Broad Brush. Colorful Strokes.

The Varick Street Incubator, a collaboration between the Polytechnic Institute of NYU (NYU-Poly) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, acts as a launching pad for fledgling start-up companies, many of them digital-media and clean-technology based. The Incubator provides low-cost, open-plan office space to entrepreneurs as they strive to grow their businesses, find funding, and hire talent.

Housing start-up companies together has the added benefit of synergy, promoting cross-pollination of ideas and success in business. The model has been so effective, graduating 22 of its start-ups and creating more than 400 jobs in its first three years, that by the end of 2011, Varick Street was in need of a new home.

Peter Johnston, Architect, PC, took on the task of combining the vitality of the college campus and the resources of the business world within the new space.  Attempting to bridge the gap between academia and corporate success, the firm drew on its 22 years of educational design along the way.

Doing More With Less

It is no surprise in these days of budget-conscious design and sustainably minded building initiatives that “do more; use less” quickly became the favorite mantra of the design team and the primary focus of the project. The design strategy for Varick Street was to focus on the interiors: color, flexibility, and sustainable solutions.

A major concern in the design of any educational space is how to use fixture, furnishing, and finish selections to inspire, to create a space for growth and innovation while remaining faithful to an ethic of budgetary restraint.

Now consider the Incubator; a prototype that faces all the challenges of a college or university space, with the added goal of creating a branded environment that does not interfere with the individual identities of each of its resident companies.

How do you create a sense of ownership, of belonging, in a shared public space, on a tight budget? How can a space facilitate an energetic work atmosphere? By reinforcing a youthful spirit through bold color. Paint and acrylic wall finishes create a striking interplay of color and material, while costing a fraction of more luxurious wall treatments. The design team was able to carve out personal spaces within the 14,000-sq.-ft. loft space by applying bright washes of color to the Event Space and other strategic areas to create distinctions between open workspace, private offices, and meeting rooms.

In order to create the most architectural “bang” for their buck, the design team focused on creating one grand gesture that would carry throughout the Incubator. The central Event Space acts as the literal and figurative nucleus of the space. By day, it houses nomadic entrepreneurs and their laptops. In the evening, it transforms to accommodate prominent guest lecturers, networking events, and press conferences. Taking up two entire column bays, the space sits in the center of the floor plate. It provides a backdrop for the reception area and a distinct NYU-Poly branding opportunity at the point of entry. Its long walls are punctuated by large expanses of glass, creating moments of visual connection to the open workspace beyond.

These built-in moments of discovery provide a balance between feelings of belonging and privacy on the one hand and the energizing anticipation of the new and different on the other. They also allow for intuitive wayfinding, as visitors can instantly understand where they are by catching a glimpse of a particular color.

The space was designed with two primary user groups in mind: the start-up company that will lease several workstations and the day user who can rent a chair in an open benching arrangement in the Event Space. The furniture scheme is built to ensure both groups can grow within the Incubator; as a start-up begins to expand, it need only rent more space. The modular nature of the workstations allows for infinite flexibility. The benching solution in the Event Space also contributes to the adaptability of the Incubator; tilt-up tables provide work space for entrepreneurs who come to work for the day, and then easily disappear for an evening event.

Flexibility combined with economical, durable finishes were a key to making the Varick Street facility a collaborative and inspiring space for entrepreneurs while working with limited resources.

Remembering Sustainability
This idea of doing more with less is an inherently sustainable one. The Varick Street Incubator’s design responds to the triple bottom line by being mindful of the project’s budget constraints, sensitive to the needs of the entrepreneurs who use the space, and respectful of the environment. Focusing on products that meet a third-party certification system is a relatively painless way to ensure responsible FF+E selection, whether or not the specifier possesses an extensive base of knowledge on the subject. For example, all new workstations in the Incubator are Cradle-to-Cradle certified, and the carpet tile is SCAS (Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard) certified.

Another easy, sustainable initiative? Reuse. Not only were the sustainable characteristics of new products considered, but also furniture from the original Varick Street location was painstakingly inventoried and evaluated for wear and tear. Pieces in good condition were folded into the mix at the new space, cutting back on both procurement costs and landfill waste. The existing wood floor in the space was refinished, allowing the former industrial loft to retain its character while saving both money and time.

As in any working environment, lighting design was of prime importance at Varick Street. Since the space is flooded with natural light on all four sides, the ability to independently control up-light and down-light components would make it easy for occupants to make smart decisions about energy use on a daily basis. This level of choice for the end user maximizes productivity and the reported comfort level, while minimizing energy costs.

Lighting economy was also the impetus behind creating five distinct lighting zones, each with its own occupancy sensor. By switching the zones separately, the design allows individual portions of the space to be illuminated independently, cutting down significantly on energy consumption during off-peak working hours.

Not one of these sustainable initiatives came with the initial premium that is often associated with green building strategies, and they all carry significant long-term benefits for the environment, end users, and the NYU-Poly management team.

The Varick Street Incubator is successful, in part, because it stands as an example of how a tight budget does not necessarily limit the ability of a creative team of architects, designers, and administrators to create an impactful and vibrant space. Creating bold statements with color, reusing existing assets, and building flexibility into the space allowed NYU-Poly, and its energetic tenants, to achieve success as a driver of tech growth in New York City and beyond.

The design team consisted of Peter Johnston, Chelsea Bergersen, and Laura Nemerson. 

Laura Nemerson
is an interior designer at Peter Johnston, Architect, PC, a Hoboken, NJ-based architecture and interior design firm specializing in higher education, hospitality, and high-end residential work.