It is a bit Orwellian, slightly Stanley Kubrick-ish, but Steelcase Co.'s Technical Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., is nothing if not practical. Although it assesses future office needs with current technology, its concerns are as old as humanity -- What is comfortable? What is healthy? What will sell?
Created just four years ago by the 70-year-old company, which is the world's biggest maker of office furniture, the center evaluates every conceivable feature of a new product -- how it will operate with, or be affected by, sunlight, noise, ventilation, and all the other physical elements of a working office.
Other, more mundane concerns -- including stability and durability -- are considered in an adjoining testing laboratory.
"We can test almost anything here," says Don Korell, director of research, standing at the center of the Environmental Laboratory. The lab is a large room, lush with thick black drapes that isolate the product being tested, in this case a task-lighting fixture for the French market. The fixture incorporates a fan for ventilation, and the lab has been researching its impact on air circulation -- introducing thin streams of chemical smoke to pinpoint direction, and using hot-wire anemometers to measure its velocitgy at critical points.
A series of test subjects have also worked with the lighting, providing Steelcase with subjective benchmarks. "People with contact lenses don't like face contact with [air] flow," notes Korell, "because it dries out the lenses." Another finding of interest: The nose and groin areas are most sensitive to air circulation.
The findings on the French fixture: It generates a maximum flow of 0.8 meter per second at the point of the nose.
The lab can simulate sunlight or other lighting conditions, and it can create a wide range of sound environments -- "we can put typewriters in, or ringing telephones, or people chatting, or distinctive human voices" -- to study everything from the glare produced by a desktop to the amount of noise absorbed by an acoustic panel. In another room sit the remnants of a design experiment, the one that produced Steelcase's VDT stand: a Plexiglas mockup of the stand, a parallaxcorrected grid on the wall behind it, and videotape equipment.
"We had people come in and sit at the stand and encouraged them to adjust it and their set until they were completely comfortable," explains Bruce Finlayson, an office systems research analyst. Subjects ranged from "5% female" (a woman shorter than 95% of U.S. women) to "95% male" (a man taller than 95% of his peers). Examination of the videotaped sessions, followed by computer analysis, yielded "ideal" dimensions and the required adjustments for the stand that will retail for around $1,000.
"lt may seem like a lot of work for a relatively simple product," says Finlayson, "but the human ideal is illusive."