From Home Office to Office Home

“Engine Room” is a single, subdivided office for creative pros - 12 miles and a world away from my home-studio in Cape Elizabeth. It sits just across the Casco Bay Bridge at the entrance to Portland’s Old Port - an appropriate position for a place that’s poised on the leading edge of the next wave in professional workspaces. The small shop was rocking on the November night my wife and I stopped in for one of their open houses, and when Jim passed me a bottle and pointed to the single unrented bay in the back, the hook was firmly set.

I bit a week later, and everything changed.

Before that night, I’d been “living the dream.” At least that’s how a few of my freelance friends deemed my good fortune at landing a virtual full-time position at a Philadelphia ad agency. That job had been a journey that transformed me from illustrator to designer to writer to Creative Director without ever having to take a single step out my front door. My morning commute was the walk between the coffee pot in my kitchen and the spare bedroom that served as my studio, and I spent lunchtime running between a pristine pine forest and sandy strip of beach. Heaven, right? Well, not so fast.

It took a few years, but the cost of all that freedom finally came due. The world I inhabited was very beautiful, but also, very lonely.

I tried to bridge it with emails, writing long missives to my coworkers that none of them returned (and that few probably even read). Conference calls weren’t much better - some of the nuances lost on the page were picked up by my phone, but without key facial cues, those calls were better for creating to-do lists and deadlines than any meaningful human connections. Even when I’d convinced the boss to put a camera on every desktop in the office, the online conferences we conducted still missed the mark. The HD video revealed every hair on the heads of the people I talked to, but couldn’t broadcast an amp of the current that would have run between us in the same room.

I finally just put my head down and dived into the data, concentrating on the things I could control within the 163 square inches of silicon and glass that substituted for my social life. I cranked out layouts, logos, budget spreadsheets, model workflows and a novel’s worth of advertising copy. And when that didn’t seem to be enough, I threw a novel onto my hard drive too. I got better at creating communications, but drifted even farther from engaging in them. When the answer finally arrived, it wasn’t served up by Google. It came in the form of a cold beer offered from the warm hand of a friend - Jim’s invitation to rejoin the creative land of the living.

Suddenly I found myself locked in the morning commute just like dear old Dad. Trade my Honda for a Buick and I could be Don Draper heading for the office. But not really. There may be a few agencies in Portland that ape the cutthroat tactics enshrined on Madison Avenue, but not Engine Room. As a group, we’re less Mad Men than Dad Men - a bunch of guys balancing the need to put food on the table with our desire to create something more than just a mortgage payment. 

The spark of creativity is certainly the key to the place’s power, but like any motor’s efficiency, it’s dependent on the nature of its design and the quality of its fuel. Jim and his two founding partners: Chuck and Yona, let those pair of prime requirements guide Engine Room’s construction and their selection of its tenants. 

It was easy to see what they were going for the first time I walked in. The hallmark of any good design can be found in its simplicity. If you’re looking for the kind of coffeehouse vibe that comes from granite countertops, overstuffed furniture and tiny halogen lights, you won’t find it in Engine Room. But its poured concrete floor, exposed beams and caged light bulbs are the epitome of Spartan post-industrial chic.

The place’s style is so simple one might be tempted to think its evolution was easy, but some of the conversations I heard over my work bay’s walls clued me into the real story. The walls themselves, as it turned out, were a very big part of that tale.

One of the first thing I noticed as I clicked through my first workday there was the wealth of new information that was delivered to me from a source other than my Mac. Seated at my desk, the view of my workmates is conveniently screened to allow me to focus on the task at hand. Their conversations, however, are not. Headphones serve to mute them when needed, but I leave them off most of the time. A private “phone booth” is available in the back for sensitive calls, but the rest of the chatter is up for anyone’s grab. 

Business opportunities, tax advice, technical tricks, and a host of movie, music and restaurant reviews have all floated to me over my walls. So did the story of their construction - a tale of trial and error with the contractor that had him chopping a half-foot off the completely framed bays to satisfy the partners’ vision. Fifty-four inches was determined to be the exact height that would promote the perfect mix of privacy and camaraderie. After working in the place for six months, all I can say is that the guys nailed those walls.

There are other touches that reflect the kind of obsession for perfection that is the blessing and curse of most creatives. The iconic logo etched on the shop’s front door is echoed as a larger graphic that floats high upon an interior glass wall. The conference room door is a gorgeous rough rectangle of reclaimed barn boards that rumbles to a close on an overhead aluminum track. And I walked into the bathroom one day to find that the perfectly serviceable aluminum handrails along the walls had been replaced by the same skinny black pipes and threaded industrial brackets that now hung as rollers for the toilet paper and paper towels. Little things, yes - but that mean so much to people who spend their days trying to redesign the world.

The people who inhabit Engine Room’s tiny cosmos are a carefully selected mix.  It’s a selection less driven by exclusion than inclusion. The current roster includes a branding expert, a photo shoot producer, a product designer, an architect, two creative directors, and Becky - the place’s sole female and Jill of all administrative trades. Informal interviews with each assured the partners that they were building a mix of people with the kind of overlapping creative disciplines and generous spirits best suited to ignite collaboration.

That mesh of the particular personalities that turns Engine Room’s gears is also fueled by each member’s autonomy. Any traditional corporate environment is influenced by its hierarchy. At its best, this structure promotes the efficiency that drives profitability, but all too often it promotes the kind of Machiavellian maneuvering that can poison a workplace. 

Engine Room, however, represents a microcosm of the corporations that are redefining a global market. If smaller, more efficient companies are the new engines of big business, the place has sharpened that model down to its individual core. Each of us alone is responsible for running our tiny corporations - a responsibility that promotes the unique mix of independence and support that makes the place tick.

That new workplace dynamic is an idea whose time has definitely come. Engine Room isn’t the first common workplace for independent professionals, but its particular interpretation of that model - from the exposed ceiling fixtures above it to the commonalities that ground its collaborative power - is certainly unique. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Phase two is almost done, and our cozy 6 bay space is about to double in a month. A peek into the addition next-door and initial meetings with our new neighbors is all I needed to assure me that this next wave of growth will only add to the positive energy the place generates now.

As important as that force is to each of our careers, when it’s time to punch out, Engine Room serves a purpose just as critical to our success - and perhaps one especially important to the life of creative professions; it affords each of us a haven where we can unwind and recharge.

Come Fridays, the garage door that serves as our front window is rolled up to welcome friends, colleagues, and even the occasional passerby. That open door is a potent symbol of the vibe that first tempted me out of my virtual shell to seek the electric connections that no circuit board can deliver. It was a move that banished the welling sense of isolation that threatened to sink both my business and my spirit, a short hop that paid off big - the trip from my home office to my new office home.


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