If you had walked into the offices of Hillier Architecture at 500 Alexander Park in the 1980s, you would have seen something that has since become trendy in office design: an open workspace. On every floor of the three-story building, architects worked at drawing boards in open areas, each with tabletops to spread their designs out and, if needed, look around to see what colleagues were doing.

By the time the firm was sold to RMJM, the Scottish architecture company, in 2007, computer screens had replaced drawing boards, but the open floor plan and the tabletops remained. Although architects use computers to create their designs, J. Robert Hillier explained, they still need to print out their work from time to time and mark it up with an old-fashioned red pencil. So, except for the finance and management departments, workspace was not divided by walls.

And although the architecture company is not there anymore, Hillier has recently renovated and re-created that open office space in the same building with a new corporate tenant, an up-and-coming consulting business called Process Stream (see story, page 52).

The story of how Hillier went from running his own company with its own corporate headquarters to being the landlord and architect for new tenants is a bit of a strange one.

Hillier Architecture, which Hillier had founded 40 years ago, had 300 employees when it was bought by RMJM. The Hillier firm was a well-known designer of medical and commercial buildings and sold for $30 million. “It’s not about the money,” Hillier told U.S. 1 in a June 20, 2007, article. “I wanted the firm to continue.” Some of that $30 million went to Hillier staffers who had invested in the company’s employee stock ownership plan.

But the firm did not continue. By 2011 RMJM had closed the Princeton office entirely, leaving the headquarters of one of the country’s biggest architecture companies empty. RMJM left amid a catastrophic downturn in business and a lawsuit by U.S.-based employees claiming it had essentially stripped assets from Hillier and failed to pay employees bonuses promised during the merger.

When the smoke cleared, Hillier still owned the building that was once the headquarters of his namesake company. In the meantime, he had founded another company, Studio Hillier, which is headquartered at 190 Witherspoon Street in Princeton’s downtown area.

Hillier looks back on the sale with mixed feelings. “I was pleased with the merger because we had an employee stock ownership plan, so everybody got money, which was good,” he says. “I felt very proud of that. But I wasn’t at all happy, and a little bit depressed, at the way the new management from Europe managed the firm. Basically, it has disappeared. It’s a little bit heartbreaking. We are renovating the building, so I go there a lot. There used to be 300 people working in there, having a great time, and now they’re not there anymore. It’s a little sad.”

On the other hand, Hillier is still proud of the building he constructed for his business, that will now be home to other companies. Built in 1986, it incorporates many energy-efficient features that have since become standard on forward-thinking projects. The windows have sun shades that shield the building from the summer heat, yet reflect light into the building during the winter, when more heat is needed. A third of the ground floor is underground, providing excellent insulation. Hillier says the one thing he would change about the building is the 1980s-era heating system. If he had to do it all over again, he says, he would put in geothermal.

One big change he is making is to revise the central atrium that unified the building as a single-company location, and make it ready for multi-tenant use.

“We are turning the atrium into a terrific social and gathering space for all of the occupants of the building,” Hillier says. “We will have large ficus trees with casual seating and a self-serve coffee bar. The rental spaces surrounding the atrium will be glassed off for security while still letting in the natural light from the huge skylight.”

An added bonus is that the open space design has become trendy over the intervening decades, and Hillier has a theory as to why. “What’s made that happen is a direct result of office equipment,” Hillier says.

“The reason you had offices enclosed originally was because you didn’t want to hear typewriters going. As we went to computers, keyboards were quiet and the typing got quiet, but printers were unbelievably noisy, and that still left you with a lot of partitions. Then printers started getting quiet all of a sudden, and you didn’t need walls that went all the way up to the deck. You got cubes. Having cubes meant your office could be smaller, so you could increase the density. Instead of 100 square feet, some cubes were down to 49 square feet.”

Cubes were the norm until Scott Adams’s syndicated cartoon character started being pinned to them.

“Then, along came Dilbert,” Hillier says. “He made fun of the cubes and people realized cubes were kind of loathsome. People started taking the partitions down. At one time, you’d walk through an office, and the partitions were 60, 66, or 72 inches high, and you felt like you were in a cardboard city. Now you walk into an office and it’s all open space. Communication is better, everyone is listening to iPods, and it’s very quiet.”

Although one might think the open office, with its lack of private quarters, could be a distracting environment, Hillier says it is the opposite. Studio Hillier’s headquarters is set up in the same fashion. “If you have high ceilings and good material on the ceilings, it becomes pretty quiet,” he says. “Look at libraries. If you go to a place where they have computers, they’re packed and everybody is focused and nobody is talking. It works pretty well. Sometimes, I joke with my own staff on Witherspoon Street that this place is more like a library than a working office. Right now, I’m looking at my office and everybody is working, and nobody is distracted, just like a library.”

Hillier says another upside of open office plans is that they are cheaper than cube layouts.

The first tenant of the building is Process Stream, a company that makes quality control processes for pharmaceutical companies. Hillier says he is looking for tenants who need between 3,000 and 5,000 feet of work space, and that he has proposals from companies looking to take a total of 10,000 square feet. If those proposals are accepted, the building will have 35,000 square feet of space still to lease.

Hillier is asking in the mid-to-high 20s per square foot, depending on length of lease and space required.

Hillier says the character of 500 Alexander has appealed to certain kinds of companies. “Professional and service firms are what we are hearing from,” he says. “There is definitely a high-tech character to those interested in the building. The nature of the building as a techy ‘loft’ environment is attractive, besides its proximity to the train station and easy access to Route 1. The building being situated on the pond is also a draw.”

Late April rains brought flooding to Alexander Road, blocking it off through the afternoon of May 1 with a huge puddle not far from 500 Alexander Park. However, Hillier says there was no trouble at the building itself since it is above the flood plain, and that other buildings closer to Bear Brook were designed for floods, and were elevated with parking below.

The building at 500 Alexander Park is not Hillier’s only project. He also owns residential units as well as the Town Topics building on Witherspoon Street. Hillier, who is a shareholder in the weekly community newspaper, is selling the current headquarters, a two-story structure built in 1949 and converted from residential to office more recently. (There is no rule of thumb, Hillier says, for leasing versus buying office space. It all depends on the real estate market, cash flow, and the strategic plan of the business.)

“With the growth of Town Topics and the success of Princeton Magazine [a sister publication], the building has simply been outgrown,” he says. “There is keen interest in the building from businesses that want to be in-town and have parking, both of which the Town Topics building has.” The future location of Town Topics has yet to be decided, he says.

Hillier says he is looking forward to a new era of smaller companies replacing corporate behemoths, at least at his former company’s headquarters. “It think it will be a great building in multi-tenant form,” he says. “We tried to rent it out to large companies. We had a few close encounters with them. But there are not that many companies around that want a 48,000-square-foot building.”

StudioHillier, 190 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08542; 609-688-9999; fax, 609-688-9990. J.Robert Hillier, principal. www.studiohillier.com.

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