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The future of office design

Rory Olcayto reports on last month’s surprisingly optimistic British Council for Offices conference

Half an hour into this year’s British Council for Offices (BCO) conference, held last month in Edinburgh, Mike Harris, the e-commerce innovator behind internet banks Egg and First Direct, shows two contrasting slides. One shows a corporate workplace, typical of a high-street bank’s head office. Harris says spaces like this kill innovation. The other is of a Californian-style new media firm, more like an art workshop (a bicycle hangs from the ceiling). Then, to the 400 architects, engineers and developers in the auditorium, he says: ‘Your challenge is to get the Royal Bank of Scotland to build such an office.’

Sceptical laughter ripples through the audience. Get real, I want to say. The world has changed – but not that much.

OFFICES FOR GENERATION X

I’m glad I didn’t speak up. According to Mike Hussey, BCO chairman and managing director of developer Land Securities’ London portfolio, Harris is right – and he wants a new generation of architects to create these new workplaces.

‘The young people of today will populate their buildings in different ways compared with conventional business,’ says Hussey. ‘Young architects are more attuned to that. They can give us access to Generation X. If we can incorporate them into a building programme into our next cycle, we’ll all be better off.’

It’s a brave statement for Hussey, second in command of Britain’s biggest developer and landlord. But it captures the mood of the two-day event. Despite numbers being down 30 per cent on last year, delegates are strangely giddy. It could be that each and every one is still in a state of shock, but I suspect they are mostly intoxicated by the cast of starry guest speakers laid on for them.

‘Within a generation the virtual environment will be equal to the actual.’ Malcolm Smith, Arup

Alongside Harris, BBC business editor Robert Peston, futurologist David Bodanis, ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg and after-dinner speaker Alistair Campbell give provocative talks. As Arup’s Malcolm Smith says in Friday’s closing lecture on ‘loose-fit cities, hybrid buildings and urban farms’, this conference is less about green shoots than planting seeds.

After Peston’s conference opener, a lecture dubbed ‘The Cost of Men Behaving Badly’ (‘I can’t identify a woman responsible for this mess,’ he says to the largely male audience), it is Harris who signals the mood swing. He explains that ‘innovators win in a sluggish economy’, citing the emergence of Apple and Microsoft from the oil shock of the mid-’70s, the online boom following the ’90s recession and the Web 2.0 revolution after the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s.

GREEN SKY THINKING

Hussey’s call to involve young firms in office design is just one of many surprising ideas to emerge. Arup’s Smith gives a stimulating lecture, urging delegates to consider story­telling and narrative as a viable tool for city-making.

He then goes on to suggest how our cities might be transformed by ‘hybrids’, a new typology defined by energy efficiency. He proposes ice rinks bundled with mortuaries, where cooling technologies provide a natural correlation. It’s unexpected stuff, and more what you’d expect of a Silicon Valley shindig – but this time no one is scoffing.

Asked, in a session called ‘Crystal Balls’, what a typical day might be like in 10 years’ time, Bodanis says ‘extreme customisation’, born out of the impulse for tailored news feeds online and personal iPod playlists, will come to define much of our daily experience and shape the built environment in ways yet unclear.

‘And I think there’s a fair chance you’ll be drinking exhaust from your car,’ he adds, referring to a likely infrastructural change that will see cars run on hydrogen fuel cells, from which the only waste product is water. 3D faxes and printers, too, will likely be commonplace. Such a tool offers tantalising possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration in the design of buildings.

‘It’s about innovation and change. Reducing carbon, reducing waste, the use of more efficient materials.’ Jim Dick, Sheppard Robson

Developer Argent’s joint chief executive, Roger Madelin, who later tells me of his plans to install a hydrogen fuel cell as part of the green energy mix at Argent’s King’s Cross scheme, foretells a kind of corporate Bohemia. He talks of clusters of diverse firms, sharing office space and ideas. ‘Diversity in the broadest sense will underpin the best organisations,’ he adds.

BEAT THE DOWNTURN

BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze, while rubbishing Alistair Darling’s prediction of a year-end recovery (‘more like the second half of 2010,’ he says) was unwilling to break ranks and succumb to gloom. ‘Deep depressions are times of pioneering design – you just have to look at the built legacy of the 1930s. The expansion of the London Underground is just one great example,’ he says. But what about here and now?

‘There is absolutely opportunity out there for those prepared to think differently,’ he asserts. ‘Rigid concepts are likely to be far less successful than those which give opportunity for change.’

The outstanding event of the conference is ‘Green Point or Green Wash? The Environment in a Recession’, a two-pronged presentation and discussion with Bennetts Associates’ Rab Bennetts in the chair. It pits Lomborg, an environmentalist famous for his dismissal of what he considers the exaggerated effects of global warming (‘sea level will rise 30cm, not 6m, over the next 100 years’) against architect Michael Pawlyn, of Exploration Architecture, which specialises in bio-mimicry. Pawlyn sparks controversy by questioning Lomborg’s research. The result is a spiky but highly entertaining debate.

I meet Hussey again when things wrap up. We remark on the blue sky nature of the talks and presentations and the surprisingly upbeat atmosphere. ‘If people just worry about survival, they probably won’t survive,’ are his closing words. You’d never know that the previous week his firm, Land Securities, had reported annual losses of £4.8 billion.

Clearly he has been listening to his own, very good, advice.

 

BCO SPECIFICATION GUIDE 2009

Alongside lectures by the guest speakers, the annual British Council for Offices conference hosted technical tours and visits (to buildings including Bennetts Associates’ RIBA Award-winning Potterow and Enric Miralles’ 2004 Stirling Prize winner, the Scottish Parliament), and seminars covering topics such as ‘Refurb versus New-build’ and the new Specification Guide 2009, launched at the conference.

The guide, last published in 2005, includes new research focusing on sustainable office design and operation, and has been tailored to influence development in emerging markets, specifically the Middle East. This is, says BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze, partly to set a global standard for Class-A office types, and partly because there is a mounting demand for guides tailored to local contexts. ‘Despite the current global slowdown, the world as one market will be an undeniable fact of 21st-century life,’ says Kauntze.

The guide also highlights the contraction of UK office sizes over the past decade. The average density of workplaces has increased by 40 per cent since 1997, when average office density (net area per person) was 16.6m², compared with 11.8m² today. But, according to the BCO, innovative office design, flexible working and smaller IT footprints mean offices have not become more crowded. The new BCO guide recommends an average occupancy density of 8-13m², compared with 12-17m² in the 2005 guide. New guidance on small power usage within offices (set at 25W/m²) and internal design temperature (24oC) reflects BCO research.

 

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