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Baking Wellness into Interior Spaces: The Renovation Issue

SMRT Architects of Portland, ME are believers in the power of space. And as a 136-year-old organization, they’ve learned a few things about how people interact with physical places. They are experts in seeing things for what they can be, not for what they are. This is how they happened to take over a retired, historic bakery and carefully kneed it into a place that embraces natural light and under the proper guidelines, welcomes employees for social, appropriately distanced interaction.

The Nissen Bakery Building rests comfortably on Washington Avenue, a mixed-use community blossoming with creative business owners repurposing industrial storefronts, symbolizing that what’s old is new again. The team landed on the property after an exhaustive search for space left them wondering if they’d have to leave an area that’s been home since their inception. Inspired by its expansive windows, brick-red bones, and open space, SMRT’s design team began peeling back the building’s past to uncover its future.

No doubt, the company had some pressure to perform in the endeavor that was to be their new location, given their reputation as a forward-thinking, pro-people team of creatives. It had to be active and energizing and demonstrate a commitment to the overall well-being of employees, and the business.
“Our new space is centered on community, collaboration and creativity. At the same time, we committed to pursuing WELL certification. WELL is a building rating system focused on the health of the occupants,” wrote SMRT’s Nicole Rogers in a company blog post. 
WELL was established in 2014 to establish the highest possible standard for building and interior space designers to promote health and wellness. It’s a proactive, measurable effort requiring forethought and a commitment to more than the bottom line. It’s a conduit between people and space. “Health and wellness in the office is going to be paramount,” said SMRT Workplace Studio Leader and Certified Interior Designer Jeana Stewart, “You’re not going to be able to get people to return to the office unless they feel safe. Whether you’re thinking about cleaning protocols, or making sure the surfaces within the space are easy to clean, and the aspects of WELL.”
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“People need to feel comfortable, that the space is safe, and that their health is paramount to us,” said Kate Everett, Principal at SMRT, and Director of Operations. “Wellness [in commercial space] is a trend that’s going to extend well past us getting back to normal, and we intentionally designed the space to meet the WELL standards, because we wanted to be a healthy place to work.” 
In the company’s pursuit of WELL certification, Everett said access to natural light is critical to how people feel in a space.

“Natural light was a big part of our conversation about where to locate our conference rooms,” said Everett. “We have these huge phenomenal windows on each side of the structure, and in our old space, we had some rooms with no windows or natural light, and people just didn’t want to go in. The popular ones all had natural light, so we lined our conference rooms up against these great windows, and that required us to have shade control.”

Legrand’s line fit well into SMRT’s plan, providing the company with exceptional control over the historical building’s brilliant, brick-encased windows. Customizable in fabric and infinitely programmable, Legrand commercial shading gave SMRT a new, innovative option for controlling the interior’s balance between light and shade. 
Stewart said the company created natural light environments around internal work areas with glass fronts, “So they can still get that access to natural light.” The Curtain Shop of Maine came in to assist SMRT on their commercial shading, recommending a Legrand installation. They also helped the firm understand its benefits for future use in client projects.
“We’re building this space for 100 people, and we’ve got this huge exposure of natural light, and you have people who love the light and others who may be sensitive to it,” said Everett. The Legrand system, she said, helped them avoid “shade wars.”

“We wanted to take the human element out of it, and so we needed automation with solar control,” she said. “And Jeana’s team executed on it.” Little touches add up when an organization makes its people their priority—a promise often made but rarely delivered to this extent.

In addition to precise control of their shading, the new space is designed to be flexible, and physical, with work stations that convert from stand to sit, and dedicated areas for bike storage and even showers, the absence of which often negates a person’s willingness to bike or run-commute.

A wellness room calls to moms who may need space with their children while at work. It can accommodate yoga and other classes oriented to recharging and wellness pursuits.

“The WELL certification moving forward is going to be really important for organizations to stand out, and to let that tell their people who important employee wellness is to them,” said Stewart.

Everett said it’s important for them as an organization to lead the conversation with their clients when it comes to creating a healthy workplace, especially as it relates to sustainability, carbon footprint, and WELL. Space should be more than a place business, Stewart said, noting that it can help attract talent, encourage productivity, and build teams.

“Everyone wants the best and brightest, and having space as a tool is huge,” she said. “Access to a place to work out and being close enough to local spaces for happy hours and going out to eat together, really help people feel supported by their organization. I think there’s a shift in the way people are looking at their space.”

The company has multiple offices and has committed to remaining in urban communities to remain vibrant and stay walkable as evidenced by their upcoming move from an office park in Latham, NY, to the downtown walkable community of Schenectady, NY. News of the relocation has spurred recruiting.

Relative to their new Portland office, Stewart emphasized the importance of history connected SMRT and the Nissen Bakery. “We both have a rich history here, and our founder John Calvin Stevens, designed a lot of the buildings in Portland, a lot of the beautiful historic buildings that have created the fabric of the city,” she said. “For us, it was really enticing to celebrate the history of this building with our own.” Even when their contractor joked that it would be easier to design a new building, the company didn’t falter in its goals.
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“It cannot compare to the quirks and historic character we get in this building,” said Everett.