Runa Workshop Designs Fluid and Open Workspace for Austin Offices
The architecture firm gets acquainted with their clients’ workplace cultures to achieve functionally beautiful interiors
By Bryan C. Parker
Photos by Dror Baldinger and Tre Dunham
Jean Pierre Trou and Aaron Vollmer, the Principals at architecture and design firm Runa Workshop, have an internal process that emphasizes flexibility and openness. Their deeply conceptual ethos constantly pushes them to ask a simple yet transformative question: why? It’s an approach that knows there isn’t a single answer to a problem or a stock solution for any challenge. After all, uniqueness lives at the center of great design work.
Members of the eight-person team on staff at Runa Workshop often wear multiple hats and take on different responsibilities. Such agility is required when working with a small team, according to Director of Marketing and PR, Nikki Tebo, the group’s organizational lynchpin. Moreover, their mindset has fostered within the team an ability to be receptive and sensitive to the needs of each individual client. A symmetry exists between Runa’s adaptability and the freedom they bring to clients’ workspaces.
With clients, Trou and Vollmer spend ample time listening and observing, especially in the early phases of a project. In this way, Runa’s designers act as travelers, arriving in a new land, learning the language, immersing themselves in the local culture as they explore. The excitement that comes from shifting frequently and regularly engaging with fresh concepts drives Vollmer’s passion for design.
“One of the aspects of the architecture profession I find wonderful is that it’s never the same thing,” he says. “You’re trying to learn as much about each person, each group along the way.” The trust built through that process also allows Runa to push their clients to dismantle preconceptions and help them to arrive at solutions that will be both beautiful as well as functional.
The firm’s work on communications company Viasat’s Austin office offers a glimpse of Runa’s process in practice. A national brand with offices in more than ten states, Viasat had previously embedded touchstones for employee collaboration and workflow, including their own lexicon in the workplace. Employees were divided into “neighborhoods” — sections of role-specific or task-oriented clusters of desks and workstations — and sometimes migrated from one area to another as needed. Trou imagined a way to keep these neighborhoods defined while also creating an effective fluidity within the format. In his version of neighborhoods, the workspaces were partially enclosed but also featured a glass wall or open boundary — lending the spaces privacy but also providing connectedness between neighborhoods.
Situated in downtown Austin, Viasat’s office location attracts busy employees who can easily access the nearby trails around Town Lake or grab lunch at a hip new restaurant. Trou wanted to connect that outside neighborhood to the workspace neighborhoods inside Viasat. To do so, he made sure that each pod had a line of sight to an exterior window, providing splashes of sunlight and views of Austin’s green spaces.
Trou’s talent for making conceptual connections also led him to bring in Austin-based street artist Mike Johnson, also known as Truth, whose mural of an astronaut paired perfectly with Viasat’s telecom and satellite internet services.
In 2017, Runa worked with software development company Sumo on a project that also illuminates their design ideology. After learning about Sumo’s role in helping companies grow their web presence behind the scenes of a website, Trou had an idea for one of the company’s primary workspaces. He had large, rectangular sections of the stark white ceiling cut away to reveal the industrial components of the building. As he saw it, the cutaways revealed the mechanical units, sprinkler lines, conduit and wiring, which nodded to Sumo’s unseen but diligent work buried deep in the code of websites.
“There was an honesty in the design,” he explains. “It’s like saying: this is what’s happening behind your website.”
If Trou, Vollmer and their staff are cultural travelers, their passports are stamped with successful excursions into the worlds of clients. The interior spaces they imagine while visiting are not only stunning to the eye but also ergonomical for each company’s inhabitants. Trou, who is Peruvian American, explains that in Quechua — the native language of the Incas — “runa” means “people.” He defines a workshop as a place where ideas are exchanged and sharpened to build something together. Thus, Runa Workshop means “people exchanging ideas.” That interchange between the culture within Runa and the culture of the clients they serve has yielded a track record of remarkable design.