‘Long life, loose fit’: Office design for London - NLA Think Tank co-hosted by Buro Four

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated.
So said Buro Four’s Ian Roberts – paraphrasing Mark Twain – at an NLA Think Tank on office design for London.

Far from the widespread vision put forward 10 or so years ago that we would all be home-workers today, busily teleconferencing away, the current scenario is markedly different. And it was worth looking at the drivers to find out why.

Research carried out in New York traced the history of offices and to some extent explained why we find it necessary to come together – the first kind of office they found were generally to do with places of worship, which became focuses for new communities and led to offices becoming ‘the new church’. Are offices the new churches, where we come together for a variety of social needs? Over the last five years, however, the amount of space we work in has diminished, and with employment set to rise, that pressure on space is likely to increase.

In financial services in Central London, said Roberts, office occupancy costs just under £10,000 per person, while the average central London salary is around five times as much at £50,000. But the average income expected from each person is just under £200,000. The point, then, is that anything that design can do to increase output far outweighs the hard costs of the office.

Open plan is prevalent today, but has it been pushed too far? Another survey reports that over 21% of workers cite that their office designs meant they had a ‘lack of time to think’, there was too much noise, and a lack of quiet spaces leading to an adverse effect on productivity. So there is a need for both extrovert space and introvert space. But what does the office of the future really look like? Is the BCO standard specification office now a thing of the past?  

Alex Lifschutz, Director, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands said that, despite recent permitted development rights rulings there has always been a drift from office to resi but that the noticeable trend in office design has been toward informality, borne of young people wanting to express themselves. And what comes with that is a convergence of office life and home life. But a concern was that people are being fobbed off with second-rate flats in the residential sector because of an absence of standards, while in offices standards have been a positive force.

The White Collar Factory is an interesting case in a developer coming up with an alternative office space solution. Benjamin Lesser, Development Manager at Derwent London said the scheme started off as a research project with ‘long life, loose fit’ embedded in the thinking, learning from the experiences of Derwent’s own occupiers of former industrial buildings. This had taught the developer to create a ‘generosity of volume’ to allow for flexibility and different uses within the design, with a robustness of thermal mass allowing it to respond to the peaks and troughs of the environment.

But the model also allows tenants to add their own identity onto spaces, becoming less ‘precious’ in the process, acting as a baseline that compares with the BCO guidelines, stripping out excesses, and contributing to ‘long-term value’.

Katrina Kostic Samen of KKS said that the BCO guide is being revamped and launched as a baseline in May but that the main struggle in preparing it had been in avoiding being London-centric. Drawing on her own work Kostic Samen believes there has latterly been a shift toward the occupier, while some of the major issues arising centre on entrances, natural daylight, health and wellbeing, flexibility, and choice.

The success of London, though, is that we are creating places, Kostic Samen added, and the social aspect of helping to bring people together. Peter Rees, former City Planning Officer, City of London and Professor of Places and City Planning at the Bartlett, agreed, saying that the ability to adapt and change applies just as much to the place as it does to the building. Locationally, we are witnessing today a considerable recentralisation of offices, with people coming to town to ‘be where the party is’. ‘Unfortunately they have to sit at a desk for the working day, waiting for the party to start’, said Rees. Broadgate, Rees said, changed the character of the City, not through technology or architecture but by ‘creating another slice of city’. From then on, said Rees, people woke up to the importance of creating sustainable places.

Certainly, places are made by people acting independently, perhaps sporadically, and sometimes by subterfuge, said Lifschutz, in order to create the unexpected. A little of the top-down approach is necessary to achieve good placemaking but the trick lies in doing just enough to allow others to come in and create. Interestingly, in masterplanning work LDS conducted for UCL’s 3.5 million square feet of offices, Lifschutz and his team found that it was the modern buildings that were inflexible, while the Victorian ones were far easier to ‘repurpose’. And yet, said Alan Leibowitz, Managing Director at Dorringtons, our planning system is encouraging the departure of some of these buildings to the residential market. The more interesting buildings are converted to residential, leaving a rather bland corporate offices world, he added, while new office schemes show an ‘obsession’ with steel and glass which, by their nature, tend to be less adaptable.

In the US, no-one wants to work in open plan, while it is here to stay in UK and Europe, said Katrina Kostic Samen. The BBC is one client embracing this change. Chris Kane, head of workplace at the BBC, believes that the voice of the consumer will become more pertinent to the built environment in the next decade just as it has grown more powerful in broadcasting.

The BBC’s own journey has been one where only 2 per cent of the portfolio of 8 million square feet some years ago was fit for purpose. Today it has 6 million square feet, including open plan offices at Salford making use of good design, but ‘we’re all on a lifelong learning journey and there is no panacea for what is the ideal’, said Cane. The BBC’s move from analogue to digital was ‘a painful process’, with Broadcasting House beginning as a building project and ending as a ‘transformation project’ with the ‘buzz’ of the building exceeding expectations and luring 80,000 visitors in the last year. The organisation has also moved away from its previous ‘civil service’ feel with its long corridors and regulated, meanly rationed space to open plan and ‘plug and play’ everywhere. While the power has shifted from the TV producer to the consumer, might that apply to the property industry too? Will the landlord and tenant act remain pertinent to the next 10 years? The BCO needs to be more flexible, with the nature of work changing and the 9 to 5 lifestyle a thing of the past.

Festus Moffat of John Robertson Architects believes that the BCO specification is in fact ‘incredibly flexible’, designed to be ‘plug and play’ for tenants. What are the infrastructure elements that can provide for flexibility? BCO is appropriate in some but not all cases, he said – a standard, but not a gold standard. ‘Is there an occupier type anymore?’, Moffat asked. ‘Are we not just producing buildings?’ Indeed, said Benjamin Lesser, Development Manager, Derwent tenants today, across many sectors and locations, are seeking inspirational and characterful offices that help them make a cultural transformation. The last thing tenants want, he said, is anything that looks or smells corporate.

If anything, though, perhaps the main thing we are suffering from is a lack of variety in the office sector, said Giuseppe Boscherini, Creative Director at CBRE. To draw the analogy of the car, we are perhaps still in the era of the Model T mindset still. Meanwhile, car manufacturers in reality have been astute in the last few decades at gearing their output often on a standard, shared chassis with other manufacturers to provide the family car, the single sports car etc, to match perfectly with people’s lifestyles. What we haven’t done quite so successfully in offices is to create that kind of a variety of products. At least, though, clients like HSBC, with whom Boscherini is working, view their office requirements as a ‘mosaic’ rather than one solution, catering for a number of working scenarios and property answers. ‘We all work in Starbucks, we all work on the train. And all of that is a mosaic’, said Boscherini. ‘The page has turned.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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