secure conversations are needed.

The science of office design has travelled far beyond even this level of tailoring and into the realm of individualization, says Senior Interior Designer, Mark Bryan. “These days, I need to know who is a loud talker and who is going to be at their desk all day or only part of the day because they’re constantly in meetings. I’ll place privacy rooms nearer to a group of people who have more introverted personalities, and there are now workstation developments that help a person feel more enclosed. We’re seeing an increased customization of each person's workspace more and more even as the traditional personalized cubicle is becoming less common.”

All these factors and more shape how the open office is laid out, but the care and attention spent in the design stage shapes the happiness and productivity of employees for years to come.

Health in Body and Mind


Bing Cancer Center (5).jpg Note the warm colors, access to light and greenery, wide corridor, and artistic touches. An air of privacy is given by the low wall, echoed in the carpet, ceiling, and chair formation. This is definitely a public space.

Offices are one matter, but when it comes to healthcare, critical safety concerns make Designing public and private spaces even more difficult. No one wants a visitor to accidentally wander into a patient’s private room or into a sterile or dangerous area, and it’s easy to become lost or confused when you’re already nervous, worried, or in pain.

Rather than plaster warning signs everywhere, Wes Hawkins, M+A’s Director of Healthcare Design, also sees the solution in careful planning. “There is so much in the way the built environment affects you—the materiality, the colors, the general care given to a space. We can use these to build public and private layers separating visitors from patients from medical staff.”

In healthcare environments, M+A uses a variety of subtle cues that let visitors distinguish public, patient, and staff space. Public areas are color-coordinated throughout medical complexes and often display artistic flourishes and materials not found in more practical areas.

Corridor width can also be used to keep visitor areas separate. The smaller a doorway is—even without an actual door—the more private and restricted it feels, and visitors will accordingly avoid them.

Additionally, though access to privacy is important in every part of public life, that need is especially high for stressed patients and visitors. In lobbies and patient rooms, explains Wes, “it’s essential to provide varying levels of intimacy. They’re going to gather in places they feel protected and comfortable.” No one wants to discuss Nana’s diagnosis while crowded together with strangers who can hear every word.

Stellar Transparency

In healthcare and in offices, designing public and private spaces according to their boundaries, are often clear and physical—but great design can even help with more invisible social lines.

OSU’s Star House is a secure building where homeless youth can both get help filling immediate needs--eating, bathing, and storing precious belongings--and solving more long-term concerns like obtaining education, overcoming substance abuse, and finding a job and living space. 

WNP_0885-Edit-Edit.jpg The use of interior windows allows for sightlines and light, providing literal transparency.

For safety reasons, the staff of Star House needed to keep watch over the goings-on within the facility. However, the youth who come to Star House for help often distrust both authority and each other due to past negative experiences. For this reason, the youth needed to be able to keep a careful eye on each other and on authority figures--but they also needed to know they weren’t being monitored like prisoners but rather respected as adults worthy of trust and privacy. During the design phase, these dynamics became clear and the facility needed to help alleviate these tensions.

“We needed the architecture to provide a sense of openness and connectivity between rooms, so that the needs of both groups were served,” explains Senior Designer Tom Lewis. “We had to find a balance where everyone could relax and feel safe.”

Lewis ended up designing two-way, windowed sightlines extending through the building that permitted everyone to equally see and be seen. These windows are unobtrusive and are clearly meant to be useful rather than as a signal of Star House’s distrust. The air of respect and transparency they provide helps break down the social calluses the youth had built while homeless.

Here, a more physically open facility leads to more socially open occupants, which serves the overall purpose of Star House. Easing the natural mistrust of the youth through design makes it that much easier to help them improve their lives.

The Takeaway

Architectural design is an innate, invisible guide for those who enter a space, a presence not consciously considered but felt all the same. The average American today lives in a world made by other humans; we spend more than 85% of our days indoors, so designing public and private spaces in ways that serve occupants' social needs is increasingly important.

Even the most luxurious space might not be used by occupants if privacy and publicity concerns aren’t taken into account—after all, even the most comfortable chair means nothing if you’re constantly on the edge of its seat. With buildings divided up clearly and carefully, occupants can feel as though they’re in the right place at the right time, helping ease stress and smooth their path.

Designing public and private spaces is a new sort of social ergonomics, a relatively recent innovation in the toolbox of the architect—yet another layer of design to consider, balance, and incorporate during the design process.

M+A Architects