Flexibility Is the Watchword for Today's Facility Designers

By Sue Markham, ASID

Working as a facility designer for a public utility in an environment of rapid and constant change is a real challenge. How we did things five years ago is not anyway near how we do them now. We've gone from following a 20-year facilities plan to working successfully in a reactive mode. Everything we do is fast-paced at warp speed, and we live and breathe flexibility. Often we're so flexible, it seems like we're on roller skates. One day, we're skating towards the finish line and right before we reach our goal, the finish line moves. That's the reality of facilities design at Gulf Power.

Advancements in technology, ergonomic issues and more encompassing job descriptions for our employees have dictated that we provide new and innovative workstations that can be changed at a moment's notice with very little down time. In addition, we have a newly empowered work force that lives in a "do your own thing" world. Corporate guidelines and furniture standards have been thrown out the window. To maintain some consistency company-wide, we've had to educate our employees that they can "do their own thing" as long as they do it with 30" module components. Thus, rather than having to purchase multiple-sized components, we only have to keep standard 30" sizes in inventory, which results in a cost savings to the company.

Flexibility also means looking for cost saving alternatives to maximize our budget. Our systems furniture is Steelcase 9000 Series, and we still use product purchased in 1977 in conjunction with newer product. We have on-site furniture technicians who recover panels and paint components as needed, in addition to providing installation services. We have a common theme in all of our facilities so that panels and chairs can be rotated as needed among multiple locations. As a facilities designer, I always look at the aesthetics of a product and it's quality and life expectancy because I'm the one that's notified if a product is not performing.

Being a facilities designer is like being a juggler. I keep a running list of 40 to 60 requests that range from something as minor as changing out the towels in the executive area to working on space allocation charge backs to departments to undertaking major building renovations. Typically, I head up company-wide projects, working on conceptual drawings with the local managers and the architects and with approved contractors who provide cost estimates for budget approval. Once approved, the project is turned over to a project manager within our area, and I work as a consultant.

The most important skills required for a facilities designer are good communications skills, working well within a team environment, the ability to make decisions quickly, paying attention to details, the ability to handle multiple projects, and the ability to prioritize and to complete projects by the deadline. Obviously, CADD experience and space planning are essential in this position. Being able to apply flexibility in every aspect of our business has allowed me to respond quickly to our employee needs.

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