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Sky's the limit

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interiors - Luz Vargas Architects had first to establish its role before it could create a light, sharply detailed office refurbishment in a 1960s block for a firm of solicitors

Luz Vargas Architects (LVA) was commissioned by Fisher Meredith Solicitors to help it find a new home for its 120 staff in London.

The solicitor is mainly involved in rights-based legal work, such as housing, immigration and family issues, specialising in litigation for individuals. It is not a wealthy City firm, and while its existing old buildings may have felt homely to some, they were inefficient to work in and off-putting to potential new clients.

In London's Kennington, LVA found what has become Blue Sky House. The building had stood empty for nearly three years and had been stripped for refurbishment; its owner/ developer, CIBA, could not find a tenant, so was not in a strong position. In time a deal was struck. The solicitor would lease a third of the ground floor as reception/entrance and the three 400m floors above. (It would have liked the whole ground floor but could not afford it. ) Refurbishment for the solicitor would be done first, then CIBA could pursue letting the remaining ground-floor space plus construction of 14 new flats on top and at the side of the existing building (now proceeding); that is where it would make most of its profit.

LVA was appointed separately by the solicitor to carry out the office refurbishment, and by the developer to design the shell and core.

Despite potential conflicts of interest, LVA was entrusted by both parties to service and administer the contracts, which used an amended Design & Build form.

LVA has a reputation for adventurous ideas.

For example, a Beijing urban planning competition (with BVA and RRDA) featured large domes and conical towers, hollow within, that broadened as they went up. Recently, 'Grasping the Void' (AJ 15.4.04) was an exercise in multistorey dwelling forms where curving structures wrap central voids. So Blue Sky House comes as a contrast - a cool, sharply wrought rectilinear interior. Its impact comes from the clarity with which the design is realised, the economy of means and the effective, understated detailing. This interior mood was not a great surprise to the solicitor, however, since LVA had done a small reception area (£25,000) for it in 1998 in a similar idiom.

The reception here is white-surfaced overlain with walnut-veneered MDF and a floor of 600 x 300mm porcelain tiles; a simplicity that provides a strong sense of arrival from the urban jumble outside. This building is a 1960s office, concrete framed and floored, with a 3.3m-high ground floor, but, more typical of the period, 2.7m on the floors above. Plan depth is about 15m, with plentiful daylight from extensive glazing on the two long facades.

The client preferred to invest in flat computer screens and grey Antisun glass, rather than rely on blinds for shading. LVA has structured the floorplates by creating a central zone of even lower ceiling height so that HVAC services can be packed in above. Comfort cooling is provided within this central zone via ceiling grilles, and to the adjacent office spaces from a continuous ceiling-level grille along the central-zone framing. A shallow raised floor (from 75125mm, depending on floor level variations) houses electrical busbar and IT backbone distribution. Risers are at the floor ends.

Formally, the central zone stands as an object within each floor, marked by its painted steel frame, though its role and extent of enclosure vary from floor to floor. The zone includes existing columns, fortunately not on the centreline, which have been steel-cased to strengthen them to help support the new rooftop flats.

On the first floor the central zone contains mainly client interview rooms, with 1.4mdiameter etched-glass portholes that provide some daylight but prevent overlooking into the surrounding work areas. (The tight circulation here may remind some of a prison van). On the second and third floors, the central zone is narrower so the surrounding office spaces feel more open. The second-floor central zone has a cafÚ area and modular boardroom table allowing the whole space to be kept as one or divided into two or three with painted sliding/folding partitions. As well as for staff meetings, the space will be used for events and external training sessions. The transparency of proprietary glazed panels, silicone edge-jointed, and glazed doors, loosens up the feel of this area. And here the various blue colours are most evident.

Cellular offices, with transparent portholes, are restricted to admin staff and partners. On the third floor, the central zone accommodates an IT room, four quiet rooms and admin offices.

Fisher Meredith's managing partner Stephen Hewitt says that some viewed the prospect of open-plan working nervously.

Much time was spent thinking about who sits where, and an organisational psychologist was employed to help talk through issues of working together. 'Managing solicitors, ' comments Hewitt, 'is like herding cats.' In practice, staff have adapted quickly - helped, he feels, by the firm biting the bullet and paying for new furniture.

A particular concern about entirely openplan working was noise, addressed by the acoustic spray plaster used in the open-plan areas, and by double-layer acoustic plasterboard faces to the metal stud partitions, with 50mm of acoustic insulation within.

Document storage is a cultural and legal issue. As Hewitt remarks: 'Solicitors like clutter. They are rather proud of it.' Added to this is the legal requirement to archive documents.

For example, papers on a three-year-old child will be kept until they are 18; conveyancing papers can be kept in perpetuity. The firm has some 2,850 box files stored off site, costing thousands per year - not to mention normal working, where a solicitor may use 20-30 files in a day. Overall, Fisher Meredith may work on 3,500 live files a year. The less-paper office is hardly in sight, but it tried; a storage specialist was consulted. The move to new premises was a moment to rethink, to move more paper off site and reorganise storage round work groups.

And where spaces are tight, on the first floor, there are extra storage units along the walls of the central zone. Each floor also has an archive room, plus rolling shelves on the top floor.

The message of the design is also less clutter, with its plain surfaces in white or a range of blues, warmed with walnut veneer, and the unobtrusive integration of sliding partition tracks into the ceiling. Typical ceiling clutter is remarkably well controlled.

Since the solicitor has invested so much in customising the space, the question of flexibility - rather than moving again - was key. There is potential to reorganise the central zones. Hewitt expects there will be some expansion, though there is no ambition to become massively larger or multinational.

The client base is quite local. Some space pressure also comes from there being a lot of female solicitors - two-thirds in this case.

Some would like to see shorter hours, but job (and desk) sharing is not an option. But some admin tasks could be outsourced. Maximum capacity looks to be about 125, plus nine partners. For now, Hewitt feels it is better to accept the constraints and work around the home the firm has created for itself.

The contractual set-up has allowed Hewitt to be very hands-on with this project. Through working with LVA, he has become a bit of an expert on space use and office conversion.

He planned ahead, attending space-planning seminars, and picked up on knowledge manangement during a part-time MBA on law-firm management - lessons that have affected his thinking on issues such as open-plan communication and document access. This has turned into a small consultancy role, and Hewitt is currently advising two other firms on their work processes and the space implications.

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