Designed for IT

Designed for IT

As tech demands grow ever more complex and more important to the bottom line, CIOs are finding that it pays to be actively involved in corporate real estate decisions from the very beginning

Reader ROI

  • Why CIOs should be involved with designing office space
  • How to develop facilities to accomodate growth
  • Working with architects and landlords

In the not too distant past, when a company decided to relocate — into either a new or retrofitted building — technology concerns often took a back seat to issues such as cost, location and design. It was more or less assumed that technology was infinitely flexible and could be accommodated in just about any setting.

Today, however, as tech demands grow ever more complex and more important to the bottom line, CIOs are finding that it pays to be actively involved in corporate real estate decisions from the very beginning. By doing so, they not only have the opportunity to tailor the design of a new facility to meet their company's current and future technology needs, they also are able to do so at a time when it is relatively easy to make changes: on paper and before construction has started.

Nowhere is this trend better demonstrated than at the US offices of Kirkland & Ellis, an international law firm that has its largest office in Chicago. Two years ago, Kirkland — which has been located in the Aon Centre in downtown Chicago for more than 30 years — signed on to be the anchor tenant in a new 120,000-square-metre office tower being developed by Hines in Chicago.

Since then, Kirkland CIO Steve Novak has played a leading role in making sure the building conforms to the needs of the company's tech program.

"We recognized from the very beginning that tech needed to be at the table when decisions about the new building were being made," he says. "That's a key shift in thinking for us but also, I think, for nontechnology companies in general."

We recognized from the very beginning that tech needed to be at the table when decisions about the new building were being made

Steve Novak — Kirkland & Ellis CIO

Novak first got involved at an earlier stage when the firm was evaluating its options and, indeed, tech requirements proved to be a key factor in the ultimate decision to go into a new facility rather than renovate the existing one. "Technology was an extremely significant part of our decision to move," says Gregg Kirchhoefer, a Kirkland partner and chairman of the firm's tech committee, which assisted in the transition process. "Our current building, which dates from the 1970s, was fabulous for its period but obviously wasn't designed to accommodate the systems and technology we have today, and the costs of making it a world-class facility were prohibitive."

"We were literally running out of space to install cable," says Novak. "At one point, the riser rooms were full and we were running cable through mail chutes and any other space we could find." (Riser rooms, or riser closets, are small rooms — about 7.43-square-metres — that house wiring and utility equipment.)

IT-friendly design

Once the decision was made to move, says Novak, the first step was understanding in a comprehensive way the firm's current and future tech needs. This led to an intensive multiyear program, wherein just about every aspect of the firm's tech operations was subjected to a rigorous analysis in order to establish optimum benchmarks for a new building.

"The aim," Novak says, "was to identify where we needed to go in terms of tech and what would be required to get us there. In the 1970s and '80s, mission-critical tech systems — that is, systems that are available anywhere in the world on a 24/7 basis — weren't standard in the legal industry. Today, they are."

Phase one of the analysis, which lasted about 18 months, involved developing algorithms for basic building components like power, cooling and square footage.

The second phase consisted of creating computer-generated mock-ups of the 24 floors Kirkland will occupy in the 57-story building and testing various scenarios for installing the different tech configurations being considered. This phase was completed last Autumn just as the building was breaking ground.

The final phase, which is still under way, involves the actual programming of floors right down to where the secretaries will sit and what kind of telephone headsets they will be wearing. The firm expects to move into the building in the second quarter of 2009.

A critical consideration in all three phases was the human equation. "You have to know what your company culture is before you can choose the right technology," says Kirchhoefer.

For instance, a key question for most high-tech buildings is whether to install raised floors to accommodate the wiring for individual workstations. The upside is that it makes reconfiguring floors much easier. The downside is that it increases the total height of the building and thus the total cost.

"We studied the way we do business and realized we don't work in a bullpen environment where business units come and go and desks are being constantly rearranged," says Novak. "That's not part of our culture, so for us, there isn't a lot of value in spending the extra money it would take to raise the floors."

In all three phases, Novak has worked closely with both Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects designing Kirkland's floors, and also with Baker Robbins & Co., a technology consultancy based in the US. (The building itself is designed by Pickard Clinton.) Baker, says Novak, provided "base level engineering" on IT-related mechanical, electrical and plumbing issues and also advised on future technology projections.

"Tech expectations are higher today for things like speed, availability and simplicity," says Richard Tomlinson, managing partner of Skidmore. "In the laptop age, people don't want to be attached to a wall. You have to work closely with IT people to design that kind of flexibility into the overall infrastructure of a building."

The building will provide basic Wi-Fi service for Internet users in public areas and conference rooms, and Kirkland is installing its own Wi-Fi system for use by its employees. In order to facilitate the transmission of wireless signals, the firm has requested gypsum ceiling tiles throughout its space. Gypsum — unlike metal — is a neutral building material that doesn't interfere with electronic signals.

Steve Falkin, a principal with Baker Robbins, believes there has been a fundamental shift in the expectations of large companies and developers.

"To a great extent today, large tenants assume that they will be fairly self-sufficient in terms of tech and will have their own networks and systems. They're not going to be totally dependent on the tech buildout of the base building," he says. ("Base building" means the four exterior walls, any space that is not occupied by tenants, such as the lobby, plus whatever utilities are required by a given city's building code.) "But they also assume that the base building will not constrain what they want to do and may even support whatever program they're pursuing by providing space for multiple service providers [of] Internet connectivity, phone service, cable TV and satellite communications. Kirkland — because they got in early — was able to make sure that this did, in fact, happen."

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