Milkwood 2018 Year End Wrap Up

2018 was a busy year for Milkwood Designs, we worked on fifteen projects totaling over 170,000 sq ft of space.

We work with a variety of different clients, seed stage startups to companies of over 400 people.  I wanted to know what was the average cost per square foot for each despite their differences. The best way to compare all the projects is to divide the total project cost by the number of square feet to better understand the scale of each project.

The total project cost includes:

  • Product budget - all furniture, fixtures and equipment

  • Contractor fees - paint, vinyl, electrical, etc

  • Shipping + delivery

  • Assembly + installation costs

  • Designer fees

Once I compiled all the data I noticed trends and was able to see four distinct categories of projects that we works on this year.

Category 1: Large mostly furnished offices 20,000 - 30,000 sq ft.

Many of these were partially furnished subleases or plug n play spaces. They had good quality workstations, task chairs, and conference tables but needed other ancillary furniture to make the space feel more comfortable.

The focus of these projects was major branding improvements, since they were either taking over the space from another company or an unbranded space that didn’t have any personality. We use mostly paint + vinyl to bring the brand to the space and some new ancillary furniture (conference rooms, lounges, reception spaces, dining areas, etc).

They also featured custom furniture, including raw-wood slab tables, stages, and reception desks, as well as branded installations to display client logos, hackathon awards, additional office locations etc.

The average cost for this type of projects was approx $6 per sq ft.

Category 2: Small/medium office improvement, 4,600 - 8,000 sq fto

These were functioning offices of companies of 25-40 people that didn’t have branding or ancillary furniture beyond conference rooms.

The major focus of these spaces was adding lounges, casual meeting space, quiet working areas and improving the conference rooms.

For many of these, the branding elements were minimal beyond the reception area - most of these companies only have 1-2 year leases so painting didn’t make sense but temporary vinyls are an easy way to bring brand colors to the space while not incurring too many move-out costs.  Because these companies knew they would be in their space a limited amount of time, we had to create designs that were flexible enough to move to the next space. If we installed a large lounge, we used a modular sectional that could be used in a future office as a large sectional, two sofas or many single seats depending on what the ancillary space available.

The average cost for this type of project was approximately $7 per sq ft.

Category 3: Completely new space for small company 3,200 - 3,800 sq ft

These were small startups moving into their own space for the first time - often from an incubator, coworking space or partial sublease.

This cost included everything for the space - workstation, task chairs, conference rooms tables, chairs and acoustics, dining space, reception, and lounges.

All of the companies had at least a two year lease and wanted strong branding throughout the space. We got to have fun with paint and vinyl, and even some custom brand elements like wood lettering.

The average cost for this type of project was approx $12 per sq ft.

Category 4: Completely new space with special requirements 5500-8500 sq ft

These were small companies moving into newly built spaces with unique space requirements - lab space or on-site client services.

We were brought on early, working directly with the architect, contractor or landlord, to ensure the buildout fit the needs of the company. We had to capture every detail - choosing flooring, carpeting, paint colors, light fixtures, fridges, ranges, dishwashers even hardware like door handles or coat hooks.

For the lab space, my team worked closely with the lab staff to create the floorplan based on the workflow. We also handled the procurement and installation of anti-static flooring - we used a type that fits together like puzzle pieces and can be reused so they can move it with them at the end of the lease.

The average cost of this type of project was just under $17 per sq ft.

These costs are incredibly low for workplace design, often brokers tell clients to budget $25/ sq ft for interior design. Milkwood can do this because we work like a lean startup, why not work like a startup when you work with startups? The main way we keep costs low - we have little overhead and primarily use residential grade furniture for its affordability and quick order times. Who wants to wait 12-18 weeks for a new sofa?

As for 2019, what will this year bring for Milkwood? A lot more beautiful and functional designs; making offices work; and all that jazz. We have some fun projects coming up that we can’t wait to share photos from!

What Xooglers know about offices

Recently I’ve worked with a number of companies that have former Google employees in leadership positions - founders, office managers, c level. I’ve noticed a big difference in working with those type of people, because they have a better understanding of how much impact a well designed office has. It makes my job easier because I spend a lot less time convincing them why they shouldn’t cut corners, or pack as many people as possible into the floor plan.

Here’s the top things that I’ve noticed that former Google employees know that others don’t:


Google founder, Sergey Brin famously commanded that no one be more than 100 feet away from food. This was so that all employees could quickly and efficiently get food and drinks while not interrupting their workflow. Anyone who worked at Google had immediately access to ‘micro-kitchens’ filled with coffee, snacks, drinks, and meals to go - in addition to a full cafeteria. While food is just the tip of the perks iceberg at The GooglePlex - onsite childcare, laundry, dentistry, and lap swimming, just to name a few more - it shows how much detail went into the thinking behind providing the perks for employees.

When working with former Googlers, they understand the benefit of providing their staff with onsite perks. It saves them hours of time, helps them to stay focused on their work, and fosters a strong sense of community amongst their team. Most of the companies I work with are small but are committed to providing services because they know that by providing these services you’ll attract and retain top talent. This doesn’t mean you have to provide it all, but you can choose to provide a few things that are aligned with your values.

Designing the space

Take a walk around an office like Google, you’re constantly reminded of it’s brand, values and culture. Use your office space to remind employees why they are there - why they come to work everyday. Keep them inspired by putting up your Mission and Vision or displaying values in the entryway and common areas.

Create an office space that team members enjoying coming to. It should be a place that they want to get up in the morning to go to. People want to do good work, you just need to set them up for success - starting with the space. The space should support their work, allowing them to be efficient, creative and effective. Top talent gets to choose who they get to work with. Now that many companies allow remote work, if the space isn’t comfortable, ergonomically and acoustically sound, potential hires may choose another company or just work from home. While working from home is a legitimate option, it doesn’t allow for close collaboration between team members.

When designing a workplace, be intentional about setting the space for collisions and unplanned collaboration. Build in spaces that bring people together, this is particularly easy when they get drinks or food - remember Google’s micro-kitchens? Even if you don’t have the budget for a full meal program, casual cafe space near a few snacks or drinks allows team members a separate work area from their desk to work socially, often with people outside their team. It’s in these places - when a Marketing person is chatting with a Developer - that the most creative solutions to problems come about. You get the benefit of two different types of thinking and problem solving. It’s much easier to set the space up to support these kind of interactions rather than using managerial force or implementing a policy.


I can always tell when a former Googler is on a team by the type of workstations and chairs. These people don’t mess around when it comes to ergonomics - Google has full-time Ergonomics specialists in each and every office. So when I walk into the small company and see that they bought height adjustable chairs with lumbar support, height adjustable desks, and have monitors at the correct height (eye level when your looking straight ahead), I know someone probably worked at Google. They knows that the benefits of (literally) supporting your employees are huge compared to the health cost down the road.

Former Googlers may have left Google but it’s obvious that their experience there had a huge effect on them as to the best way to support their employees. Obviously not all companies can provide all of these perks, but ex-Googler’s make these things a priority since they know how important it is to support their team members which allows them to be more competitive when it comes to hiring and achieving long term success

Why come into the office?

40% of the workforce will be working remotely by 2020, that’s just over a year away people - one year! We saw the rise and fall of Google Glass in less than that amount of time!

So, what does this mean for those of you out there who manage one of those good old, brick and mortar office spaces? If you are going to want, much less expect, people to come into your office you better have a great office. Think about it, you’re going to need to get people to change out of their sweatpants, say goodbye to their pups, leave their apartments and commute in. And it better be some pretty dope digs, especially if you’re gonna want them to do it on a regular basis! And I’m not talking a ball pit and slide type of office - sure those are interesting (no they’re dumb, see my upcoming post on this). Here’s the real reason people come into an office:

  • Collaboration

    • Two brains are better than one! If you create a collaborative environment, team members will want to come in to benefit from that. Teams work way better when they can sit in the same room and work out a problem. It’s fulfilling to work together with people.

  • Community

    • Humans are social creatures, and for the most part we enjoying being around others. This doesn’t just mean for meetings, I mean working in and around others who inspire you to do better work. While we can’t always avoid phone meetings, in person meetings are more effective than phone meetings and much it’s easier for everyone to be fully engaged. But the unmeasurable outcome of being the same room with the people you work with is the relationship and trust you build before, during and after a meeting. Outside of formal meeting interactions, offices that allow for accidental interactions, like water cooler run-ins, help to foster community.

  • Coffee (etc)

    • After talking with friends who work at top companies in SF and one of the main reasons they go in is because the coffee setup at work is far better than at home (no, really!). Obviously not every company can hire their own pour over, single origin barista to serve their staff (nor do they need to). But since the big companies offer full-service perks, it’s a good idea to offer a few of your own in order to be able to recruit and maintain top talent. It also provides a space for those accidental interactions.

You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money, but if you want people to come into the office, you need to make it a nice place to work to they are motivated to do so.

How to create a budget

One of the main questions I get from new clients is how to set a budget for an office design project.

So here’s a quick rundown of the major aspects of an office design if you’re buying all new furniture. You’ll see low and high numbers which reflect the size of the rooms/areas specified and the grade of furniture.

We tend to use residential grade furniture from Article, West Elm, CB2 and IKEA for a number of reasons but mainly because of price. It usually doesn’t make sense for a small startup to pay $5,000+ for a contract grade sofa, even if it has a 10 year warranty.

Another huge factor is delivery times. Many of the above vendors can get us pieces in 2-4 week instead of 10-16 weeks for contract grade. Time at a startup is like dog years, so I’m not going to make my client wait four months for sofa since they may very well double in size during that time.


This is the biggest ticket item for any design, especially if you’re making ergonomics a priority. In general we spend approximately $600-1800 per person for an ergonomic desks setup.

Our standard is:

      • Ergonomic task chair that it has to be adjustable (up/down + tilt at minimum), with arms, mid-back support and casters, $200 - 800

      • Height adjustable sit/stand desk, $300 - 600

      • Under desk storage, $200 - 300

Don’t dismiss the storage opportunity that under desk storage units provide. Unless you happen to work with all OCD minimalists, everyone has stuff - whether it’s backpacks, coats, papers, or a celebratory bottle of whiskey. So get them something to put it in so it doesn’t all end up piled on or under their desk.

Reception + Lounges

Reception lounges are the first place that visitors see when they come to your office. They are an opportunity to make an impression about your company whether they are a client, interview candidate, or investor.

Many people find the open office challenging, our solution is to breakup the density of desks by interspersing lounges throughout the space. And an added bonus is that they provide casual meeting or workspace.

Budgeting between $1,200 and $4,500 for a lounge would include a sofa, armchairs, coffee table, side table, laptop tables, rugs and a plant or two. This is a fully design lounge, so one could scale back a bit from there but we like to provide plenty of surfaces for people to put food, drinks and laptops on. Laptop tables make working from a lounge more ergonomic than balancing your computer on your knees. Rugs and lamps anchor the space, setting it apart from the other areas of the office. Plants serve as decorative elements, help with acoustics and clean the air.

Conference rooms

The cost for conference rooms can vary vastly depending on if you’re looking to have power integrated into the table, or if you’re looking to have semi-ergonomic chairs. Depending on the size of the rooms, budget approximately $1200 - 5000 for tables, chairs, whiteboards, TVs, conferencing systems, and acoustic panels (to prevent conference call echo chamber hell). Make sure to include the installation costs for all of these items when creating your budget - most tables and chairs need to be assembled.


Dining areas and cafe spaces are a great place for community, and they often serve double duty as All-Hands spaces and casual work areas. For tables and seating (chairs or benches)


This is a tricky one to price out since there is so much variation. But we like to 10 - 30 % of a project budget depending on how much you want to do.

Painting is the most expensive due to high labor costs, especially here in the Bay Area where most counties require employers to provide a living wage for workers.

We use vinyl for most artwork in the space since it’s easy to have large pieces installed and can be pulled off the wall, without leaving marks, when you leave. The companies existing brand is often a wealth of material for us to use, and putting up the companies Values, Vision or Mission helps to remind your team of why they are doing their work.

Additional Costs to Consider

On a related note, assembly and labor are an important cost to include in the budget. It is also something to consider when deciding on which furniture pieces you’ll be purchasing.

I am not ashamed to say that we often use Ikea furniture in our designs - they make some simple, beautifully designed, reliable pieces that work well regardless of the budget. However, the reason you pay so little at Ikea is because everything comes flat packed. When you’re purchasing something from Ikea for your home it’s not a big deal to spend an hour on your Saturday afternoon putting together a table. But when you have to pay an installer or TaskRabbit, that adds a lot to your costs. There are items that we often purchase from other vendors, even though they are slightly more expensive, just because they’re already assembled. The hourly rate for an installer sometimes negates the slightly lower cost for some IKEA products. (And no, you shouldn’t be assembling everything yourself, unless that is part of your job title).

Additionally we always add a +20% contingency to a budget to capture taxes, shipping, delivery and installation/white glove service. Working this in from the beginning allows you to stay on, and even under, budget which makes everyone happy.

Rough Order of Magnitude (ROI)

For a twenty person office that is buying/replacing all furniture, the ROI would range from $20k to $60k. A fifty person office would range from $50k to $150k. A good rule of thumb is to budget at least $1000 per person for furnishing an office.  

This is meant to be a starting point for you to then get more specific with based on what your company needs and can afford. And don’t forget to have fun with it!

Dealing with Legacy Furniture

What is legacy furniture?

Legacy furniture includes all the furniture in the office that you currently have. Legacy furniture is often a piece that may not be the best or most effective furniture for the job, but it’s what you have. The two major types of legacy furniture I’ve come across are Sentimental Legacy furniture and Incumbent Legacy furniture.

Sentimental Legacy furniture is that sofa that a founder doesn’t want to the get rid of because it was the very first piece of furniture that was bought in their apartment where the company was hatched, and they spent the first one hundred dollars that they fundraised buying it. They spent hours on it debugging code and hashing out the business plan with the early co-founders - and it definitely looks the part. I’ve worked with a founder who had limited space but insisted on keeping an green, crushed-velvet thrift store couch, and even wanted to display it in the reception area. While it was a sweet story and represented the founding of the company, if you didn’t know it, your first impression of the office was a worn-out sofa with claw marks on one arm and a mystery stain.

Incumbent Legacy furniture is the pieces that were bought way back when the company wasn’t making plans for scaling or had a much different office space. This most often happens with workstations and desks. I’ve seen glass top kitchen tables for desks, custom made tables tops made from repurposed doors, or beautifully craftsman made workstations made from local artisans. The glass top tables were a nightmare for ergonomics, broke easily, and always looked messy no matter how well the cables were managed. The custom made desks had to be made by the CTO on weekends when they needed more desks and varied in size, and the artisan workstation took 3-6 months to build which meant that they were renting desks for months after they brought on new hires.


Whatever the type of legacy furniture you have, it’s often the bane of your existence.


Proposing the transition

Now you may have proposed this previously, and been shut down. So make sure first that you have good reason to justify the transition - this is not just a personal vendetta against a particular color chair, it’s actually shabby looking, takes up a lot of space and doesn’t go with the overall aesthetic of the current office. And if not, the next time you move, maybe it happens to fall off the truck or get broken by the movers (I’ve been asked to make that happen… more than once! Now it’s something we specialize in, but only when asked).

For example, one my clients is currently trying to transition out some older workstations. They are huge black behemoths that take half a day to put together, are impossible to move and are almost double the size of your average workstation. They were bought by the founder and his small team back in the early days when they had a huge office and not many people to fill it. So they each got huge desks for their double (and even triple) monitor setup. While they started to buy the smaller version of these desks, now that their team is starting the approach the 100 person mark, they need the space. Their OM would like to be able to have a more flexible floor plan that she can make adjustments to on her own, and add desks without having to hire a TaskRabbit for 4 hours to put together a single desk. Also, the black laminate is challenging because they show marks easily and always look kind of dirty. But for a company of almost 100, it’s going to a sizeable expense to transition to a new type of desk.


Show evidence

When proposing a change of this type it is best to do so with plenty of evidence to help you justify the change. If you’ve identified a replacement you can create a floor plan that shows how many more desks you can fit by switching or a cost benefit analysis to support your reasoning. If the new workstations are cheaper, show the point at which you will save money. Make sure to add the cost of the assembly to the purchase cost - most people forget to do this. Ikea is often cheaper, but not after you have to pay a TaskRabbit $79/hr to put it together!

While the cost-benefit is often hard to prove when it comes to ergonomics, you can pull data from studies or other large companies about the benefits of providing ergonomically sound workstations. And if your founder is not in their early twenties, they will definitely appreciate/understand it.



The best time to transition the furniture is during a move. This saves money with the movers and you can potentially sell off the other pieces (and make it someone else’s problem!). There’s also less downtime since your design/installation team can have all the new furniture setup while your team is still working in the old office.

If you’re not moving offices anytime soon but need to transition something like your workstations, you can do so slowly over a few week or month period and not during weekends which accrues expensive overtime for install teams. I recommend going team by team, this has the added benefit of amortizing the cost of the purchases.

Additionally, team members will have to work together to transition to the workstations which is a kind of team building exercise. As an added bonus, I have found that one of the major ways to fight entitlement is to have people pack and unpack their own box during a transition. It means they have skin in the game, and they can’t be a total diva if something on their desk is out of place or didn’t get packed.


Have any legacy furniture at your office? Send us a photo of any particularly offensive armchairs or strange office furniture, and hopefully, the story of how you got rid of it.

Organizing your Workplace

Do you walk into your workplace and immediately feel anxious? Does this anxiety have to do with the layers of post-its that line the edge of your computer screen or the teetering mountain of extra office supplies in the storage closet?

It is easy to ignore the growing amount of clutter that comes from myriads of people working in tandem in a shared space. But fear not, I have a solution!

Below I’ve created a guide on how to start and continue to keep your office organized, clean, and efficient.

1. Make a list

Take a tour of your own office and make a list of all the spaces that need attention. Start by writing down the space and specifically what needs help.

Ex. Kitchen - plate + silverware storage needs new labels

Now take this list and organize it by priority of space. What defines a priority is up to you. Is the kitchen a disaster and no one wants to eat there anymore? That’s a high priority. Is your own desk overflowing with papers and post it notes? That’s a high priority. Has the sales team been asking you for help for months getting their materials organized and stored? That may not be the highest priority but it will get you points with the sales team.

Download your own free + printable to do list here:



2. Start Small

Now you’ve made a prioritized list that is three pages long and you are feeling a bit overwhelmed. Take a deep breath.

Start small and work your way up to bigger items on the list. The easiest way to start is to pick one project you can tackle in an hour. This may be your own desk or one cabinet of unorganized paper plates + napkins in the kitchen that has been taunting you for the past month. Once you’ve crossed one item off the list the rest will seem more doable.

Try to set aside one hour a day where you start to cross off smaller projects and then begin to make a dent on the bigger ones. Remember Rome wasn’t conquered in a day.


3. Allow Yourself to Let Go

As you organize you may come across what I like to call “hoarder’s tendency”. This is the inability to let go of an item because you think you might need it in a few months. If you don’t use it regularly, get rid of it. If you do end up needing it again, you can buy a new one - most the time you don't. If you are not using an item on a weekly or monthly basis it is not serving you.

The only exceptions are those items, such as holiday specific decor, that you definitely use on a yearly basis and should store.


Now that you have a starting point, go get 'em! And remember to take a breath.

What's the hardest part about getting started for you (other than having a million other high priority things on your plate)? 

Furniture: Buying Commercial vs Residential for your Workplace

Part Two:

In Part One of this post I discussed the differences between Commercial and Residential, and which items I often buy in Residential grade to help clients save money. Here in Part Two, I’ll be discussing which pieces I buy Commercial grade and why.

To review, Commercial furniture is made from higher quality of materials which are meant to hold up to heavy use for long periods of time, and have longer more inclusive warranties - but you’re paying a lot more for the product. Below are the types of furniture that I recommend buying in Commercial grade:


Dining tables don’t cut it when it comes to workstations - they are not the correct ergonomic height for working and they have corner post legs instead center pedestal legs which makes it harder to have under desk storage units.

I generally install individual desks instead of fixed workstations since they provide more flexibility - something I’ll talk about in an upcoming blog post.

Workstation seating

While it may seem obvious that you should invest in quality rolling office chairs with adjustable height, arm rests and lumbar support - I’m always surprised when I see folding chairs or basic plastic dining chairs being used for desks. In those situations, most the people in the office are in their early twenties and don’t yet appreciate the full benefits of ergonomics to way people in their thirties, forties or beyond do.

A typical office worker spends  40 hours a week and approximately 2080 hours at work, the majority of that time they are sitting at their desk. Most people don’t have good posture, but if you provide them with a chair that helps keep proper alignment, they’re much less likely to suffer repetitive stress injuries, lower back pain, muscle fatigue and exhaustion. The major benefits of ergonomics are improving the quality of work, increasing productivity, increasing moral and reducing costs related to healthcare. More on the benefits of ergonomics in a later post.

Lounge seating

The main reason to buy commercial grade is for longevity for use. You can compare the use of a sofa in a workplace or in a home. In a home, even in the most Netflix binge-tastic home a sofa is only used 3-5 hours a day to watch TV or read. In an office, a sofa in high use area could be used almost continuously throughout the day, everyday. And let’s be honest, people aren’t as careful or respectful with office furniture as they are at home - no one would balance a cup of coffee on the arm of a sofa at home, but some people seem to think that’s the only option in an office.

In a high use situation, like an office, an Ikea sofa will start to look worn in 6 months or less. The next step up of furniture - CB2, West Elm, EQ3 - you’ll see wear within 2-3 years depending on what color you choose how aggressive your team is with the furniture.

Additional design elements such as tufting helps to support and maintain the structure of the cushion so you see less wear. While tufting is often associated with more feminine decor, there’s many companies who are making sofas and chairs that have minimal tufting that allows for support but still has clean lines and isn’t too girly.


Major carpeting brands carry a variety of weaves and depths for carpeting that are rated for higher or lower traffic. Generally the higher the pile, the lower the traffic rating. For an office, you’ll want low pile carpet, ideally in a medium to darker color with a pattern that will hide basic wear. I tend to install carpet tiles instead of wall to wall since they are cheaper to install and easier to replace small sections when (not if) staining or wear occurs.

Depending on the traffic, you may be able to get away with a few residential grade rugs to help define lounges or other small spaces. Those can easily go over commercial grade carpet, but should be professionally cleaned every couple months depending on wear.


Key places for Commercial grade furniture:

If you’re working on a budget (who isn’t?) there is the push and pull of wanting to provide your team with quality furniture that will hold up and maintaining a budget. If you’re doing an office redesign on a budget, the places I would spend the most money on the highest use areas first:


Think about how you use the space during the day - you most likely spend the majority of your day at your desk. So spend the most of your desks and work chairs. While this isn’t the sexiest part of office design, it’s super important and has the highest impact on the daily life of your team members.

High use lounges

Next on the list of things to spend instead of save, would be the sofas and armchairs in the highest use lounges. Lounges in a central locations should have higher grade furniture so they can resistant to wear and tear (and spills!). Sofas in low use areas, such as entryways or receptions, can be lower grade. While most smaller companies don’t want to buy an expensive Commercial grade sofa for their office, it’s good to think strategically about purchases like this. Often it’s less expensive to buy one higher grade sofa than to have to buy two lower grade sofas because you have to replace the first due to wear.


There's nuance in creating a well designed office. Obviously each company has it's own unique ways of using a space and the furniture, so you're the best judge of where and when you can use Commercial or Residential. Are you a Commercial only office, do you have a mix of furniture, or are you working with an Ikea only budget?

Furniture: Buying Commercial vs Residential for your Workplace

Part One:

Most client’s I work with are looking to update their space to better reflect their brand and allow their team to work better. But for many clients, as with any startup, the budget is the main constraint. Often it is too small to allow them to invest in quality furniture for their space.

One easy way to get around this, is to furnish an office with residential furniture instead of commercial furniture. While this can be a reasonable way to furnish an office, here is a breakdown of what I buy from residential vendors on a regular basis and what I only buy commercial vendors for my clients.  

For starters let’s define commercial vs residential when it comes to furniture:


Commercial furniture is made from higher quality of materials - the fabrics are tougher, the foam is sturdier, the finishes are stronger. Any commercial grade product is meant to hold up to heavy use for long periods of time.

Commercial furniture is generally built to be replaced every decade. While it follows the trends in design, it also tends to be fairly aesthetically neutral since it’s going to stick around for a number of trend cycles. This is why corporate furniture tends to be so boring, they’re doing it on purpose! If a large company invests hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars in decorating their space, they don’t want it to feel dated within a year or two.

The upside is that the warranties are longer and more inclusive. But as you can guess, all of this means you’re paying a lot more for the product, often twice to ten times as much as residential.



Residential furniture is made from materials that are not quite as strong and sturdy as their commercial cousin. The pieces tend to be more stylish and follow trends more closely. In turn, the pricing is much lower. There is a huge range in residential furniture but for the most part I use companies like West Elm, CB2 and Ikea. There’s a big difference between a sofa from West Elm or CB2 and a sofa from Ikea, but you learned that back in college!

When to buy residential furniture for an office

Ultimately it comes down to budget. If you only have a couple grand to spend on upgrading your office, it would be a waste to spend it all one one sofa, even if it’s going to last a long time. In general, the kinds of residential furniture that works best in a office, have hard finishes and no moving pieces. This means tables, storage units, shelving, are great ways to save money.

Here are a few furniture pieces that I consistently buy from residential vendors:



Conference tables, dining tables, and printer tables all can be bought from residential vendors, which will help you save money when updating your office. Dining tables tend to have finishes that are sturdy enough to last a few years, or at least until your next fundraising round.

The main thing to note is the average dining table is more narrow than the average conference room table. Dining tables tend to be 26’’ to 36’’ wide, but the average conference table is 30’’ to 58’’ wide. If you have a large conference room, you may not be using your space effectively or allowing enough room for people to sit across from each other with laptops if you install a dining table.

Additionally, when there’s heavy use of a table, like in a conference room, the joints and assembled parts tend to come loose easily. If you notice that happening, tighten the bolts or screws right away otherwise it can make the problem permanent. If it keeps happening, give the vendor a call and see if they have any suggestions for reinforcing that joint.


Storage & Shelving

For the most part, in an office space, storage and shelving doesn’t get heavy use, and won’t show wear and tear easily. This makes these items a good way to save money when furnishing your space.

However, small to medium sized shelving units that would look fine in an apartment can easily be dwarfed a workplace. When adding these kind of pieces think about the scale of the space. If you are lucky enough to have a high ceilings, a small piece of furniture will have very little impact. If you want a room divider or statement piece, go big.

One of my favorite pieces that’s low cost, high impact and multi-functional is the Kallax unit from Ikea. Coming in at around $280 for the 4x4 cubby unit with 8 door inserts and two caster rails, it’s a deal. I often use this to divide space and provide additional enclosed storage for team members to put their backpacks, gym clothes or whatever it is that would otherwise sits under and on top of their desk. The wheels allow it to be moved throughout the space and feel lighter since it’s not sitting on the ground. You might be surprised to know that I often see these units in Buzzfeed-worthy, “offices-you-wish-you-worked-in.”

The main exception for using residential in these situations is anything with moving or removable parts that will be used often. This includes drop-leafs for tables and sliding doors. Most people are rough with workplace furniture and due the sheer number of people who use it daily, you’ll want pieces that are well reinforced.


Temporary furniture

Sometimes it makes sense to buy a cheaper residential furniture piece knowing that it will only hold up for 6 months or so. For instance, you may be planning on moving and building out a new office but aren’t sure of the aesthetic of the new space. Or you want a lounge in a space that will be replaced by desks shortly. If you just need something that will fill your current space now, an Ikea sofa will do. Alternatively, you be a little more environmentally friendly and rent nicer pieces from furniture rental companies, like Cort.


There are a few types of furniture that are perfectly fine to buy from residential vendors that will hold up well, saving you money when furnishing an office space. In my next post, I’ll talk about which types of furniture should be bought from commercial vendors and why.

Dealing with Open Office Problem #1: Noise

I have some news that many of you may not like: The Open Office is here to stay.

Due to the high cost of real estate and the desire for companies to be more transparent and collaborative, the future of the office will feature The Open Office floor-plan.

The number one issue that most people have in the Open Office is noise.

Obviously you can spend thousands on acoustic tiles and sound proofing but here’s some easier and more budget friendly ways to mitigate noise in the workplace.


While the trend these days is polished cement floors, exposed brick and glass-walled conference rooms, they make the workplace an echo chamber. By adding some carpeting you can help mitigate some of the echo in the space.

Focus on covering the floor under workstations and meeting areas - the places that people talk the most.

Rugs and carpeting can be expensive, especially when you have large areas to cover. My favorite vendor is FLOR carpet tiles. FLOR makes 19.7in x 19.7in (50cm x 50cm) tiles in a multitude of styles and colors that you can mix and match. The squares are easy to install, remove or swap out if you have a stain. And if you move spaces, you can rearrange them to a different shape to fit that floorplan.

Please note, I’m not getting paid to say this, I just really like this product. #designgeek



Plants do a great job of absorbing sound in the space, they can also create privacy and help to improve air quality in the office. I like to add a planter box or row of large potted plants next to noisy teams *ahem, sales team, ahem* to absorb the sound. By putting up a visual divider, even one that isn't solid, people notice the noise and activity on other side much less.

I recommend hiring a plant company to furnish all the plants and take care of watering and maintenance. It’s a lot more scalable to have a company deal with all the plants, rather than have you or another a team member take time out of their day to take care of them - even if you have a green thumb.


Lounge Areas

Lounge furniture or soft-goods are a huge help with acoustics - the cushioning and padding of sofas and armchairs helps to absorb noise and echo in a space.

I recommend interspersing lounges between large groupings of desks. By breaking-up desk groupings, you’ll cut down on noise in the space and allow for different “levels” of work. Some people, especially Millennials, like to have a variety of types of workspace: personal desks to do focused work, lounges to check emails, cafe style seating areas to do collaborative work.

Placing lounges throughout the office also gives you team huddle space and additional casual meeting areas that can give some relief for always-in-demand meeting rooms.



White Noise

You may not realize this but HVAC systems serve two purposes in a well designed office. Not only do they heat and cool the space but they provide white background noise. This helps to cover up small noises in the space - the clicking and clacking of keyboards, the rustle of movement, someone talking across the office.

It also helps to create a “buzz” in the office. Maybe you’ve walked into a completely silent before - any little noise stands out and draws attention, it’s uncomfortable. In contrast, if you’ve been in a office that has a little bit of a buzz, it’s magnetic, you feel like something good is happening with that company. I’m not talking about the noise level of a Wall Street trading floor but enough noise and bustle that you can walk through the space or have a quiet conversation without calling everyone’s attention.

If you don’t have an HVAC system or it is quiet, I recommend getting white-noise machines. There are variety of types and styles available but you only need it to play the sound of rushing air. No need for crickets or frogs or wave sounds. The Marpac Dohm, available on Amazon, is the most basic and affordable model I use with clients. It’s also useful in conference rooms that are poorly sound insulated.


For many people the Open Office floor plan is not ideal, but by making a few adjustments you can make it manageable for everyone. By implementing one or more of these tactics, you can help to mitigate noise in your workplace which will help your team do their work and support your company.

Developing creative space

One of the common things that clients ask me to develop in their office is creative space. In this context, “creative” is used to mean a group problem solving process drawing on a variety of different perspectives and disciplines to arrive at an innovative solution. Brainstorming, design charrettes, visioning session are some of the main creative techniques that these spaces are developed to foster.

A lot of companies prize creativity, but aren’t setting their team members up for success especially, when it come to the space they provide for creative work. How can your facilities best support your team members to implement creative techniques such as brainstorming?


The space is important.


When brainstorming, the energy is high and fast paced. It is best to allow people to popcorn ideas when they come to them and play off each others ideas and energy.


Key design elements:

Look/feel of the space:
It’s ok for this space to feel more like a classroom or workshop than a formal meeting room. It’s a great place to skimp on high end materials in your space – this space is where ideas come out messy and half formed. If a space is fully developed and has high end furniture and fixtures, it sets a precedent that that’s how the ideas should be. If you make the space too polished, it will be too intimidating for some team members to speak up about their ideas if they are not perfect. Think about where you’d rather do a brainstorming session with your team, in a formal board room or in a casual cafe space. I truly believe that it’s no mistake that more traditional office spaces, like law firms, that only have formal meeting rooms, don’t tend to do a lot of creative thinking.

Seating & tables:
The best way to facilitate that style of work is to have the space reflect that energy with furniture that allows for energy to be high. This means bar height tables and stools that make it easy for team members to stand and think on their feet, contribute post-its to a wall or jot down an idea on a whiteboard. Tables should be small so the focus is less on what is happening on the tabletop and more what is happening on the whiteboard and in the space.

Whiteboards are key, most people know that. This is a particularly great opportunity for whiteboard paint to make every wall surface writeable. This allows team members to spread out, have big ideas, not just ones that fit on 4ft x 6ft whiteboard.

Good, bright lighting is key to keeping the energy up. This is an opportunity for light and bright colored walls. According to color theory, green is a calming color that helps people get in touch with their creative side, but it’s also a good time to have a your brand colors splashed up on the wall to remind your team of your branding and mission.



Have materials within easy reach.


All materials should be plentiful and easily accessible by all team members. I recommend a caddy with the following items:

1. Whiteboard pens in different colors
2. Pens of all different types, ballpoint, felt tip, sharpie etc.
3. Unlined paper for people to jot down notes on ideas that come to them when someone else is talking, or to draw out ideas and diagrams if they are visual thinkers.
4. Post-its, the perennial favorite of creatives and brainstormers.


Separate processes, separate spaces.

It is best to separate the creative, brainstorming process from the decision making process. In a brainstorming session your goal is just to get as many ideas on the whiteboard as possible, later you can decide which ones will work. One of the central tenants of brainstorming is you shouldn’t criticize anything, only come up with a better solution. By separating the critical thinking from the creative, you end up with more ideas because you are not trying to do both at the same time, editing your thoughts even before they come out. Your idea might spark someone else’s imagination to help them find the solution.

Decision making is best supported by a different type space than creative sessions. When you’re making a decision you want to sit back and see the big picture, take in all the ideas and options that are presented to you and think critically about them. Ideally all the information is presented in front of the team members that are making the decision - on a whiteboard or in a presentation. The physical posture for this is ideally a relaxed seated position, one of comfort. Lounge chairs or comfortable meeting room chairs with arms are good in these types of spaces.



The space you work in can contribute greatly to the type of work you’re doing – positively or negatively. By making small changes to your space you can facilitate better work on your team.

How do you find that your space contributes to or detracts from the types of work you do?