The new cafe at Redeemer

Redeemer Presbyterian Church | Workplace Co-Design

“The space really exceeded my expectations. We were able to spend very wisely and deliver an end product that looks so much better, for a relatively small amount of money.”
—Brian Stanton, Chief Financial Officer

Achieving green, lean, culture-centered office solutions for a large and diverse nonprofit

Founded in 1989, Redeemer Presbyterian is one of New York City's biggest and most dynamic churches, with over 5,000 people regularly attending services at one of its three Manhattan locations.

Redeemer is a complex organization with a staff of 160 between its clergy, administration, and broad network of outreach programs. Their office space needs to provide both private and public spaces for individuals and groups; feel welcoming, yet include higher-security areas; and be flexible enough to accommodate their projected steady growth for years to come.

When Redeemer began outgrowing their Midtown Manhattan administrative offices, they enlisted us to help with their real estate search, envision their new space, and source or design all their furnishings. It was important to Redeemer to be as green as possible, stay 100% on budget, and come away with a functional and flexible space that would grow with them.

We were very pleased to collaborate with The Switzer Group on this project. Switzer brought its decades of architectural experience to the technical aspects, and we were able to focus on our specialty: holistic design thinking that keeps culture and functionality at the fore.

Custom-designed cafe booths fit the space perfectly and saved money

Finding the perfect space

Within the suite of complementary design services we offered Redeemer, the first was to help them find the right physical space for their new offices.

The church’s three congregations are located in different parts of the city, making a central location essential. We worked with major brokerage CBRE to evaluate a large portfolio of Midtown real estate with Redeemer’s leadership, and visited a number of office spaces in the 25,000 - 50,000 square foot range.

Throughout this search, we provided truly comparative area calculations. Rentable square footage is typically about 30% greater than carpetable square footage in an office space—though the latter is usually what’s touted in marketing literature. We decoded, remeasured, and analyzed the numbers given by real estate reps to make sure each floor plan could be compared apples-to-apples, helping Redeemer make the best decision.

A selection of floor plans from the real estate search

A multi-faceted organization with competing needs

Redeemer is a large and very diverse organization. All of the following groups work together, but are distinct, with their own expectations and needs, and each required its own “neighborhood” in the new office:

  • Staff of each of the church’s three Manhattan congregations
  • Redeemer Counseling Services (offers a wide range of services to the public and needed a large area—one-third of the total office space—that would be private and secure)
  • Hope for New York (sends volunteers and financial support to nonprofits serving marginalized communities in NYC)
  • The Center for Faith and Work (provides professional mentorship services, programs, classes, and fellowships to the Redeemer community; they needed larger meeting rooms)
  • City to City (helps local leaders to build new churches in global cities; they receive many high-profile visitors)
  • Central Ops department (includes HR and C-Suite, so privacy was a must)

This was a wide array of goals and needs, so we knew that employing the Sandbox, our signature tool for participatory design and culture-building processes, would be crucial for making sure every group was heard and accounted for.

A phone booth area gives employees privacy without sacrificing openness

"The old office was not warm or welcoming. Any business wants to be warm and welcoming, but it's especially important for a church. Pilot Projects understood that. When I walk in now, I'm excited to be here.”
—Josh Simmons, Ministry Manager for the Downtown Congregation

The Sandbox took the lead...

After a long real estate search, Redeemer chose a floor of 1166 Avenue of the Americas as its new home—a significantly larger space than their last, to accommodate their projected growth from 160 employees to 200 in the next five years. Right away, we began the Sandbox process to start planning how the space would take shape, beginning with a “blocking” exercise to establish the general location of each group. Adjacencies, flow, privacy and security needs, natural light, current employee counts and projections, and the need for public and private meeting spaces as well as offices were among our many constraints. Representatives and members from each group voiced their concerns and worked together toward fair solutions for all (we noticed the word “fair” came up quite a lot in their conversations).

It’s always gratifying to see our extensive preparation for a Sandbox co-design event come to fruition. The atmosphere at Redeemer was abuzz with ideas as everyone got their hands on the kit of parts and experimented with different arrangements for the space—as a whole, and within their specific team areas. Participants can sometimes start off hesitant at a Sandbox session, but with a bit of encouragement, they have a great time voicing their opinions. They’re taking responsibility for the future of their organization, and solving some big problems together while building and defining their own culture.

Pilot Projects staff lead Redeemer in a Sandbox participatory design workshop

“We stayed within our budget and our timeframe. Pilot Projects helped us from the beginning to do the upfront work that would save us headaches down the road. Their inclusive approach created buy-in within our teams, which minimized surprises and therefore the need to make expensive changes later on.”
—Brian Stanton, Chief Financial Officer

...and then we weighed in

While we invest so much in the Sandbox because we believe the users of a space should have a primary say in its design, we also know our clients benefit from our years of experience. With this balance in mind, we directed traffic and provided direction as the Sandbox process unfolded.

For example, their new open floor plate netted Redeemer more natural light, a less closed-in feeling, and easier team communication, but it also cost them some acoustic and visual privacy, and some areas for quiet concentration. In the age of the open office, we advocated strongly for some well-designed and well-positioned walls to give teams autonomy.

A mix of work stations in use

To avoid the “cube farm” effect, we used cost-effective sheetrock walls, full height, to create semi-open “bays” for each team. This offered good cross-team privacy without any loss of natural light. Within the bays, we customized the design of a low, easily movable partition system that teams could configure as they wished without having to call in facilities technicians.

We also advocated for a great cafe. Redeemer management and employees had spoken about feeling silo’d, both within and between their teams. We envisioned the new cafe as a place where all of these diverse groups could meet, connect, and share notes and experiences—both work-related and purely social. So designing a cafe that would get natural light, include a good view, and be large enough to comfortably fit the majority of the staff was a big priority for us. Since the completion of this project, we’ve been pleased to get rave reviews from many staff members about how the cafe has helped them come together more and build camaraderie. They even use it as the location for their all-hands meetings.

The expansive cafe now serves as an eating, meeting, and socializing space

Diminishing the need for change management

Using the Sandbox also helped us smooth the way for Redeemer’s move mentally and emotionally. We recognize it’s not easy for employees to move to a new space, even one that comes with many benefits. Our Sandbox process allows everyone the chance to weigh in and be heard, drastically reducing the feeling that changes are being foisted on employees from on high.

"We liked the collaborative nature of how Pilot Projects works. Our team members really got ownership over their own space, versus what we would have gotten with a design firm that came in with a cookie-cutter image of the design, or wanting to 'make their mark' on our space. With Scott and his team, we really got to put our own fingerprint on it. The flexibility of our offices is greater, we're wasting less square footage, and our public spaces are more inviting. People stop to look and talk and engage. It feels more communal now; more like real New York living. It's changed the culture."
—Chris Dolan, Director of Information Services

Custom solutions & standard pieces

Our Sandbox events and meetings showed us a lot about how Redeemer works, and put us on the right path to designing not just their optimal office space, but also to choosing the best furniture and fixtures for their needs.

We take a long-term approach to design success, and believe that our time and clients’ dollars are better spent on researching and creating good solutions upfront than on fixing or changing things later.

One example of this commitment was the weeks we spent searching the online market and local showrooms to find Redeemer just the right electric adjustable-height desk. This extra research—that included neighborhood-specific Sandbox sessions and a Test Fit Plan—cost the church about $5K. But they were spending a total of about $120K on desks, so we both felt a good upfront investment to make the right decision at the beginning was well-warranted. We led Redeemer through every step of that process, and made sure they felt good about their final choice.

In addition to an adjustable-height desk, each employee was given a pedestal and desk chair; through our neighborhood Sandbox conversations, we learned that some would also need additional file storage and bookcases. Again, much time was spent selecting innovative furniture solutions—both existing and of our design—to best meet Redeemer’s needs. In some cases, furniture from Redeemer’s former offices and from the previous tenants in their new space was available for reuse. We always ran a calculation to see if reusing would be a good option, based on the amount of material available, the cost of any refurbishing, and Redeemer’s environmental mandate. In many cases, it was.

We found the perfect adjustable-height standing desks for Redeemer's culture and budget

“We were able to reuse some things while making the whole space look new. There’s no ‘this looks old/this looks new’ contrast.”
—Brian Stanton, Chief Financial Officer

Standard systems furniture:
Adjustable-height desks
Movable storage pedestals
Modular glass wall system
Small meeting tables
Campfire tables

Custom solutions:
Cafe booths with upholstered banquettes and natural wood table tops
User-movable privacy panels (modified from standard)
Phone booths created with system panels
Assorted refurbished furniture

A work in progress—as it should be

As time passes, employees become more comfortable in their space, better understand their needs, and experiment more fruitfully with using what they have. After we wrapped up the bulk of our work with Redeemer, we led a few more mini-Sandboxes for some of the neighborhoods to help them employ the items and attributes they now have in new configurations. It’s always exciting to help our clients develop and refine their understanding of what’s possible in their workspace.

It’s equally satisfying to see them use the skills they learned from our processes to make their own improvements. For example, not long after they moved into the new space, we were delighted to see different groups of Redeemer employees moving their desks, pedestals, and walls around for themselves when they had a vision of doing something different. A truly flexible workspace—where employees have both the physical amenities and the cultural permission to change the look and feel of where they work—is all too rare a thing. We’re very happy to see it in action at Redeemer.

“We were in our old space for 10 years; it was great to re-level the playing field here. Each group has room to grow. We have more space, better space; people are taking pride and ownership and reconfiguring everything the way they want it. It’s really changed the culture and the feel.”
—Brian Stanton, Chief Financial Officer

Laura and Paul enjoy the new space

Photos by Daniel Joo

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