From Mansion to Open Space

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas envisioned a new headquarters in a refurbished ball-bearing factory in Meriden, Connecticut, he found more inspiration came from offices in Silicon Valley than from the 1913 Tudor-style mansion that had housed the office since the early 1950s.

Now after nearly two years in the new space, the diocese is both reaping benefits and managing challenges that come with an open floor plan, where no one has a private office and every visitor enters through a conspicuous front door.

“From the get-go, we have communicated openness, transparency, flexibility, and collaboration,” said Bishop Douglas, who worked closely with architect Duo Dickinson of Madison, Connecticut, on the design for the rented space. “That’s been the principle of it all.”

What was once the Diocese of Connecticut is now known as the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.

The quest for transparency is on display from front to back of the nearly 12,000-square-foot space where 23 employees work. Because the entry flows into a wide hallway and a flexible chapel space, people may hear Morning Prayer or the weekly Eucharist as they come and go.

Desks are out in the open, configured to balance quiet solo work with easy collaboration on projects. Six conference rooms of varying size and shape have big windows on every door to comply with “safe church” protocols. It all adds up to a modern, professional space defined by openness and visibility.

“I think productivity is higher because everyone can see what everyone is doing,” Douglas said. “I’m not saying people before goofed off, but now it’s a work environment.”

Staff members agree the space, known as the Commons, can be conducive to getting work done. The Rev. Adam Yates no longer spends time climbing stairs and knocking on doors, only to find a colleague isn’t in the office, as he did routinely in the Diocesan House mansion.

Now in his role as secretary of the convention, Yates can simply stand up at his workstation and see if anyone is free to confer. He feels no need to escape a dark, confined workspace and work from home as much as possible, as he did at Diocesan House.

“I stay here all day now,” he says with a laugh. “It’s no longer so dark and depressing that I have to go home to get work done.”

But transparency is not necessarily what clergy or others want when they arrive for an important meeting at diocesan headquarters. Sometimes they would rather be unnoticed.

“People’s lives are affected when they come up to meet bishops sometimes,” said Bonni McKenney, administrator for programs. “There may be appointments that may be stressful, and you see the stress on people’s faces when they come in.”

If someone did not want to be noticed at the old mansion, the building offered many places to hide, or at least keep a low profile. It had a back staircase, where a visitor could avoid such greetings as Hey, what brings you here?

“The physical structure of the old building lent itself to certain behaviors more readily, such as coming in to have a private meeting,” said Karin Hamilton, canon for mission, communication, and media. When disciplinary matters are at issue, she said, people want privacy for obvious reasons. But clandestine visits are harder to come by in the new environment.

“Here it’s real hard to sneak in,” she said.

The ultra-transparent vision for the space came from Bishop Douglas, who found his muse in San Francisco tech firm Dropbox, where his son works. On a visit to Dropbox headquarters, he studied and learned. That visit inspired desks in the center of the wide-open space in Meriden, where ceilings reach as high as 30 feet. Six conference rooms on the sides offer smaller spaces to meet, including two equipped with videoconferencing equipment. In a diner-style break area, “white spaces” allow anyone to grab a marker during a meal and start writing on an erasable wall next to the lunch table.

“That’s all Dropbox,” Bishop Douglas said.

For two years, Connecticut Episcopalians have been learning to take advantage of their wholly reimagined headquarters. On one occasion, two priests from opposite ends of the state decided to meet at the Commons because it would be a comfortable and convenient place to talk. Its location, in an economically struggling mill town off a major highway, has changed how people experience what the church is.

“The only thing we’ve given up was an identity that the Episcopal Church was primarily identified with the rich and the powerful,” Bishop Douglas said. “Moving into a ball-bearing factory in Meriden close to a public housing development, we have decidedly given up that ideal of the church as some kind of church of privilege and power.”

As much as the new neighborhood marks a big change, the interior layout changes how people work. Despite the open nature of the facility, discreet meetings and phone conversations are still possible. They just require strategic use of space both in and beyond the building. Figuring out what’s possible and making the most of it is still a work in progress.

“‘The Commons’ says it,” architect Dickinson said via email. “It’s a place of completely open intent and realization: privacy as needed, but not as a baseline.”

Two small, unscheduled conference rooms near the desk clusters are perfect for stepping out and taking a call on a sensitive pastoral matter or a personal family issue. But corded desk phones can make the process clunky. The diocese plans to add cordless phones so people can easily step away and talk freely.

For in-person meetings, four scheduled conference rooms are located near the entrance. This location is by design: it allows visitors to come and go discreetly without passing by a row of desks. When all works smoothly, they sign in on a mounted iPad. That notifies the relevant staff member to come meet them.

But many visitors miss the iPad. The baptismal font, which is always lit up, is the visual center for all who enter. It’s not uncommon for visitors to see the font but miss the subdued iPad. They then venture into the workspace to find someone who can help.

For those around the state who request private meetings with Bishop Douglas, he will arrange to meet elsewhere in a spot removed from the fishbowl.

“I’ll meet you at Starbucks,” he said. “Or we’ll meet at your parish.” But for those employed at the Commons, working together out in the open involves a new level of requisite collegiality, and that’s largely regarded as good.
“In the old building, you really didn’t have to deal with people unless it was in a meeting, but here you have to,” Hamilton said. “You can’t really avoid each other here. So there’s a sense in which we kind of have to get along.”

From Mansion to Open Space

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