So the question is: do design factors make office environments more productive? Well, obviously, the answer is 'yes' and 'no', and 'probably not' and 'it depends'. However, the elevation of 'design' into some kind of central determinant in business profitability and staff retention mirrors the growth of instrumentalist theories that variously state that 'design' influences educational attainment, patient recovery, prison passivity or community harmony.
From here, it is but a short step to suggesting that design (presumably 'good design' - but this is never spelled out) is responsible for increases in corporate productive capacity.
The reverse might then be true; that poor economic performance is caused by poor design. Architects beware.
YRM volunteered itself for our non-academic study following its move into new offices in London's King's Cross, in order to see how well the new building performs and how it affects staff work. To his credit, YRM chairman Jonathan Gray says that it has spent a considerable amount of time finding a space that would 'reflect the changing environment in which we work together'; in other words, it has made the office space in its own image, not the other way around.
It is for this reason that we wanted to see how it gets on.
We will assess YRM's performance on staff retentions, profitability, energy bills and the functionality and efficiency of the spaces that it has created. However, we cannot claim this to be a scientific research programme but it will be interesting to see how it manages and what subsequent changes, if any, it makes to the premises. To a certain extent, our criteria of its success will be whether it has a busy workload? but, one would argue, that cannot be put down to the colour scheme, the natural ventilation or the solar shading.
Founded in 1944, with offices at Greystoke Place in London, the practice moved to Bartholomew Close in 1997 after a management and employee buyout of the company. It was reputedly the first in the creatives' exodus to the Clerkenwell triangle. Now it has relocated again, opening up its new office on 12 September.
The new building forms part of the major redevelopment of the King's Cross area. It originally comprised three Victorian structures brought up to sales standard by RHWL for P&O, the site owner and developer. Gray has always been concerned that vertical communication 'doesn't work' and the clear, open length of the building, enabling linear horizontal communication, was one of the key benefits in the decision to purchase the site. Working with P&O, the practice negotiated a B1 class use for office use.
The project to upgrade and move in has taken just eight months (due to some pre-emptive design work by YRM).
The client's enabling works fitted an unattractive panel of full-height glazing in the gable end. Subsequently, the conservation area constraints have limited any potential alteration of the external appearance. All single-glazed windows and doors have had to be retained and no ventilation openings have been allowed in the walls or roof. Unfortunately, due to the demands of modern ventilation requirements for the movement of air volumes that far exceed the openable vented areas of the windows - and also because, in the first-floor front office, the sash windows have been sealed for acoustic and pollution reduction - a full airconditioning system has been introduced throughout the building.
It is discreetly located in the floor of the main office with perimeter grilles and in ceiling voids elsewhere.
The main change has been the introduction of the mezzanine that extends across the full length of the rear (main) office. The underside is surprisingly airy, with an Alvaro Seamless Ceiling System and recessed lights, supported on original cast-iron warehouse columns that punch through the ceiling and up to the original timber trusses. The timber roof has had nominal repairs, some timbers spiced into the rafters, but much has been left untouched. Even heavy-duty eyelets have been left in situ as a remembrance of industrial times past. The roof is a double truss with original clerestory lanterns. Its large and small truss space is not noticeable downstairs but spatially splits the mezzanine into a walkway zone at the front and a more secluded sitting/research area along the rear wall. YRM is keen to make the ground floor the productive sphere while upstairs will be the library, meeting space, coffee point and sandwich area. This 'linear core', as Gray describes it, will provide the storage, display facilities (for pinning up work), WCs and support facilities.
Designed for flexibility, the office provides a permanent base for some staff, although there will be flexible hot-desking arrangements through laptop connections for staff normally located on site. This should maximise the potential numbers that can be housed in the given space, although it means that all staff have to be meticulous in cleaning up their desks at the end of each working day. Gray himself will have no permanent seating position.
The solar gain is nominal, the exposed brick walls are expected to act as heat sinks and VRV (Variable Refrigerant Volume) fan coils have avoided the need for boilers (primarily because of the conservation area restrictions on flue locations).
These VRV (or VRF, referring to 'flow') units are modular heat pumps with condensing units connected to room-mounted fan-coil units. Electrically pumped refrigerant circulates through pipework in the ceiling and floor voids.
The front portion of the building is the natural entrance reception, which YRM anticipates being un-manned, as well as acting as an open 'public art facility'. This hasn't exactly been thought through properly yet and we look forward to seeing how its plans for open public access, to 'give something back to the community', adapt over the coming year. Similarly, we will return to see whether the heating bills are as low as Gray expects;
whether the radiated coolth from the gable window is manageable;
whether the mezzanine has had a few workstations sneaked up to utilise the space; whether individualised workstations have accumulated clutter; whether there are more projects on the computer screens - and more money in the bank!