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What's the point of office buildings?

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The role of the office as a business tool was the main idea explored at the British Council for Offices spring conference, reports Barrie Evans

The British Council for Offices (BCO) specification tends to the prescriptive, focusing attention on the hardware of buildings and their functionality. However, emphasis is growing on the 'software' of the office - current revisions of the specification promise to reflect this.

A new or refurbished office is increasingly used by companies as a marker and expression of their reinvention of themselves.More generally, the office is increasingly questioned for its role in facilitating productivity and wider organisational effectiveness.

Keynote speaker Frank Duffy of DEGW took this software focus.

He feels there is too much emphasis in office design generally on efficiency of offices and not enough on effectiveness - adding value through design - and expression - the messages clients wish to convey. (Three 'Es' - he must be a management consultant. ) It is a trend exemplified recently at One Knightsbridge Green, London (AJ 5.9.02) where JWT, formerly J Walter Thompson, hoped a move to new premises with a new custom fit-out would move them forward several years in the eyes both of customers and their own staff. (Base building design by Hurley Robertson, fit-out DEGW. ) It is in just these areas of effectiveness and expression, says Duffy, that the architect can potentially contribute most. A difficulty, of course, is for the profession to demonstrate such capability to client organisations' bean-counters, which is why Duffy sees it as important to bring effectiveness and expression into the realms of the measurable alongside the more established measures of efficiency, such as floorplate sizes, net-to-gross and illumination levels. It won't be easy. And the measures will often be more indicators than direct counting, as CABE and M4I have also found. But for Duffy, it is an essential longer-term project for architecture. As Paul Morrell of DL&E contended: 'An industry that doesn't understand the value of its product is in trouble'. However, the logic of this position has often been restated, over several decades, with little material change.

The dangers of over-emphasising the easily-measurable were a concern of Loree Goffigon of Gensler Consulting. In trying to focus office design on more than just building fabric efficiency, she noted a lot of interest of late in building productivity, sometimes using specific measures such as changes in absenteeism or number of sales calls made per day. There are obvious dangers in this new Fordism, of tending to treat office work as work-study analysts did the car production lines. We should be bold enough to make a pitch for delivering the whole picture, including effectiveness and expression, Goffigon believes, and Gensler is trying to put itself in that position, as analyst-cum-consultant, for what it calls performance consulting.

It seeks to begin a project by capturing the client's 'business drivers', by defining potential impacts of design solutions and by agreeing how client and consultant will jointly measure project results.

Though Gensler is, first, a US company, Duffy was sanguine generally about looking to the US for models of office design, suggesting that US practice has hardly moved on in 30 years; that most US developers and clients were extremely conservative. But that also points to the difficulty of making the broader proposition to clients.

If you can have the years of innovation and profitability that have characterised, say, Silicon Valley, happening in what office workers here would see in many cases as second-rate buildings, just what is more effort and money invested in buildings expected to deliver?

The UK is different partly because expectations are higher.

Indeed, Stuart Lipton of Stanhope feels that London has the best office buildings in the world - there is nothing much better in the US, apart from maybe in Chicago, and much of the office building of northern Europe is 'cheap, with very little character'.

Much of the rest of the conference was case studies of projects, many of them winners of the most recent BCO annual awards, including two that we present in detail on pages 40-48 - Chiswick Park by Richard Rogers Partnership for Stanhope and the fit out of Bloomberg's new European HQ in London by Powell Tuck Associates. Interestingly, in the discussion of Chiswick Park it was Ron German of developer Stanhope who intervened in an architects' discussion about whether floorplates should be 18m deep and 3m high, to say it was about perception. He also said that Stanhope has begun measuring users' reactions to Chiswick Park, both through informal discussions with tenant organisations' senior managers and by commissioning a simple questionnaire from polster MORI. Stanhope does want to know whether Chiswick Park makes a difference to working life.

BCO conferences have a theme but also tend to be a round-up of what members are currently doing.

One interesting direction is the formation of ISIS Waterside Regeneration, a 50:50 public-private partnership of British Waterways (public) and Amec plus Igloo Regeneration Fund (private). This developer's focus is the regeneration of brownfield waterside land in urban areas of Britain. ISIS chief executive Mark Ryder cited Birmingham's Brindleyplace with its two million visitors per year as the seminal development. ISIS has started several projects, including in Glasgow, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Brentford, initially aiming for 8,000 new residential units and 9,500 new fulltime jobs.

In all the talk of new directions, concerns for efficiency should not be forgotten, however. Peter Handcock of GlaxoSmithKline, proud owner of a new corporate HQ (by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects with RHWL), hopes not to build more. Rather, he is looking to harvest more usable space from the property he already has, to make the existing buildings work harder.

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