When glancing through the openings that punctuate office facades on the average City of London street, it often strikes me that one could be forgiven for assuming innovation in the commercial office interior stopped dead in the 1980s, writes Holly Porter.
It's not that innovation in materials and products in raised floors, ceilings and partition systems doesn't abound; it's simply the fact that so many of these large dinosaur commercial interiors are still prevalent.
Nowadays, lowered ceilings can be replaced by exposed concrete slabs using innovations in servicing through the raised floor, which also serves to increase the thermal mass of the building. Also, due to new technologies in photochromatic glass and fi re-resistant glazing, we can achieve mullion-less glass partitions that can transform from transparent to opaque. We can also achieve a plethora of finishes, from cracked glass to natural stone, on a raised-floor system.
So why are these innovations not in wider use in offi ce developments?
Mainly it is because clients associate innovative products with greater cost. Many clients are still seduced by off-the-peg solutions to minimise the risk on their investment.
However, on a more significant level, real innovation is hindered by an increasing separation between the design and costing of Cat A and Cat B fit-out in the commercial contemporary office building.
For instance, it is now common to have different designers working independently on these two stages with little or no collaboration. This makes it increasingly difficult to apply a cohesive overall design approach from building concept to shell to interior.
However, on projects where the client, architect and interior designers collaborate to create a holistic design, real synergy can be created between the design concept, building shell, interior and end-users. Thames Court, completed by KPF in 1998 is a notable example.
For this City of London office, establishing continuity between the Cat A and Cat B design stages was considered of real importance by both the client and architect alike.
Consequently, KPF paid great attention to designing a Cat A scheme with built-in flexibility in its services, such as the location of fire vents, so as not to impinge on the Cat B designer's freedom to innovate with the placement, design and detailing of the interiors.
The outcome was a real success; the end-user, a fi nancial-services facility, was able to inhabit a building where the architectural concept of creating a cross-cultural flexible office building, with an active atrium hub, was reinforced right down to the detail. The Cat B designers developed a series of flexible glass partitions facing on to the atrium trading floor, so that the surrounding offices could engage with the central space.
This theme of flexibility and movement was again emphasised through the use of internal side-wall office partitions complete with integrated, flip-down bespoke desks, which allowed the office cells to be transformed into meeting rooms within minutes.
Projects such as this serve to illustrate that innovative interior commercial office design and reasonable costs are not mutually exclusive.
But innovative projects such as this will have to attract more widespread publicity before clients and developers see this integrated approach as not simply a whole-life cost, but a whole-life value.
In the long term, we can only hope that this holistic design approach will become a commercial differentiator in the way sustainability is now viewed by commercial clients.
It is only from this that true innovation in raised floors, partitions and lowered ceilings can evolve.
Holly Porter is a designer at Kohn Pedersen Fox in London