Q&A: Duda | Paine on Densification, the Collaborative Space Debate

What does Emory University’s new LEED platinum student center have in common with NCR’s new HQ building in Midtown Atlanta?
LtoR: Turan Dudu and Jeff Paine, Principals of Duda | Paine Architects. Photo courtesy of Duda | Paine Achitects

CPE recently sat down in Atlanta with Duda | Paine Principals Turan Duda and Jeff Paine, who were in town to celebrate the ribbon-cutting of the new LEED Platinum Emory University Campus Life Center. The 117,000-square-foot building functions as both a central point and a crossroads for the Southern liberal arts university campus. The design is grand and light-filled with a flow that features stairs that double as stadium seating and bisect two nearly identical-looking buildings.  


The two architects spoke to us on a wide range of subjects, including their early work for Cesar Pelli and ther relationship with famed Atlanta developer, Tom Cousins, to their designs for the new NCR headquarters in Midtown and Terminus Towers in the Buckhead. 


Can you talk a little about your history in Atlanta and some of your major projects here?

Duda: Our office is in Durham, N.C., and we both came from an office in New Haven, Conn. I was in Yale graduate school and we both ended up working for 15 and 17 years for Cesar Pelli, who had an international reputation. We did lots of big projects with him and, after 17 years, we decided to set up our own shop and came back to North Carolina. 


We had a great start because we immediately won a competition in Charlotte, N.C., and we got to know a developer named Tom Cousins. Our first project was for him in Charlotte for a project where they teamed up with Bank of America and it’s called Gateway Technology Center. When we went to interview for the project, I remember Tom Cousins, I walked up and I said, “It’s good to meet you; I’ve been wanting to meet you.” And he said, “Well, your work speaks for itself” and he pointed to the Bank of America tower in Charlotte. That’s my project; that’s when I was in Pelli’s office. 


Cousins invited us to do another competition and this one was for Cox Communications, the Cox family and their campus out on the perimeter. We won that competition and that was really our first foray into the Atlanta market. It was a masterplan for a whole campus. We looked at a dozen different locations and we found that one parcel where we are now. We designed a master plan and we built the first building, and then over the course of the next 15 years, they added three more buildings and completed the master plan. Then we did another competition, which we won in Austin, Texas, so we’ve done a lot of work with Cousins in multiple locations but the Cox project was the one that really made us familiar with this town. 


How is densification impacting the workplace in Atlanta?

Paine: This is part of the formula for why the young workforce wants breakout space. Their formally labeled “this is your work area” might be smaller than it was 10 years ago but they can get up from their desk, they can take their laptop, and they can go somewhere else in the building. They might make that move several times in any given day. That gives them relief, a sense of a change, like I really want to concentrate and I’m in a space that’s filled with a bunch of open workstations. Maybe I leave that site and go into a small conference room or a café like this with my laptop and my earbuds on and so I have choices to make…There’s this notion, by the way, that we’re densifying office space, but we’re really not putting more people in the same amount of space we used to. 


Can you talk about the new NCR headquarters that just recently opened? 

Duda: When we interviewed for the NCR project, they told us the reason they were moving to that location was to be across the street from Georgia Tech to tap into that young, brilliant creative crowd, to know that they’re right there in the proximity, not in the suburbs. In the interview, they said “Our livelihood depends on it. The survival of our company depends on getting the best and brightest young people.” 


The same mindset of an amenity-rich environment where students can come and work in teams, work alone, they can work anywhere within the context of the student center, have food, have everything at their disposal. I could have just now been describing the new NCR headquarters. If you go to their terrace level on top of the parking deck, the big open green space, it’s surrounded with food, games, collaboration spaces and choices. 


How should developers be thinking differently today? 

Duda: One of the significant projects we’ve done here in Atlanta is the Terminus project in Buckhead, which is two office towers, a residential tower on top of a parking garage all wrapped with retail on the ground level. We added to that program—it was our suggestion to the developer—a great community space, Café Street, a canopy [between the two buildings] to protect you from the wind and rain. We’re always encouraging our developer clients, even in a speculative market when they don’t know who is going to be a tenant in the building, to have that X factor, a space that can be used by everyone that’s a public space. It really pays off because the buildings function individually as great buildings but collectively with this public realm–it’s two plus two can equal five and greater than just buildings.


There’s been some pushback on open office space design, often attributed to Millennial tastes. What’s your take?

Duda: You can’t make a blanket statement that one size fits all; it depends on the kind of work that’s being done, the kind of critical thinking that’s going on. Is collaboration really the best model? There’s a Harvard study that says collaboration generating the best ideas is full of baloney…it doesn’t happen that way. The real breakthrough ideas come when you’re alone. After you’ve had that collaborative session, you go back to your cell and you start working. That’s when the real ‘ah-ha’ moments happen, so the jury is still out on whether the collaborative space really does work or not. 


The other aspect is the young people vs. the older people—the management people, the executive people. There used to be this rule, an intern, someone brand new can operate in an all wide-open office. The minute you get a promotion, you get a divider around your desk this high. The minute you become a VP, the divider is higher, and the minute you’re a president, you get a ceiling and now you get an enclosed office. 


What they are finding is that in that wide-open office environment, there is a moment where you need to take a phone call and call a family member who got sick. You’re not going to do that in a wide-open office so furniture manufacturers—Steelcase, Knoll—all those people are inventing solutions to that problem, create a little phone booth you can drop in the middle of a wide-open office where you can go and make that private call. They’re inventing a two-person conference room where you can go and share an idea without being interrupted by other people but that can move.