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Wherever disaster strikes—a tsunami in Indonesia, an earthquake in Haiti, starvation in sub-Saharan Africa—Mercy Corps is there, offering both crisis relief and long-term development services. With 3,700 workers stationed in some 40 countries worldwide, the organization is well-positioned to bring help to those afflicted by disaster and a better life to those in poverty. This mission and the experience of the workers it sends into the field are tangibly present in its headquarters location in Portland.

"Mercy Corps has an extremely talented and diverse group of workers," says Sallee Humphrey, principal, DECA, Inc., who managed the interior design. "They come back from the field with photographs, artifacts, and stories to tell, and it energizes the base. There's a real sense of community at Mercy Corps."

Yet, for years that community of 150 people occupied five leased locations strung along a city block on the outskirts of Portland. "We could walk to each building," says Steve Zodrow, manager, administration and facilities, but the impediment to communication, collaboration, and a sense of community was significant.

Employees were in high-walled workstations and private offices, and as the organization grew, some were tucked into nooks and crannies, and, sometimes, into basement offices. Since people at Mercy Corps work in teams that evolve and change quickly in response to the world situation and the organization's own internal demands, this environment presented a real challenge.


So, Mercy Corps began to look for a space that would communicate its mission and support its pace of change and collaborative work style. After an extensive search, the organization purchased a four-story building on the edge of the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood of Portland. Both the building and the neighborhood had seen better days. But it was located right on the river and across the street from a metro line, and the city of Portland had gone a long way to sweeten the deal. Both entities recognized that this downtown location was where Mercy Corps belonged.

THA Architecture, Inc., rehabbed the interior of the original structure and designed an addition that is architecturally complementary and that incorporates a wall of windows on one end. Between the old and new—at "the knuckle of the building," according to Ms. Humphrey—is the "Grand Staircase," a massive, four-story element constructed of wood salvaged from the original building and capped with a domed skylight.

The Grand Staircase is the hub of the building. "It's the major way people move through the building," says Mr. Zodrow. "There is significant interaction on that stairwell throughout the day." Conference rooms, informal meeting areas, and coffee stations are located near the staircase to encourage the kind of communication that had been so challenging before.

The workstations, too, are designed to facilitate collaboration and a rapid response to change, whether it comes from a natural disaster or a change in staffing numbers. The workstations are a simple "benching" application of 68-inch-high runs of Vivo (the forerunner to Canvas Office Landscape) spines outfitted with a work surface and sliding-door overhead storage in a warm beech veneer. Mobile Avive tables are then placed perpendicularly to the spine. White Meridian mobile pedestal files provide personal storage.

Workstations are made larger or smaller simply by moving the Avive tables up or down the spine. A second Avive table can form an additional work surface, or the tables can be corralled for teamwork. Private offices are furnished in First Office, a Herman Miller alliance company. This furniture is finished in beech veneer and provides an aesthetic that blends well with the Vivo workstations.

Although Mercy Corps considered other manufacturers' products, Vivo was simply the obvious choice. Not only did it provide exceptional quality at an attractive price point, but Mercy Corps liked the way it looked. "Vivo has clean modern lines," says Ms. Humphrey. "For example, the raised leg gives the system a lighter aesthetic. We wanted the spine to look like furniture, not a wall." Window tiles at the ends of runs also allow light to pass through, while providing some privacy from the major circulation routes.

"The furniture almost disappears in the landscape," says Stephanie Stonewall, account executive, Pacific Office Furnishing, who donated her own design time on the project and also recruited other furniture donors.

In this landscape, the furniture provides a neutral palette for the photographs, collectibles, and memorabilia Mercy Corps workers bring back from the field. These colorful reminders of their mission fill the walls and workstations. The furniture creates a durable, serviceable infrastructure that enables the organization's work to proceed without impediment.

While employees were initially concerned about privacy and noise in this radically open environment, after the move-in and a brief adjustment period, "I've had nothing but compliments," says Mr. Zodrow. "There was only one complaint about privacy." Employees appreciate the ample natural light in this Platinum LEED building, its many places to meet, either in formal conference rooms, of which there are 15, or in comfy informal lounge areas. Now, the basement is only used for a gym, showers, and bicycle storage.

And now, as Mercy Corps workers respond to international issues, their headquarters communicates the organization's mission, and their work environment supports it.

Photo credit: Jeff Amram (jeffamram.com)