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Learning from experience

What makes an office building a success or a failure? 'Designing tomorrow's office - learning from the past' tried to find out

What will be the shape and nature of tomorrow's office? Will 'office set-aside' devastate developers, or is there (as Stuart Lipton predicted) life after death for developers? Are architects of outstanding signature buildings creators of powerful imagery that affects the success of occupier companies, or out of touch with the down-to-earth needs and wants of users? These were among the issues debated at a conference, 'Designing Tomorrow's Office', staged by the British Council for Offices and the AJ at the RIBA on 5 February, sponsored by Mace, with Hammerson, Gerald Eve and Knight Frank.

Tim Battle of consulting engineer Rybka Battle opened the conference with three thought-provoking aphorisms: 'A building isn't something you finish, a building is something you start'; 'Buildings are not what they are, but what they're capable of becoming'; and 'Old buildings should get the credit for how to play their options'. The conference, he said, was directed towards the needs of occupiers, and it was a move in the right direction that occupiers, developers and designers could come together to debate the issues 'rather than shouting at each other in the high court'.

The first of the conference case studies focused on New Square at Bedfont Lakes, a development by IBM in partnership with MEPC, with Sir Michael Hopkins and Ted Cullinan as architects. The project - on a derelict site just south of Heathrow and within the M25 - was, explained MEPC director Julian Barwick, conceived in the late 1980s and completed in the early 1990s.

IBM's Michael Brooks said that the company had wanted to replace a number of mostly 1960s buildings in West London with a new national marketing centre. 'Access by car was at that time primarily what we were looking for, ' he said. IBM wanted flexibility and room for expansion, and as its US parent demanded 'market buildings', it sought a partner with development expertise.

'When IBM asks you to be its partner, you say Yes, ' observed Barwick. MEPC hadn't previously done any business parks. Two-thirds of the space would be let to IBM (tenant as well as partner) which was looking to expand. At the time, developers were being criticised for producing buildings unduly influenced by investment requirements, but here was partnership with the end user.

The partners 'interviewed (or were interviewed by)' a number of architects including Hopkins. It happened, explained Sir Michael, that Cullinan was on holiday. 'I took the job of masterplanning; Ted got the more onerous job of doing the purely speculative buildings. I pinched the best end of the site.' The price of planning consent for the 12ha development was a 100ha public park, but 'we were used to working in urban contexts, not the context of old gravel workings'.

A key decision concerned parking, which business parks usually put round the buildings; but 1500 cars would have filled up the entire site, so 1200 of them were put under the central square, in a hole which already existed. Hopkins said he had been confirmed in his decision to go for an urban form by old pictures of Grosvenor Square which, when laid out in 1747, was in open country. 'If they could do it, it's all right for me to.'

With no surrounding context except trees, he went for steel and glass, freed from many of the old constraints by fire retardants. 'I think Mies would have enjoyed this'. Appearance was improved by uprights which scaled down as they went up and the loading reduced - a good thing to do 'if you can persuade your engineer to put some effort in'. Reentrant corners (at the cost of losing the most sought-after office spaces) gave views out which made it easier to find you way around. Having only three storeys and an 18m-wide atrium allowed a staircase to be worked in. 'The stairs are used an enormous amount; the lifts are almost ancillary.'

Half the ground floor of the main building's atrium is a staff restaurant, now used also by other tenants' staff. The building, said Hopkins, had recently been used as the villain's headquarters in a James Bond film.

Gerald Kaye of Helical Bar asked whether the development delivered value for money, and whether it was a good outcome for the user, the developer and the architect. IBM followed the fashion of the time by trying to diversify and invest in property, but 'would have done better using the capital in its own business and using a tried and tested landlord tenant relationship'.

For MEPC, the project with its pre-let looked like a low-risk project; it was finished on budget and on time. But then came recession; rents went down from £30/ft 2to £18 and the value had to be written down substantially. In the end it was not a very profitable undertaking. IBM had sold its interest in it to MEPC for around £125 million. 'We were robbed, ' interjected Brooks, 'though I think it's going to perform very well in the long term.'

As for pluses and minuses, the atrium is a great success, 'full of activity' (Barwick), and where the 50,000 annual visiting customers arrive; security has been a problem, though now less so; and the development would not now be so car-oriented.

Summing up, Kaye said the building had been a success with employees and customers, and good for IBM's image. He thought it was a great piece of architecture, except for the white security building in the centre of the square and the satellite dish. 'A shame it should be a financial disaster - but that's timing.'

Workshop 2 was devoted to No 5 Longwalk at Stockley Park, a Foster building, and began with Battle quoting Stuart Lipton's definition of a bluechip building: 'A building let to a blue-chip client for 25 years.' Andrew Vander Meersch of the Stockley Park Consortium recalled that the use class for the building had been industrial because no B1 use then existed. The first occupier, BP in 1989, was followed by BT, in 1994, which has gone not only for open-plan but also for hot-desking.

Foster's Ken Shuttleworth said the practice came to the job fresh from the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank at £600m/m 2and had never done a speculative building. 'We were very suspicious, nervous. Norman Foster said we wouldn't do it.

The image of spec offices we had was completely down-market'. But soon all fears evaporated. Not knowing the occupier became a challenge in itself.

The Foster approach was to 'ask lots of silly questions', like: Why put the plant on the roof, when that imposes extra loading? Why pitched roofs draining into the atrium valley? Why sunshading on the north side? With the roof, the practice 'did a bit of a Stansted' and put it upside down; shaded only east and west elevations, with clear glass to the north and white louvred facades to plant on the south. The design went for flexible space, as much daylight as possible, and circulation space within the atria. 'But, ' commented Vander Meersch, 'everybody forgot about glare.' People demanded blinds. 'Sir Norman said: 'You're right. I have the same problem in my flat.'' Blinds were put in.

DEGW's research at the time into future user needs, which revealed a desire for space which was B1, but looked like offices, triggered off 15 years of design development. The brief which emerged was the basis not only of the Foster building, but of other Stockley buildings by Arup Associates and Troughton McAslan. The three buildings by Arup Associates - square, triangular, and circular - all use conservatories as a buffer zone to allow individual control of ventilation, flexibility between air conditioning and natural ventilation, and as social and break-out space.

Ziona Strelitz (social anthropologist, town planner and interior designer) explained the postoccupancy evaluation her consultancy, ZZA, had done for BT (see below). The questions to users covered some 200 aspects including park, building and management, and in general the response was positive: 76 per cent were pleased with Stockley Park as a work environment. Users liked to travel by car, but complained about delays on the M25 and not being able to have a drink with the team after work. Public transport close to a business park, Strelitz stressed, is an advantage. People liked urban grain, so more mixed use - shops, cafes - would be welcome. The landscape was little used: people worked while on site and did not linger.

Users were pleased with the building's general image, workstations, and working areas, but would have preferred a softer feel, and fewer hardedged materials. They equated smooth stair surfaces with the danger of slipping, and women disliked open-tread stairs, going out of their way to avoid them. Users wanted more effective use of reception areas, better signage, and concentration of meeting rooms used by outsiders round the social hub.

Vander Meersch said the building unfortunately had stayed empty during the recession, and the holding cost amounted to 10 per cent of the development cost. Battle observed: 'BT used a building to change the way it worked as an organisation'.

Alan White of BT noted: 'The image that a building creates for a corporation is extremely important. This building creates a really unforgettable impression. Some love it; some hate it.' It was an image to staff, customers and shareholders, internal as well as external, because the working environment was crucial to performance.

BT is not designing workspaces for individuals or particular types of operation, White stressed. It has 60,000-70,000 staff working in its office estate, and currently moves about half of them each year.

At Stockley, it costs virtually nothing to move an individual: 'essentially individuals move themselves'. The 'everyday common workstation' is the key to BT's office strategy, but it is looking again at the over-regimented layout.

Asked by Paul Warner of Geoffrey Reid Associates about 'hotelling' - groups working for 24 or 48 hours at a time - White said that BT is not at present using the buildings 24 hours, and would approach more intensive use by trial and error. It poses difficulties: 'You never get the chance to turn everything off.' Lack of parking space will be a constraint. Though most of BT's customers don't see the building, the way staff present themselves on the phone reflects their feelings about their working conditions.

The company will halve its office floorspace by 2001 (1,400,000m 2), reducing costs by £150 million. Productivity is key to success, so even small changes in productivity are important. Research conducted among staff on a self-estimation basis suggested that new buildings result in a 2-3 per cent improvement in productivity.

The third workshop considered James Stirling's and Michael Wilford & Partners' No 1 Poultry opposite the Bank of England. The session chairman, Andrew Murdoch of Fitzroy Robinson, described it as 'the product of an extraordinary planning battle, and of a personal vision by Lord Palumbo and Jim Stirling'. It is an office building, but also has 'an iconic or symbolic function'.

Laurence Bain, partner in the Wilford practice and concerned with the project since 1985, recalled that it had endured three public inquiries and two interventions by Prince Charles. The constraints at No 1 Poultry were formidable. It is surrounded by listed buildings, several of them Grade I; the site itself contained eight Grade II listed buildings, which it took Palumbo years to acquire; and it included a public right of way (Bucklersbury) which had to be maintained during construction. The architect was required to maintain a partial view of St Paul's; to follow the City's 'dumbbell of shopping' and include mixed use; and to provide connections to Bank underground station. At the start of the project the permitted plot ratio was 5:1.

The building is deliberately symmetrical on an asymmetrical site, like many in the area, with office entrances on Bucklersbury and at the point of the building. Shops are behind a colonnade so that the building's office identity prevails. At the top a Conran restaurant will open on to an informal rooftop garden, leading to a formal garden and a belvedere overlooking the junction. The lift serving this level is in a blue shaft.

The building's most distinctive feature, the clock at the building's prow, was, said Bain, based on Jim Stirling's wristwatch. The office floor layout is open-plan in the middle, with perimeter cellular offices and a director's office at the point.

Michael Griffiths, senior director of Land Securities, said no financial data had been made available. The concept of mixed use was to be applauded, and the retail ingredient in the concourse would be successful. But he criticised the main office entrance as unlikely to work well, and considered the office layout insufficiently flexible.

Different depths of suspended ceiling, reflecting the changing elevation, are also unsatisfactory; the colonnade hides the shops and makes for poor daylighting; and occupiers of expensive perimeter offices might resent having daylight and views blocked by the elevational treatment. In the atrium, one floor has no windows at all, the prime perimeter space is interrupted by WCs, and treatment of the apex was 'a lost opportunity'. Other cricisms included the glazing to the director's office which did not ensure confidentiality, the lack of room for a reception desk at the lift entrance, the additional security required by having two entrances, the fact that an occupier would probably want to respray the coloured lifts, and the impracticality of the entrance at the prow, where taxis could not stop.

Veteran property commentator Alan Bailey asked what the Duke of Wellington, whose statue is opposite and who 'didn't suffer fools gladly', would have thought of his new view. He thought the duke, 'listening to the music of the last post, would keep his eyes off it as long as possible'. Perhaps in due course there would be a move to 'knock down the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England and the Mansion House and replace them to match the candystripe building opposite'.

Ivor French of Leighton Goldhill asked what Land Securities would have done with a site of this shape. 'Eat their heart out to get hold of it, ' said Bain. He argued that though a mixed-use building conferred great benefits, not just to the general public but to users, 'it is a building of relatively modest size which tries to pack a big punch - a pocket battleship, if you like'. Summing up, Andrew Murdoch suggested that 'a building in that location should be seen, not over decades but over centuries. No one can say it hasn't made an impact'.

Workshop 4, chaired by Stuart Lipton of Stanhope, looked into the office of the future. Lipton introduced David King, chief executive of Interior, as a mechanical engineer who had founded what had become the UK's 'premier fit-out specialist', 2in the past eight years.

King said that the radical was fast becoming the norm, which is dangerous 'because it ignores our clients' diverse needs, and leads ultimately to one set of restricted solutions replacing another'.

He believed that new ways of working did not have to lead to 'radical or especially sexy designs' and that the office of the future would not just be about shape, size and form, but about use and delivery.

He then attacked three myths. First, the 'techie' theory that technological advances will make most buildings physically obsolete. In fact, he believes that older buildings could cope with the demands placed on them, working rather well for most occupiers. The servicing demands of new technology were diminishing, in all except big banks which require large floorplates with power loads bigger than Birmingham.

The second myth is that downsizing and homeworking would so reduce the need for offices that 'office set-aside' would be required. 'Net demand for offices will almost certainly fall, ' he conceded, 'but not as much as we think.' New ways of working will not always mean less space. Loss of personal territory might require better-quality environments in other areas, such as break-out space, and increased use of IT will not necessarily mean reduced space demand. Flexible homeworking suits some workers, not all. 'We need interaction and buzz; we need personal leadership, training etc; indeed we need to get out of the house. As Stuart Lipton once so colourfully put it: 'I married my wife for life, not for lunch'.'

Myth number three is about a new design agenda, and as Frank Duffy's The New Office suggests, ways of doing office work are certainly changing. We needed to plan for adaptability (not 'flexibility', which smacked of 'I can't make up my mind'). There is no single perfect office, but many office solutions.

'New ways' working is about more than innovative design, and includes better facilities management - at hotel level rather than the janitorial level to which we had become accustomed. It is also about higher-quality fit-out, which does not necessarily mean a higher-spec base. 'New ways' is not appropriate to all users: 'Most companies occupy, by choice, fairly ordinary space'.

Research by DEWG and BRE concluded that the space demands of air-conditioning systems are diminishing, even in banks. 'New ways' requires lower-capacity systems with greater individual control and more adaptability of layout. And though desking won't increase, daily occupancy will. The implications are more lifts, stairs and WCs.

King's firm had been established partly because occupiers were wasting time and money ripping out developers' finishes from buildings.

Shell-and-core delivery will be even more relevant to the office of the future. And 'recycling in occupation' saves money and time. King cited the occupied refurbishment of GRE's Ipswich building in 15 months, and concluded: 'There has never been a time when older buildings are more reusable'.

Graham Foster of Gerald Eve outlined research his firm had done for the RICS and the DETR which showed that office workers occupied an average of 16.6m 2of floorspace, ranging from Yorkshire's 13.7 to the West Midlands 19.2. Surprisingly, 1960s buildings were higher than average. The public sector was about average. The survey will be repeated every two years.

Andrew Rabeneck, former European facilities director at Salomon Brothers, said globalisation was a fact of life, IT pervasive and essential, diffusion of change rapid, competition fierce and margins slim. 'Nearly every sector of nearly every industry is grossly over-provided with capacity.'

Controlling costs and reducing unit costs were now imperatives. Occupiers' demands were now mercurial and could not be restricted to a long lease.

To attract and retain staff, companies need buildings with high amenity levels; in an age of split families and diminished home lives, employers would have to offer compensating amenities.

New office buildings need a very strong identity and social focus, a robust infrastructure, and adaptability.

Alan McDonna of BT Laboratories illustrated some of the technological advances coming out of BT's Martlesham research establishment. These included infra-red links, with cables needed only for power; 3D data-visualisation techniques; and 'smart space' and eye control of data presentation doing away with desks.

In the final session, Adrian Leaman of Building Use Studies deplored the secrecy which in the UK prevented important information from getting into the public realm. The construction press does not publish information about how buildings perform, which is regarded as 'very private information'. Signature buildings get the lion's share of publicity, but they were an exotic species concerned with corporate myth-making. Some office buildings of the future will be extremely dependent on management and technology; the rest will be in more domestic, naturally ventilated buildings.

Personnel comprise 60 per cent of the cost of a building, energy a tiny percentage. Shortcomings like open-tread staircases could be replaced and it would cost peanuts.

On mixed use, Lipton said: 'People talk about it as though it's some social disease. It's got to be a reality.' The 25-year-olds employed in offices were not prepared to put up with conventional office environments. Adrian Leaman agreed: 'The fun factor's very important. We're not into sterilising people's lives any more or making them as uncomfortable as possible.'

Chris Smith of Ove Arup & Partners said that when BA wanted its consultants to move to Heathrow, there was great resistance. They saw it as a social wasteland and feared for their convivial lunches in Charlotte Street. If staff is so high a proportion of cost, should we not be using sociologists and psychologists? Lipton responded: 'I thought architects were sociologists. That's the only way you can identify some of the defects!'

Leaman said social science had been 'a turnoff ' to the other professions. 'There's a big gulf between what people think they know and what they actually know, and a large gulf between the design profession and everyday life'.

AJeditor Paul Finch said that sending a writer and photographer to spend a couple of days with the users produced quite different result from interviewing the architect on his own. BAA had been criticised for ruining Norman Foster's Stansted interior by insensitive placing of shops, but maybe the design should have taken account of the need for shopping. He suggested that clients should pay architects to go back after a couple of years and do a post-occupation study, which would have an effect not only on designers but on product manufacturers. The notoriously failed British Library shelving was not designed by the architect.

Winding up, Lipton suggested: 'We should not look at other buildings, but at other products. Our industry is 20 years out of date. But if we tried to put a building on the production line, it would never be finished!'

ZZA'S POST-OCCUPANCY EVALUATION OF BT AT STOCKLEY PARK - circulation and 'wayfinding' - meeting space - environmental conditions.

Comparing survey methods The interview-based method facilitates a more considered response than the self-completed Internet-based questionnaire. The methods have differential advantages which can be targeted in an informed way in relation to the client's objectives and timescales.

OUTCOMES The findings of the work have fed into BT at several levels: Learning on Stockley Park All BT participants responsible for delivering the accommodation at Stockley Park reviewed the findings at a project closure workshop.

Act ion for users BTheld an exhibition of key survey findings which was posted in the foyer at 5 Longwalk, accompanied by an action plan formulated in response to users' views. This focused on several actions: - 'Wayfinding' - external/internal signage and more explicit internal routing - Environmental conditions - alleviation of glare and localised noise - Storage - additional capacity - Meeting space - revised allocation system, more presentation equipment - IT/communications improvements - including desktop-mounted laptop connections for all 'hotdesks' - Support facilities - more compilation space in on-floor copier areas - Amenity - hot water at vending areas.

These are actions that are both easily feasible in the immediate term and also relevant to users.

Future proposed action relates to the comprehensive redesign of the reception to 5 Longwalk, to provide easier ingress/egress, enhanced visitor and promotional facilities and a general softening of the area.

Ziona Strelitz, principal, ZZA ZZA'S

POST-OCCUPANCY EVALUATION OF BT AT STOCKLEY PARK ZZA gathered structured feedback from BT people operating and using both BT's bu i ld i n g s a t Stockley Park: 4 Longwalk, designed by Arup Associates, and 5 Longwalk, by Foster and Partners. Both buildings were completed in the 1980s and had originally been fitted out for occupation by BPExploration, largely on a cellular basis. In contrast, both fitouts for BT by DEGW are predominantly open-plan, consistent with BT's Workstyle approach. The following survey methods were adopted.

Survey of building operators and service providers The work with building operators and service providers took place at the outset. It helped to guide the scope of the research with desk-based users.

Interview-based survey ZZA undertook a face-to-face survey with a structured sample of designated individuals in 5 Longwalk. This constituted 7 per cent of the proposed building occupation of 713 workspaces.

The survey covered over 200 separate aspects of accommodation, including the location, setting, building, fit-out, services and management. It included assessments of productivity.

INNOVATION: INTERNET-BASED SURVEY

As BT wanted to give all people based on site or using the accommodation in a 'touchdown' capacity the active chance to contribute their views , ZZA innovated a cost-effective approach to accommodate large numbers of respondents. A survey was delivered via the Internet, with all completions immediately returned to us, automatically collated. This generated:

Overall feedback on BT at Stockley Park from the perspective of people with Internet access (most users) Comparative feedback from people based in the respective buildings.

The questions comprised a summary of the more extensive face-to-face survey. The work compared the outputs of the two survey methods to give BT a view on their respective merits.

OUTPUTS The three surveys resulted in a suite of reports which covered the following: Recommendations on process: premises supply and service delivery This is strictly concerned with internal BT processes. It draws on ZZA's observations, those of end-users, and BT's own supply community which is highly committed to integrated, crossfunctional, customer-focused supply.

Comparing the buildings The profile of user opinion was similar for both buildings on a variety of issues. However, there were more issues in 5 Longwalk. These related to: - users' workstations and their immediate setting

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