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Our review of a new book on offices of the future asks if such a tight fit between building layouts and working patterns is necessary An office is not a hive

How will office buildings perform when nine-to-five office work changes? In a two-year collaborative study the bre and degw have investigated the implications this question has for clients, designers, property professionals and manufacturers of building services*. Sponsored by industry and the detr, the findings provide strategic guidance on the design of office buildings, hvac, lighting systems and furniture. Key recommendations include:

users to have more control of and access to environmental systems

clients should look out for buildings which can accommodate more than one type of office work

developers and architects to produce medium-depth and atrium base building shells, with simple decoupling of services from shells to maximise adaptability; also to avoid both shallow- and deep-plan buildings while anticipating multi-tenancies and shorter leases

manufacturers of environmental services to provide systems which respond efficiently to changing occupancy rates and to develop new mixed-mode systems (combining natural and mechanical ventilation with cooling or air-conditioning)

suppliers of lighting to provide controllers more responsive to individual users and to improve the integration of lighting with environmental systems in base buildings

furniture manufacturers to provide products which support interactive, intermittent work patterns, and which give users more control of the work environment.

These recommendations are the outcome of 'expert' evaluation of the match between building layout, servicing and work pattern variables. At the heart of this evaluation is a simple fourfold classification system for each set of variables:

building layout classification based on floorplate dimensions - shallow, medium, deep-plan and atrium

a work pattern classification based on levels of worker interaction and organisational autonomy - hive, cell, den and club (for a fuller review of this, featured in Frank Duffy's book, see aj 15.1.98)

an environmental systems classification which identifies four general, familiar types: all air (air treated in a plant room and ducted around at a given temperature); distributed (air treated by individual units dotted around the buildings); radiative air (exploitation of the building's thermal mass); and mixed-mode (combining natural and mechanical ventilation with possibly additional cooling or local air-conditioning).

Where the experts judged they had found the best buildings combining the above variables, they carried out life-cycle costing.

Proof of concept

To test the predicted match between building layout, work pattern and environmental system variables, eight case studies were undertaken (from England, the Netherlands, the us and Germany). The opinion that office buildings will have to be designed to cope with a predicted trend away from the hive and cell work patterns towards den and club models runs throughout the book.

One aim of this publication is to assist in the strategic briefing stage of a project by providing clients and design teams with a basis for discussing issues. In this respect it will have practical value within a narrow but important sphere of design activity. Whether it will add to the store of objective knowledge about systematic relationships between buildings and people is a different question entirely. For example, it will depend on whether the results are replicable, and here one may have misgivings. Theoretical differences predicted by the work pattern classification do not appear to be borne out by the case study evidence. Cell-type work patterns from the case studies show unexpectedly high levels of interaction. Is there an underlying assumption here that interior layout and space use are one and the same instead of treating them as independent variables?

For those who seek a harder edge to their methodology, mathematical models of the continuous variability of building layout, space use and the performance of environmental systems are probably preferable, together with statistical analysis of their inter-relationships based on independently replicable methods of data gathering. The classificatory approach of this book based on subjective, albeit expert, assessment of critical variables has inherent weaknesses for this level of research question.

A fitting conclusion

Architects design and clients occupy whole building complexes. How do building layout, space use and environmental variables interact at the level of the building complex? Architects are trained to explore how spaces within buildings can be interconnected to arrange the interface between different kinds of human activity, both locally and globally, which may have a continuously variable effect on building services. Computer simulations would help here.

Buildings are becoming more dazzling, the possibilities more varied in their three-dimensional geometry as digital information takes over from analogue drawings as the main medium of communication between designer and contractor. Some working patterns are becoming less formal, more experimental and even more forgiving of building variation. So old ideas about the need for tight fit between building layout and working patterns are being challenged. Nor does the urban surface have to give way to large atrium footplates in order to adapt cities to new ways of working and living.

Digital design, changes in working patterns and a desire to live and work in cities suggest we may be on the verge of an explosion in design possibilities for workplaces of the next millennium.

Paul Stansall is a director of Tectus Architecture

* New Environments for Working: The Re-design of Offices and Environmental Systems for New Ways of Working. A Laing, F Duffy, D Jaunzens, S Willis. From crc, tel: 0171 505 6622. £39.95

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