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Office Planning Guidelines: How much space should we really be looking for?

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Ned Fennie, Jr.

Ned Fennie, Jr.

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Office Planning Guidelines: How much space should we really be looking for?


At the onset of a search for office space a real estate broker will invariably want to know right away, how much space will be needed by the prospective tenant. If you have been through this before estimating the right amount of space required for a new facility can be tricky. Leasing too much space and cash flow can be hobbled by an excessive rent payment and under-utilized space, too little space and staffing growth will be limited. This may result in the need to relocate, prior to your lease expiration - potentially a very expensive exercise. Adding the architect to your leasing team early in the leasing process to develop reliable space requirements (before you begin looking at potential lease spaces) can make all the difference in leasing the proper size and type facility for your company.

If you are the owner of the company, an experienced architect will arm you up front with all the crucial information, so you can confidently make the correct strategic real estate decisions for your firm. This will save you precious time and effort...and ultimately money. Having this information in hand when you begin looking for space will allow you to pre-screen potential lease spaces and quickly zero in on only those spaces that really meet your long term business goals. The overriding goal is to make sure that when the dust settles your new space not only meets your functional requirements, but where your employees love coming to work every day.

If, on the other hand, you are the person responsible for finding facilities for a larger organization, you know that relocating your corporate offices, or opening a new branch office can be a very challenging experience, one that will demand the most from you and your team.

You will want the transition to the new location to be as painless as possible for all involved, users and management alike. Your real estate team should help you get moved in on-time while avoiding any bumps along the way. This is best accomplished by having a clear program requirements of the space and functions early on, and this is best collected by a professional architect with a track record of creating successful spaces. This space program information will assure you there are no surprises for upper management and provide them with a clear picture of the size of the office being considered, as well as the projected headcount that can be accommodated at this particular site.


The first step an architect will usually take is to derive a baseline of your existing facilities. This analysis should look at numbers and types of spaces, room/space sizes, utilization rates, etc. The space requirements for the new location would then be checked against this baseline. The next step is to develop the data for the new requirement. This can be accomplished in a number of ways including staff surveys, discussions with user groups, and interviews with principals or group leaders, or another method which fits your culture and organization. This data should also be validated to ensure there is alignment with the company goals (both in the near term and in the future). The architect will collect all this information and carefully analyze trends in your space allocations and your cultural and functional organization.

This information should be formally presented back to you in a report format which can be quickly reviewed and endorsed by management, and then passed along to your leasing agent. The space program report should document both the quantifiable aspects of the new office, as well as the more subjective or qualitative goals for the architectural design and/or cultural determinants. Once this report is approved, your broker can then quickly develop a short list of the building spaces which potentially meet your needs as spelled out in the report for review by you and your architect.


There are metrics which are invaluable for analyzing the efficiency of any office space, both existing and planned spaces. These metrics form the yardstick which you will need to measure the potential candidate spaces and layouts. Your architect will assist you in the analysis of your current space and the plan(s) for your new space. These numbers usually take the form of a series of ratios and the most common ratios are listed here. There are others which would apply to your specific workflow and functional organization; and where applicable, these will be identified and tabulated by the architect.

Gross Density Ratio

One ratio which can be helpful is to determine your current Usable Square Feet per person ratio. While this will give you a general idea of the density of your existing space, if you are considering a significantly larger or smaller workforce, extrapolations using this ratio can be misleading, as not all rooms or spaces grow or shrink proportionally. For example, the amount of space dedicated to support areas and rooms, such as data rooms or copy/mail areas is not usually directly proportional to the number of private offices or individual workplaces. Additionally, if you plan to adjust the office to individual workplace ratio in the new office, this will change your gross density ratio. Typically this ratio ranges anywhere from 135 USF/person (and lower) for densely planned, larger, all open offices with dense benching systems and up to 325 USF/person for small, private office intensive service firms with frequent in-office client/visitor meetings.

Enclosed to Open Ratio

This is the number of staff in private or enclosed offices compared to those in systems furniture, open office cubicles, or benches. Generally enclosed offices take up more space on a per person basis, so this ratio can have a direct impact on total space required. This ratio can also will have a big impact on the corporate culture and it can affect how your firm is perceived in the marketplace by both clients and potential candidates for hire. Law firms, large accounting firms and some management consulting firms generally have a higher private office ratio than average, whereas applications development, emerging technologies companies and other horizontally managed firms tend to favor a more open office environment with a lower private office ratio (with some firms forgoing private offices altogether!). Both approaches are valid for the respective organizations and depend on many factors within the company's culture and workflow. Security, communication between staff, levels of hierarchy in management and other cultural factors all play a role in the definition of this ratio. This should be considered carefully before locking in the desired size of a lease space for consideration.

Group Work Ratio

The ratio between number of staff served by each group work area (whether enclosed or located within the open office zones) is another metric for programming a space requirement. Firms operating in predominantly open office environments tend to need more spaces for group meetings between staff, both for small personnel meetings, as well as large team or group meetings. This ratio can range from 1 group work area for every 10 employees in an all open office environment to 1 group work area per 20 employees in a private office-rich environment. This ratio should be carefully considered and your architect can guide you to an appropriate ratio based on discussions with management. And determining how many of the group work areas should be acoustically enclosed will depend on your cultural factors as well, but at a minimum half should be enclosed rooms. Once the group work/individual ratio is established, the architect will then be able to recommend an appropriate number of conference rooms, team rooms, or other spaces and the resultant space requirements.

Room to Move

At first glance it may appear simple to just list all the spaces needed, along with their respective sizes and arrive at a total square footage requirement; however, additional space should be allocated to account for hallways and circulation paths within your space. This can vary dramatically depending on how efficient a layout that can be accomplished within a given building footprint. This added space is commonly referred to as the circulation factor.

For example, the dimension between the outside wall of the building and the interior building core rooms (toilet rooms, elevator shafts, etc.) should allow for a pathway to give access to one or more rooms on each side of the circulation path. A narrow lease depth dimension here will likely mean only one side of the hallway (referred to as “single loaded”) will serve the rooms and the circulation factor in this type of area will be higher. Where this dimension is adequate to serve rooms on either side of the circulation pathway (or “double loaded”) this area is more efficient and will have a lower circulation factor. Usually for early planning purposes this factor is established at 30-40 % of the planned office area. Once again, the enclosed office/workplace ratio will affect this number, but your architect should be able to help you determine the appropriate ratio for your organization.


Here’s where most people start listing the numbers of staff and their respective spaces. How big to make the spaces naturally will affect the overall square footage, so care must be taken to size the rooms appropriately for the given activity. Listed below are some of the more common rooms in an office environment. The actual room size is a function of many factors, and they should be reviewed with your architect to determine the appropriateness for your operations.

Private Offices

An office of 20’x15’ can easily accommodate a senior executive desk, credenza, a conference table for 4 people and lounge seating for 2-3. This size is not uncommon for the CEO’s office in small to mid-size companies

An office of 15’x15’ can include an executive desk and credenza, a conference table for 3-4 people and either a bookshelf or a small sofa for 2-3. This size is what we normally find for senior management of mid-size firms.

The 10’x15’ office is very prevalent these days and can fit a mid-manager desk and return, two guest chairs and a bookshelf.

Some offices at the smaller end of the spectrum are 10’x12’ or an even smaller 10’x10’. At this size a regular size desk and return are possible along with two guest chairs.

Individual Workplace Sizes

These vary greatly depending on the systems furniture manufacturer’s panel and work surface modules, panel thicknesses, clustering capabilities, cubicle or bench style. There is a trend to move towards a denser bench arrangement in lieu of the more traditional cubicle. This can provide for higher headcounts on any given floor, but comes with other design challenges. Depending on the type of work the width allocated per person on a bench can vary from as low as 4' to 7'~8', with most technology companies opting for 5' per person. The depth of the individual bench space is dependent on the style and depth of the workcounter, but allowing a minimum of 7' should be sufficient.

Older style cubicles vary in size as well with popular sizes of roughly 8’x10’ for middle managers or engineers with multiple computer systems; 8’x8’ for engineers or senior staff; 8’x6’ for general staff; and 6’x6’ for administrative or telephone support personnel. Your firm will likely vary somewhat from these sizes, but the module areas in square feet will most probably be similar. Once again your architect is the best person to guide you to a reasonable module standard.

Group Work and Conference Rooms

The appropriate size for an enclosed Group Work or Conference room depends on a multitude of factors (i.e., Audio Visual needs, maximum group size vs. typical group size, frequency of use, video and tele-presence requirements); however if you allocate 20-25 USF per seat in the early planning stages you will be allowing sufficient space which can then be fined-tuned in the Space Planning or design phase later on. Open casual work areas are similar in size although the furniture is likely very different. Planning 20-25 USF per seat should be adequate to accommodate these areas.

On-site Training

Rapidly growing firms and companies dedicated to keeping their staff current with the advances in technology are usually committed to the ongoing training of their employees (and many times these firms will do on-site training of their clients’ staff as well), therefore the space program should include allocation of space for in-house training rooms. If you plan on having lecture-style seating allow 20 USF per person. If your training involves people seated at mobile training tables allow 50-60 USF per person. (Depending on the frequency of use, you might consider renting off-site facilities which can then be paid for on a per use basis, in lieu of burdening your real estate overhead. This should be discussed with your architect and broker prior to committing to a lease.)


Your architect and broker form an important team in the leasing process. Optimally they should have a track record of working together to get you the best space possible for the least rent commitment. They will provide all the assistance you will need to find an appropriate space to lease on your terms. But there are some things which you should consider so that you are not caught off-guard as you are reviewing potential lease spaces.

Usable Square Feet versus Rentable Square Feet

Your architect will normally calculate your need based on Usable Square Feet (USF) as defined by standards established by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). Depending on the building and the nature of your occupancy (retail, full-floor or multi-tenant floor) a load factor multiplier will be applied by the landlord to the square footage you actually occupy in your space or the USF. When the USF is multiplied by this factor the result is a Rentable Square Footage (RSF). This load factor accounts for your pro-rata share of the Common Area in the building that you share with other tenants (i.e. building lobbies, corridors, toilet rooms, etc.) The RSF is typically what rent rates are quoted on, so when communicating your space needs to your broker be clear that your needs are calculated using USF. The broker will then adjust for the correct RSF amount depending on the building and the respective load factor. This load factor is important when comparing buildings as it can vary significantly and because it is the basis for the rent calculation it goes directly to the bottom line.

Allow For Enough Growth

It usually is hard to plan accurately for growth, but sometimes good indications can be derived from department budget projections, headcount projections, hiring histories and other market indicators. Usually some additional space needs to be included to plan for this growth. Optimally the new space should be sized to accommodate all the staff projected through the midterm in the lease, e.g. 30 staff are expected at move-in and your firm expects grow to 50 by the end of the lease, then ideally you should plan a space for about 40 people. Also, if you reconfigure teams often you should allow for additional space that will be needed for staging the moves.

Allow For Mobile Workers

Many firms are embracing a more mobile workforce and are changing the type of office facility to support the staff members that do not sit at headquarters on a daily basis. Allowing for additional "touchdown" areas, storage lockers, additional meeting rooms, larger food service, etc. may be required to support these drop-in workers.

Adjustments when Densities Soar

Many technology firms are pushing the limits on how dense an office can be laid out. The holy grail is to ensure a dense layout to support higher levels of collaboration and rapid iteration of work products. But this comes with a host of issues. Many buildings were not planned to support densities higher than 1/150 USF. Building cooling, electrical capacities, toilet facilities can be highly taxed and user complaints will escalate unless these systems are upgraded to meet the higher demand. Good acoustic performance can suffer as well, especially when open ceiling areas are part of the design of the space. When moving into a higher density environment your architect should advise you on good systems and treatments in the planning stages, and adequate wall and ceiling treatments should be included in build-out budgets to avoid noise problems that can affect employee satisfaction and productivity.

When high density benching is part of the plan accommodations should be made to increase the number and type of alternative workplaces within the facility. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there is a 1:1 seat ratio of individual workplace (e.g. bench workplace) to alternative workplace, be it a conference room seat, open group work area seat, phone room seat, lounge seat, etc. This allows staff to self-select another location within the office to work depending on the task at hand, or when things just get too frenetic at the bench location.


Select an architect with the right skills early on

• Make sure your selected architect understands your culture, business goals and workflow and has the expertise to guide you through the programming process. This will ensure you have an accurate heads-up picture of your space requirements.

Collect Relevant Data

•Assemble any Organizational Charts, Headcount Projections, Furniture and Equipment Inventories, As-built Floor Plans of Existing Space, CADD Files, etc. This can greatly assist your broker-architect team in determining a meaningful estimate of the required area.

Adjust for Changes in the Culture - Allow for Flexibility

•Now is the time to make sure you plan for the necessary space to foster productivity in the new office. Make sure your firm has sufficient space to adjust easily to market forces.

Calculate Growth Space

•Include room for a reasonable amount of growth in your staff. Usually you can’t grow revenues without some increase in staff.

Do Test Fit Plan(s) for Targeted Building(s)

•Have your architect do Fit Plans and check layouts of typical floors or areas to confirm density ratios, furniture and office module compatibility. This will allow you to uniformly compare the various potential spaces from both a design, as well as an efficiency standpoint.

Start Early!

•Don’t get caught rushing. A mistake in this early preplanning stage will most likely mean you’ll soon be going through the process all over again.

A little upfront analysis and planning, through the help of a seasoned architect with experience in office planning, can go a long way in laying the necessary groundwork for a smooth transition to your new office. Assuming your architect has performed the proper analyses and documented accurately your needs for the new office, you can be assured that ultimately your new company home will be a good fit for your organization. This way the subsequent phases of design and construction will go more quickly while avoiding unnecessary surprises. And best of all your staff will be delighted to come to work!

About the Author

Ned Fennie, Jr.

J. Edgar “Ned” Fennie Jr. is co founder of FENNIE+MEHL Architects located in San Francisco. FENNIE+MEHL Architects specialize in office development with expertise in space planning, interior architecture and ADA and code compliance consulting.

Ned is also Chair of the Code Advisory Committee to the San Francisco Building Inspection Commission. The Code Advisory Committee (CAC) consists of 17 members who are qualified by training and experience to deliberate and make recommendations on matters pertaining to the development and improvement of the content of the San Francisco Building Code, Mechanical Code, Electrical Code. Plumbing Code, Green Building Code and Housing Code as well as related rules and regulations or proposed ordinances that the Director of the Building Inspection Department determines may have an impact on construction permits. Specific recommendations of this Committee are directed to the Building Inspection Commission for their further action.


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