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Informality doesn’t have to mean beanbags and slides'

[THE OFFICE] Essay 4: Ben Adams, Ben Adams Architects

Offices, who needs them? In the digital age we can work wherever and whenever we want, using our mobile technology to access the cloud and all our data within. Work has seemingly been liberated from space. This sense of redundancy hardly helps perceptions of office design as unedifying, commercially orientated and mostly dull. On the other hand, the autonomy allowed by the digital age has made its leading protagonists - Google, Yahoo - realise that innovation and inspiration often result from the unplanned human interactions that occur when the workplace is in a fixed location.

We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home and our definition of the office has grown richer and broader in the past decade. The digital revolution has partly freed us from the server rooms and endless desk farms of Bürolandschaft. Yet the breadth of design in office space that has emerged is poorly understood.

If we consider the two poles of contemporary offices: the British Council of Offices’ (BCO’s) Grade A spec at one extreme and the playful workplaces of technology firms at the other, we can identify a broad middle ground where a range of informal, comfortable and sometime luxurious spaces can be designed.

The BCO has rightly defined a set of technical requirements that lead to comfortable and reasonably sustainable offices popular with financial, legal or insurance occupiers in the City of London and other centres. The criteria are tightly defined to protect the Grade A rating, yet preclude a wider design freedom that non-City occupiers seek. Tech firms around Old Street in London and centre-fringe locations across the UK have sought more radical offices that focus on fun. They include slides, beanbags and the inevitable ‘café’ to allow occupants to relax, kick back and, er, do some work. Extremes are useful for bookending a range of design possibilities. Between these poles human interaction latent in Bürolandschaft is freed from the desk by mobile technology and given licence to explore an existentially charged set of spatial possibilities.

Our recent office projects have looked at alternatives for those seeking informality, luxury, and relaxed professionalism. The Northampton is a new building in Islington that sits between the Finsbury Health Centre, with its Grade I listing, the mixed warehouses of Bowling Green Lane and 1980s developer housing on Northampton Road. The areas typical occupiers include Zaha Hadid, Wilkinson Eyre and Action for Children.

The site is a difficult shape, with restrictions on height required by local rights to light and Finsbury Health Centre. These constraints have been used to advantage. A simple, elegant brick building unfolds over five levels with no typical floor. An existing tree occupies a courtyard leading to the main entrance and two intersecting volumes combine to mark out the front door and the spine wall enclosing the lifts. The reception includes a terrazzo floor, exposed brickwork and timber panelling - simple, luxurious materials with long service lives and timeless qualities.

Each floor has exposed structural concrete. External walls are defined by a simple rhythm of glass and brick. Openings above or below connect with the street, a terrace or mezzanine level. The layout allows a 1.5m desk layout if required, though the complex shape and compact core encourage a more relaxed approach to open plan working, with uses defined by need rather than by partitions. Without a typical floor plate or floor size there is a range of space that cannot help but encourage a mixture of businesses to occupy the completed building.

Roof gardens and terraces in office buildings add a sense of opportunity and delight that is just as important in creating ‘amenity’ space as it is in residential developments. Set-backs and flat roofs that come about through rights to light or streetscape judgements can create magical roof terraces, heavily planted to inspire their office dwellers and local fauna.

A reception in a hotel, an art gallery or an office building has the same needs: to put the visitor at ease, inform them of their destination and convey a sense of the building as a whole.

Lighting can change the mood and tempo of otherwise homogenous space and gallery lighting can reinforce the sense of contemplative space, and the pleasing busyness and blurred functions of the hotel foyer encourage the visitor to relax.

When a sense of informality has been established in the design of an office building, it creates opportunities to cross-programme space with design cues from other sectors. It allows the office building to become more complex in the rich variety of spaces it offers, and more useful in allowing its users to act and interact in informal patterns that inspire creativity.

Ben Adams is founding director of Ben Adams Architects

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