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BCO cooks up improved recipe

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The British Council for Offices has revised its specification to help occupiers make choices . . . and has gone online

This week one of the best-regarded documents about office design takes an entirely new form. The latest version of the British Council for Offices' specification document, called BCO Guide 2000 , goes online at www.bco-officefocus.com (it is also accessible through ajplus. com).

But this is not only a new way of presenting a document - it is a radical rethinking of what the document represents. Tim Battle of services engineer Rybka Battle, who edited BCO Guide 2000, explains: 'We wanted a much broader range of discussion and debate with one specific purpose - to help the end user/specifier make a more informed decision on how they procure space.'

What makes this approach truly radical is that the changes are being made to a document which was not perceived to be weak but, in contrast, was already seen as important and influential. It is no secret that some organisations within the BCO have not been entirely happy about the changes. The previous edition, Best Practice in the Specification for Offices , is itself an update of the original 1994 document and has been highly influential in setting best-practice standards for office design. It is clear and simple to use.

In the new edition, much thought has been given to clarity and organisation, but the document is less prescriptive and can't be so straightforward. The simplest analogy is probably with cooking. Instead of presenting the user with a menu and a set of cooking instructions, the new document has the temerity to allow the users to decide what they want to eat before advising them on preparation. Worse still, it advises them to start by deciding whether they are really hungry - it begins by asking potential occupiers to decide whether they really want and need a new building.

This is one reason why the project has ruffled some feathers. The BCO is a broad church but its core membership comprises developers - people who make their money out of the provision of new buildings. Is it the legitimate business of the BCO, then, to encourage occupiers to question the value of new buildings? Battle is convinced that it is. 'We should all be concerned about what the end user and the occupier want, ' he says.

He sees the BCO's specification as serving two purposes: 'First, it is used by people wanting to acquire space. They or their agents use it as a means of benchmarking the space they want to take. Secondly, it is used by funders and institutions who want specific criteria for lending purposes.' The previous editions, Battle believes, 'brought the debate out into the open. This document gives people much more ammunition to decide on the issues. Any user or occupier can use it to establish a brief for themselves.'

The team that put the guide together reflects this wider outlook. The deputy editor was Graham Francis of Sheppard Robson and, in addition to the editorial reviewing panel, there were working parties dealing with architecture, BREEAM, construction, development, legal, occupiers, quantity surveying, planning, productivity, risk management, services, structures, envelope, and sustainability.

Some of these headings indicate the other ways in which the report has changed. It has taken on the issues raised by the Egan report, plus the questions of sustainability and of the productivity of people working in offices. It provides guidance on methods of procurement and on commissioning (none of the occupier's business, the dogin-the-manger may mutter).

The printed document is, at 32 pages, nearly twice the length of it predecessor. With tables, an index and comparisons of standards in different countries it has been made as easy to navigate as possible and it also, wherever possible, provides references, both paper and electronic, to other sources of information. The printed document has been produced with typical panache by publisher Wordsearch, but Battle believes it may be the last paper version. From now on, the technical committee will concentrate on assembling new information that will allow the website to be updated every six months or so. An incentive to use the (free) website is the fact that the printed document costs £50.

This week the BCO conference is taking place, and there is bound to be further criticism of the new document. But Battle is confident. 'I personally believe it's a very exciting document, ' he says. 'Just because it is different doesn't make it wrong.

I believe strongly that it's a document of its time.'

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