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'Despite mobile kit, work is still a place you go to'

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[OFFICES] Essay 1: Simon Allford, AHMM

Twenty years of rapidly evolving digital technology has continually extended our potential hours of work. Once unhappily chained to heavy machinery, we are now sufficiently enthralled by the control offered by mobile kit that we accept the blurring of boundaries between work and play.
In the connected world of post-industrial London, as white-collar workers replace their blue-collar predecessors in political importance, the office (repackaged as workplace) has replaced the factory. Interestingly, even though the means of production have changed, organisational patterns of people and spaces have altered little. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the nature of work and where it is carried out has not undergone revolutionary change.

That is why we still invest heavily in it.

The one key difference about today’s workplace design is that skilled workers have choice. They are interested in salary, but also in an organisation’s ethos, brand and social culture. And, as they anticipate working more hours for more years, their working environment becomes important in terms of the ease of access, quality of place and as a theatre of everyday life.

What does this mean for the architecture of the office? If you think theatre, stage set and props, it becomes simple. The theatre is the building. It should last for at least 100 years and provide a sense of place, an address and a connection of working areas with memorable shared spaces. Think foyer, stairs, crush bar, toilet, kitchen and terrace. As people work everywhere, all spaces need to be generous in plan and section, providing the light and air that allow changing patterns of occupation: think volume not area. Stage sets are the architectural furniture within, lasting five to 20 years. Think auditoria, leisure and gym, cycling support, restaurant, AV rooms and other serviced spaces. Then there are the props. These are most immediately responsive to shifts in technology and ideas about work: highly adaptable kits of parts reconstituted as desks, walls, and elements for breakouts and small rooms, frequently reconfigured and relocated.

This simple analogy applies to any building, regardless of current (narrow) definitions of use. It means our professional and regulatory obsession with typological models, other than the very particular, such as churches or theatres, is absurd. There are only kinds of buildings: the good and the bad. The former are those that have presence, generosity and design qualities that encourage their re-use. They deserve to survive and generally do. The latter are those that are mean-spirited, without distinction or character and deservedly disappear. So the mantra of ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’ is valid but insufficient: memorable qualities of place, space, promenade and character are needed in equal measure.

In respect of good buildings, there are really only two models: the shallow building up to 20m deep; and the deep building, well over 20m deep. The former can, with little adaptation, be used over time or simultaneously as office, apartment, educational building and shop.
The latter will require more significant adaptation but it can still flex, even if more slowly.

It is for these reasons that we are pursuing a research project called ‘The Universal Use Class Order’. I don’t expect it to become official policy soon, but like all good future models it is already rooted in best practice. All our urban projects, at the clients’ behest, are capable of accommodating at least two, and often the three basic programmes of working, living and playing. Only planning/building regulations limit the ability to flex, as demonstrated by three projects described below. Each are ‘offices’, but in fact all are hybrids, each allowing for change and anticipating long life, hence the pursuit of BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum.

Our five-year research project for Derwent London, the White Collar Factory (WCF), begins and ends with the design of generous volumes that maximise natural light and ventilation and minimise materials and energy. This project is now built as a micro-hybrid of old and new in AHMM’s new ‘penthouse loft’ that emerges on top of a generous mat of former warehouses and factories. The macro model is on site: a 16-story tower that, along with its 20th century warehouse neighbours (retained for reasons noted above), makes a new place in the city.

Simultaneously we have been involved with Google in rethinking how they will live in their new King’s Cross HQ. This has involved a huge team considering everything from the commissioning of architecture (BIM, and an integrated team involved long after occupation); to manufacturing (material and technological enquiry) and delivery (contractors and consultants operating together in The Big Room). In each of these projects the overarching ambition is to make a smarter, more delightful and efficient assembly of volumes (the theatre) that can be reconfigured (through changing sets) and is responsive to the evolving life of the occupants (utilising props).

In the window of the Vitra Showroom, in yet another old rag trade factory with apartments above, I recently spotted the slogan ‘Work is a thing you do, not a place you go’, which cleverly conjured up familiar images of working anywhere but the office. My proposition, however, is fundamentally different: ‘work’ is a place you go to do things. A place where you can live, work and play.

Long-term value is not to be found in creating an office, or indeed most other typologically defined single-use buildings. The future resides in architecture that is responsive to change, that can accommodate different programmes in similar spaces both simultaneously and over time - spaces that have recognisable shared qualities, but that are still particular to their context and arranged around a memorable promenade.

So forget the particularities of the office and think of The Universal Use Class Order of the City Sandwich, a rich mix of stacked uses. This is a typology worth pursuing, even if (in respect of statute, finance and current mind-set) we are obliged to present it as ‘office’.

Simon Allford is a director of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

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