Teach for America

Photography by Ari Burling

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Thanks to savvy interior design by HOK, the headquarters office of the nonprofit Teach for America is now able to deliver on its mission in a more significant and robust way.

Teach for America recruits and enables recent college graduates from across the country to serve as teachers in a public or public charter K-12 school for one of 52 low-income communities that the organization serves. The selected members, known as corps members, commit to teaching for at least two years. As the personnel and scope of Teach for America expanded in recent years, the organization’s New York office began to outgrow its space, which had to function as more than just a place for employees to work at their desks. Teachers from across New York and, indeed, from across the country, drop in to use resources, alumni groups gather there, donors and board members hold meetings there, and, of course, employees use it like a traditional workplace.

Formerly located in a midtown Manhattan office, Teach for America had grown piecemeal with additional square footage spread unevenly in a haphazard place to work. “We were spread across eight floors, with some staff in a building across the street,” says Elizabeth Vasek, Teach for America’s manager of workplace strategy and design. “We had to use an external stairwell to go from floor to floor, so it felt very disconnected.”

With an eye toward greater cohesiveness, the organization moved further downtown to the Financial District, hiring HOK, in collaboration with Pentagram, to design a more open and collaborative office. At 132,000 square feet, the new space offered the 600-person organization room to spread out, but it was not without its challenges: Arrayed in an H-shaped footprint, the office spans three floors and incorporates what had once been a transition floor for the building’s mechanical systems.

To link the floors both vertically and horizontally, HOK created an open central staircase. With a range of different view corridors and shared program spaces—the entrance lobby, a kitchen, and an open gathering area—arrayed alongside it, the staircase operates as much as a communal area as it does as a way to move between floors. A double-height space along the stairway provides a multifunctional area for various events.

Floor plan demarcates spaces

“It’s an odd-shaped building,” concedes Thomas Polucci, a senior principal at HOK and the director of its interior design studio. As designers do, HOK transformed this potential setback into an advantage. Erika Reuter, an HOK associate and project manager, says, “the floor plan gave us an opportunity to create different environments throughout the office.” The designers utilized the building’s unusual H-shaped floor plates to further define various elements of the workspaces. Color codes helped to further organize the interiors, as clusters of different programs became linked by color. Red, for example, denotes informal gathering areas, while yellow signifies audio-visual areas.

An open office with Knoll workstations allows for a team-based environment much more than the fragmented workplace of the former space did. Low partitions let coworkers conduct conversations throughout the day and maximize daylight. Touchdown areas, designated by the color turquoise, provide workspaces for visiting teachers to settle in for a few hours or days. To introduce a more informal feel, HOK sourced furniture designated for communal areas from retailers like Crate & Barrel, CB2, and Gus* Modern.

HOK designed the interiors through extensive dialogue with Teach for America, which had undertaken its own internal change management process to involve everyone in the transition.

“It’s so helpful for the design process to have great client input,” remarks Polucci. The impact of that relationship speaks for itself.

Teach for America Identity Design by Pentagram
With a move into a New York Financial District office tower, Teach for America stood to gain more space and a more cohesive floor plan. But, in the move, the organization wanted to keep its identity and avoid corporate blandness. To do that, HOK collaborated with Pentagram, the design firm that Teach for America had worked with for years.

Together, they created an interior distinctive to the organization. “We wanted to take on education,” says Thomas Polucci, a senior principal at HOK, “but we did not want to make it kitschy.” As a result, references to teaching are visible throughout the office without resorting to the obvious tropes. At the entrance, for example, the designers lined the wall with wood repurposed from school bleachers. For the lobby, custom tables were built with tabletops that incorporate an array of pencils inscribed with donor names.

The design team also emphasized features that would allow employees to interact with the space itself. To enclose smaller meeting spaces, they customized Infinium sliding doors with chalkboard surfaces, allowing the surface of the door itself to be changed over time. On a wall in a central corridor, Pentagram created block letters that spell out ‘TEACH FOR AMERICA,’ onto which employees can pin pictures of themselves and their coworkers.

Spanning the three floors of the central staircase is a wall of portraits: individually framed pictures of more than 500 Teach for America students, teachers, and alumni. For Teach for America—an organization focused on community—Pentagram helped to give voice to the individuals that comprise the organization.

who Architect and interior designer: HOK. Project team: Tom Polucci; Erika Reuter; Anthony Spagnolo; Jin Seo Park; Elizabeth Marr; Michael Judice; William Jenkins. Contractor: JRM. Client Representative: Gardiner and Theobald. Lighting: Lighting Workshop. Graphics: Pentagram. Acoustician: Ceram. Structural: Robert Silman Associates. Code: Outsource.
what Wallcoverings: Filz Felt; Unika Vaev. Wood Panels: Terramai. Paint: Benjamin Moore; Wolf Gordon; Scuffmaster. Laminate: Abet Laminati. Solid Surface: Durat; Richlite. Dry wall: USG. Hard flooring: Nydree. Resilient flooring: Flexco; Roppe; Johnsonite. Carpet/carpet tile: Interface; Modulyss; Milliken; Kasthall. Ceiling: Filz Felt Akustika baffles; Armstrong; Tectum. Recessed lighting: Amerlux; VersaLux; Bartico; Focal Point. Track lighting: Solais; ConTech Lighting. Task lighting: West Elm. Fluorescent/industrial: Amerlux; Luraline. Floor/table lamps: Vibia. Pendants/chandeliers: Schoolhouse Electric; Louis Poulsen; Roll and Hill; Selux. Sconces: Rejuvenation; Schoolhouse Electric. Accent Lighting: Edge Light; Jesco; Winona. Hardware: Rockwood; Schlage; Von Duprin; LCN; ABH; Door Controls International; Don-Jo; Glynn-Johnson Corp; Ives; PBB; Tydix; Zero International Inc. Door: Secure Door and Hardware Inc. Fire Rated wall: TGP. Office Front and Doors: Infinium. Window treatments: Lutron. Workstations: Knoll; Evenson Best. Workstation/task seating: Knoll. Conference seating: Andreu World; Allermuir. Lounge/reception seating: Gus Modern; Crate and Barrel; CB2; Davis; Blu Dot; Room and Board; Soho Concept; Andreu World; Knoll; Allsteel. Cafeteria/dining seating: Herman Miller; Andreu World. Auditorium seating: Andreu World. Other seating: Naughtone. Upholstery: Camira; Maharam; Designtex; Knoll; Gus Modern; Blu Dot; Crate and Barrel; CB2; Room and Board. Conference: Prismatique; Harter. Cafeteria/dining: Restoration Hardware; Herman Miller. Training: Geiger; Andreu World. Side tables: Room and Board; Naughtone; Harter; Coalesse; Blu Dot. Other tables: Andreu World Kusch and Co. Files: Knoll. Shelving: Modern Office. Lockers/cubbies: Hallowell. Architectural/custom woodworking: Modworxx. Signage: Coyle and Co.; DCL. Plumbing fixtures/fittings: Kohler; American Standards; Elkay.

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