“In the 10-state area of the Midwest, we sold product and consulted with companies about how to design their office space,” Orfield says. But soon he found he was becoming less interested in selling furniture and more and more fascinated by the research. By the late 1970s, Orfield was out of furniture sales entirely and concentrating solely on his consulting work, advising clients on acoustics, lighting, daylighting (the use of natural light to illuminate building interiors), audio-visual systems, and thermal comfort. The sluggish economy brought architectural projects to a screeching halt in 1980. Orfield relinquished his salary for a year to retain staff. Meanwhile, he pursued research and testing work for product manufacturers. After a few years, product testing became half his business, which it still is today.
Orfield Labs’ overall business comprises six full-time and two part-time employees, and usually about six research contractors—including engineers, physicists, psychologists, and human-factor experts (who study the ways that people interface with an environment or product in order to improve it). The company has four business groups: vision and lighting; acoustics, vibration and sound quality; perceptual market research; and architectural technology.
Orfield Labs can do straight consumer-product performance testing for its clients. It can measure the sound transmission of walls, windows, floors, and acoustical adhesives, for example, then provide an official Orfield Labs “OL rating” number (based on American Society for Testing and Materials accreditation) for publication in a product catalog. But what Orfield is most interested in is not just simple testing—but helping clients solve their product problems.
What Do You Really Hear?
When Orfield opened his lab, he also made it a kind of center for professionals to gather and share their research on sound and space design. In 1991, he established the Sound Quality Working Group, which organizes research and education in acoustical perception and market research. Six years later, he created the Open Plan Working Group, which Orfield says was the nation’s first research group focused on the office. In 2004 came the Medical Facilities Working Group, whose goal is to improve the comfort and usability of medical facilities for both employees and patients.
Wes Chapman was one of the earliest participants in the Open Plan Working Group. As director of strategic facilities planning for the State of Minnesota during the Ventura administration, Chapman had read about Steve Orfield. “I came over to see what he was all about,” he says with a laugh. “I was intrigued by the man’s mind.” Last summer, Chapman joined the Orfield team to develop, direct, and market Orfield Labs’ Architectural Technology group.