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RIBA Awards winners 2014: Workplace

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This year seven offices have won RIBA National Awards - and they have been hard-earned writes Rab Bennetts

Offices are hard to design well and even harder to win RIBA Awards for.

For many architects, office design is about so many tyrannies - the 1.5m-grid, the net:gross ratio, the BCO Guide to Specification, the property agent’s conservatism. But too many accept the status quo by focusing on external appearance, inventing ever more complex messages for that last 250mm of urban skin. It’s a surprise to see how few architects of note address the issues raised by the workplace, for this is where the sector is changing and where the exterior and interior coalesce.

The owner-occupier sector has long led the way, with a concern for sustainability, staff retention, recruitment and improved productivity that accompanies good working conditions and enjoyable places to work - a virtuous circle of architectural patronage and commercial performance. In design terms, a benign working environment requires the facade to be integrated with the thermal mass of the structure and the extent of mechanical services; skin-deep is not good enough.

With construction activity in London soaring ahead, developers such as Argent and Derwent London have scaled the agent-inspired barriers with offices for rent that are as interesting as their owner-occupied antecedents. Not surprisingly, these are proving popular and commercially successful; challenging conventional over-specification without compromising long-term adaptability. Ubiquity too is crumbling, as diversity replaces previously uniform typologies in the West End, the City and fringe areas like Shoreditch. As if to underpin these trends, refurbishment has lost its stigma, as developers realise the benefits of lower cost, time and planning risks, and as occupiers express their liking for the interventions and patina that derive from an existing building. One size no longer fits all and the UK regions appear to be following behind.

Occupational densities in the post-recession era are on the rise, affecting services, toilets, access and so on. Space is not just tighter, but more organisations are desk-sharing - with local authorities appearing to lead the way as their property disposal strategies compensate for funding cuts. Initial indications are that CO² per person is dropping as a result of greater resource efficiency. With higher densities comes more variety - with break-out spaces, lounges and small meetings areas energising the design and workforce. Space syntax analysis has shown that open stairs, circulation routes and refreshment points, so often overlooked, are crucial to spatial integration.

With so much raw material available, why aren’t more architects engaged with the translation of exterior to interior? How many RIBA Award winners avoid images of the office floors themselves? Perhaps the answer lies in the lack of information about how they work in practice, as there is little incentive to get involved. Publicly available post-occupancy data is so scarce that the lessons on the best offices seem to be in the hands of very few.

Rab Bennetts, founding director, Bennetts Associates

Manor Works, Sheffield by Architecture 00


Manor Works is a community enterprise centre - comprising offices, workshops, flexible working space and meeting rooms - to provide access into entrepreneurship for residents of Manor Estate. The building is a mature response to its context. Affordable and eminently accessible, it eschews the usual tropes of community architecture - ‘jolly colour’ and ‘whizz-bang’ formal gestures - structuring instead a controlled, confident proposition that acts as an armature for the business and social endeavours of its constituents.

Client - Manor Development Company
Contractor - Henry Boot Construction
Contract value - £2,700,000
Gross internal area - 1,600m²
Region - Yorkshire

Architecture Archive by Hugh Strange Architects


Set within a working farmyard, this building provides an archive for the client’s collection of historic and contemporary architectural drawings, models and books. In this unlikely setting, the building appears as a long, low shed with galvanised crinkly tin roof that spans a wide gap between its two barn-like structures to form an entrance portico - a grand gesture in a farmyard. It is a strange place; a kind of indulgent garden shed, but one that is incredibly architectural and sophisticated. (AJ 02.05.14)

Client - Private
Contractor - Eurban
Contract value - Undisclosed
Gross internal area - 120m²
Region - South West

London Bridge Tower by Renzo Piano Building Workshop


There cannot be a more compressed model for city intensification than the Shard: 120,000m² of accommodation built on a small piece of land next to a major transport hub. When fully occupied, there will be six uses: a genuine vertical village. The building touches the ground effortlessly, with offices and high-volume uses approached directly from a podium facing the station and the rest from street level on the other side. (AJS 12.10)

Client - London Bridge Quarter
Contractor - MACE
Contract value - Undisclosed
Gross internal area - 120,000m²
Region - London South

Golden Lane, London by Amin Taha Architects


115 Golden Lane is a locally listed building in a conservation area that has had partitions, suspended floors and ceilings, harsh lighting, cooling units and UPVC windows clumsily added over the years. The jury agreed unanimously that the architect had created an exquisite tactile gem of a place by removing years of thoughtless accretions, finding and carefully reinstating original fabric and judiciously adding elegant and beautifully detailed contemporary elements that complement the original. (AJ 10.01.13)

Client - Private
Contractor - Ecore
Contract value - £650,000
Gross internal area - 720m²
Region - London South

One Pancras Square, London by David Chipperfield Architects


This building is key in the King’s Cross masterplan. The brief to create a flexible, sustainable speculative office building was met by a simple, rational response lifted by the use of textured, cast iron columns that surround all four facades. The building is understated and elegant; it provides an appropriate urban scale and a light, adaptable and airy interior. It is rational and considered; the textured cast iron columns provide an element that is stimulating, fascinating and somehow otherworldly. (AJ 16.05.14)

Client - Argent
Contractor - BAM
Contract value - Undisclosed
Gross internal area - 6,192m²
Region - London North

Porthmeor Artists’ Studios and Fishermens’ Cellars by Long & Kentish architects


Intricate in layout, the task of restoring and updating the building (top left) to allow for disabled access, better services and thermal performance has been painstaking. In the studio, with its beautiful north light and window on to the beach, it appears as if nothing has changed; walls are timber-clad and remain paint-splattered, yet each board had been plotted, numbered and removed to allow for insulating the fabric. Quite clearly a labour of love.

Client - Borlase Smart John Wells Trust
Contractor - Symons Construction
Contract value - £2,971,020
Gross internal area - 1,719m²
Region - South West

Scottish Water, Stepps by Reiach & Hall Architects


This office building sets a new standard for out-of-town business park developments in Scotland. Set between a collection of fairly utilitarian office pavilions and rolling Lanarkshire moorland, the external treatment of the building is contemporary in materiality and form but, particularly in the double-height colonnaded main facade, generates a highly restrained, contemporary Classicism. The plan and layout of the building contribute to the comfort and positive engagement of staff.

Client - Scottish Water
Contractor - BAM
Contract value - Undisclosed
Gross internal area - 7,600mm²
Region - Scotland

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A fantastic range of projects here from exquisite pearls to earth shattering statements - what a great showcase for UK architects' talents. Architect in awe!

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