To free his small but growing software-development business from the shackles of its "very tiny" beginnings in a suburban home, Varitec founder Bill Niffin sought floor space in a building in the center of Bingham Farms, Mich. Into the chosen area Niffin would cram an old wooden desk, a new conference table and chairs, portable wall partitions, storage files, shelving, and three computer workstations.

How much space would it take? How to determine the most efficient floor plan from several available?

Niffin got answers by feeding the variables into a software package called Office Layout ($149.95 from Autodesk, 800-228-3601; requires an IBM-type PC with 640 kilobytes RAM and 3 megabytes of hard-disk space). One problem: small spaces, he discovered after being shown several, usually come with only one window. If furniture and wall placement aren't carefully thought out, "you end up working in a tunnel." With a mouse he outlined the dimensions of each space and stuffed it with office gear. "First I played with conventional furniture," he relates, "then with modular pieces -- such as computer stands with articulating keyboard holders that could be folded out of the way. I tried to squeeze everything in a little tighter to cut down on the number of square feet I had to buy." The cost-conscious solution: a mix of traditional furniture with certain modular pieces whose floor-space requirements were taken from a manufacturer's catalog. Now the budget-minded Niffin knew exactly what to shop for.

The drawings also revealed that the proposed square footage often fell short of what actually would be delivered. A percentage of the square footage designated in rental agreements, Niffin learned, can include the lessee's share of common areas such as stairs, hallways, and toilets. "I wasn't experienced in how office space is leased," Niffin admits, "so seeing the difference between the landlord's description and the area I would in fact be able to occupy was quite an education."

Intricate computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) programs can be run only on powerful minicomputers. Office Layout has been reduced to the essentials, so it can run on a modest PC. Thus it drafts in only two dimensions, like a builder's blueprint. But it is precise (to one-sixteenth of an inch), so precise that Niffin could use it to demand concessions from the landlord. The printout showing partitions, desks, arcs of doors, and a lone window, all laid out with CADD accuracy, convinced the lessor that the area's electrical outlets were poorly placed and had to be relocated.

For a novice planner, the program is essentially a visual spreadsheet, its "what-ifs" safeguarded by an "undo/redo" feature that backtracks through the user's last 25 changes. Experimentation aside, there are solid administrative applications for offices that are already cemented in place. CADD projects can be assembled into a database of renderings, serving not only as a graphic foundation for managing fixed assets but also as a reminder of who sits where.

-- Robert A. Mamis

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