The office park of the future

How important is it to employees to have a bank branch right at hand? Or a softball league with teams from neighboring companies? And does a corporate park really need jogging paths and a travel agent in order to woo prestigious firms from the cities out to the suburbs?

Rouse & Associates, a real estate developer in Malvern, Pa., thinks so. It is pushing ahead to develop what officials see as the changing office park of the 1980s - one which no longer has just a few potted plants and water fountains sprinkled here and there, but really is a world unto itself.

The plan, carried out in Rouse's Great Valley Corporate Center, is paying off.

Some thought it a dubious project in 1974. That's when Rouse broke ground 10 miles away from King of Prussia, Pa., in a relatively rural setting. But the Great Valley project is now setting the pace for what is fast becoming a regional hotbed of high-technology software companies.

There has been a growing trend for companies to locate in the suburbs. That, along with the increasing dependence on office computers and the desire to hang on to top-notch workers, is having an impact on corporate park design.

''There's no reason a park can't be in a community setting within biking distance of where people live,'' says Henry G. Metzger Jr., senior vice-president of Peter A. Lendrum Associates of Phoenix, Ariz. He lives only eight minutes from his office.

Noting the growth in recent years in the numbers of companies locating outside major cities, he adds, ''Industry is no longer always in a dirty, smokestack environment.''

Anthony Downs, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, concurs. Not only is a suburban location usually closer to where top executives live, he notes, but in the case of high-technology companies, ''You have to locate where the highly skilled people are, even if many of the employees are low-skilled.''

Mr. Metzger points out some crucial considerations for those considering a move into a suburban park setting: ''You need a good labor supply and good educational facilities,'' he says. It's also important to look at the nearby town to see if it will be an attractive place for employees to live.

''What's happening,'' notes Jill Felix, director of marketing for Rouse & Associates, ''is that corporations are realizing that they have the opportunity to provide an environment that makes people feel good - and companies increasingly want to feel good about themselves and their employees.''

Great Valley Corporate Center, for example, is adding a converted barn to serve as a general cafeteria facility that will also cater for any interested company. And the center has a 30-team softball competition.

Services, which include temporary office help, airport-limousine stops, and exercise facilities, are centralized so that many companies, large or small, can benefit from them.

Along with general improvements in facilities, design changes are coming into play. It can often be difficult for technology-intensive companies to move into existing space. And so, to accommodate these firms, a new form of architecture is beginning to emerge.

According to Chicago architect Patrick Daly, president of Patrick F. Daly & Associates, high-technology firms have only recently begun to specify their needs.

Among the requirements, Mr. Daly says, are large areas with specific temperature controls for computers, special security measures, and capacity for greater use of electricity. Rather than develop general-purpose space, he says, it is important to go through a checklist of important characteristics of the particular company in order to develop the best space.

Many firms, such as biological engineering concerns, need controlled areas sealed off from general traffic. The trick is to incorporate all this into an attractive work setting, and not one, Mr. Daly says, ''which makes people feel that they're quarantined.

''If you tried to do all this in an existing office building,'' says Daly, ''the costs would be extremely high.''

Another major concern is the flow of space. Typically, an office building is vertically oriented.

''A vertical flow blocks time,'' Daly comments. ''Because of the immediacy of information requirements and group interaction, a horizontal flow seems to be better.''

Daly, who says there are few if any firms dealing specifically with the needs of these firms, says he believes such specialization will become more common in the next few years as high-tech businesses burgeon.

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