Stylish office design works for employees and partners both -- and it doesn't have to be expensive

You're a partner in a small travel agency that has 18 partners and nine employees. Your agency handles corporate bookings and has an unusual structure: teams of individuals work together, operating as separate businesses, but you share information and common expenses such as rent.

The agency is in dire need of new offices; people either are in separate spaces and can't easily communicate with the rest of the agency, or work together in one room that's too claustrophobic. You'd like offices that are open so colleagues can exchange information, but because people spend 90% of their time on the phone, the space must foster quiet. You'd like an arrangement that can be expanded at little expense if employees or partners are added, and you're adamant about soft lighting -- no harsh tubes overhead. If you could, you'd hire a designer, but with a still-bootstrapping $20-million business, your budget of $23,000 (including furniture) is minuscule. What do you do?

If you're the partners of the Travel Collaborative, in Somerville, Mass., you approach one of your own clients, award-winning architect Robert Luchetti, whose firm, Robert Luchetti Associates, designs for corporations like General Cinema, Steelcase, and Fidelity.

"We agreed to help the Collaborative because it was a great challenge," says Luchetti. "We often do this type of work, but this project had to be solved far more economically."

To stay within budget, Luchetti -- with industrial designer John Feidelson -- created workstations out of inexpensive materials from hardware-store shelves. Each workstation is an L, with one low wall and one high wall, so occupants are shielded when sitting but can see and speak over the lower wall when standing.

The architect used large acoustic tiles overhead to dampen sound. He clustered the workstations so that teams could speak to one another without raising their voices.

The final cost? "A two-person unit cost $1,100," explains Luchetti, "compared with $3,000 for what most corporations purchase for a single individual."

"Our efficiency has increased," says Roy Palmeri, one of the partners. "The noise is dramatically lower, yet we can see and hear what others are doing. And we're thrilled, because design was something we thought we couldn't afford."

Cheap and Chic: The Travel Collaborative saved about 75% of the cost of furniture and fixtures by buying used items from consolidators.

Soft Cell: To tone down harsh glare, metal bars with intermittent openings encase the industrial fluorescent tubes attached to the top of each workstation.

Entrepreneurial Reflections: Architect Robert Luchetti describes his clients as 'strong, independent individuals.' The space he designed for them, with its noncorporate colors, reflects those characteristics.

Live and Let Dye: Each workstation was stained rather than painted, for greater durability.

About Face: Workstations are clustered in groups, but openings don't face one another, which fosters a sense of privacy.

Corporate Challenge: The goal for architect Robert Luchetti? Make the 6,000-square-foot space feel cozy, quiet, and noncorporate.

Kitchen Cabinet: A full kitchen, with stove top, full-size refrigerator, sink, and microwave, contributes to the sense of community yet serves a practical purpose as well -- partners and employees put in long hours and share lots of information over 'home-cooked' meals.

Pipe Dream: Corrugated gutter pipe does double duty as a frame for each workstation and as a conduit through which wiring is threaded.

Economical En-Counter: By using precut maple and stacking it rather than scribing it to fit, Luchetti avoided carpentry costs.

Harmonious Tones: Metal furniture was painted gunmetal gray to disguise the fact that many of the secondhand pieces were mismatched.