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BCO 2018: Is office design stuck in the past?

Ajbl 2
  • 3 Comments

Are we still designing offices for yesterday’s workers? With the British Council of Offices conference taking place this week, the AJ asked some of the UK’s top office designers, engineers and agents for their answers

’With no generic occupier there can be no generic office space,’ says Katrina Kostic Samen, vice-president of the British Council of Offices (BCO). She argued recently in the AJ that architects in the UK must design workplaces that embrace the diversity of today’s workforce.

Tackling the issue head-on, this week the BCO conference heads to Berlin – a city where according to Kostic Samen the ‘future arrived early’ – for its annual three-day conference which, this year, is themed on the topic of diversity and inclusion.

The sell-out event, which runs from Wednesday to Friday, will provide architects and developers with the opportunity to tour the city’s buildings and explore and engage in discussions on the future of office design – from smart buildings to development in post-Brexit Britain.

Speakers include Regine Leibinger, co-founder of US/German practice Barkow Leibinger Architects, who will deliver a keynote lecture titled ‘Berlin: Bold and Brave’; while Phillip Ratcliffe from international building consultant Drees & Sommer will discuss how we can future-proof our buildings and make design more resilient.

A key topic of discussion is likely to be on how the office development industry can meet the challenge of creating what Kostic Samen describes as ‘places that embrace and engage difference in gender, age, and culture’. 

To mark the launch of the BCO conference, media partner the AJ will ask a panel of the UK’s leading office designers, agents and engineers to answer a different question each day.

Do you agree with BCO director Katrina Kostic Samen that office design is still stuck in the past? 

Helen Berresford, partner, Sheppard Robson 
Katrina is right. Too many offices are being designed for rigid, old-fashioned corporate use for an age gone by. Too often the occupiers’ requirements are overlooked in favour of aesthetics.

Hanif Kara, co-founder AKT II 
I do agree partly with Katrina and applaud the potential of such discussion taking place in the gaze of the BCO. However it is important to make a distinction between what we are designing and can design and what the industry is constructing and willing to put to the market. It’s the lag and disparity between the two that needs immediate attention.

Ken Shuttleworth, director, Make  
Katrina makes a good point! I think we are stuck between needing to design offices that developers and investors can understand and agents can sell in the present, and then designing offices that will stand the test of time for occupiers who aren’t even yet born.

Hazel Rounding, director, shedkm 
Workspace always has the potential to be unique, but an agent-pleasing approach quite often plays safe to what is a generic conventional offer. I would say that those that dare to be brave rarely suffer the consequences but the advice always seems to be to play safe and attract anyone with a more generic solution.

Andrew Barnes, head of tenant representation, JLL 
Offices are actually being designed for the workers of today not yesterday. With the time taken to create new buildings and the fit-out, inevitably buildings coming on-line today meet occupiers needs identified a couple of years ago. Larger corporate occupiers are often risk adverse and not many will go out on a limb to trial the very latest workplace trends.

Simon Allford, director, AHMM 
Some might be; we are not! The environment of work will continue to evolve as we evolve. I am sure it will change again as we fall out of love with technology that dominates rather than empowers. In recognition of the fact that we all work too much, and that time is always limited, we will as ever continue to make the working environment a more engaging social place to work.

John McRae, director, Orms 
A significant challenge the sector faces is that the design and construction process is too long and cumbersome, so reacting to emerging and future trends is inevitably slow and in some instances the workplace is out of date by the time it’s delivered. The fundamental question is: if we can predict what the worker of tomorrow or (the day after) will be, can we design and deliver office space more quickly and nimbly to reflect the pace of change in the workplace?

Roma Agrawal, associate director at AECOM 
There are long lead times to deliver new office developments, and even fit-outs of existing buildings. This means many buildings can struggle to adapt as ways of working change. To ensure greater sustainability we need to design workplaces with a longer-term focus that are flexible to meet the changing needs of the workforce. 

J-J Lorraine, director, Morrow + Lorraine 
Us architects and designers sometimes lose sight of the fact that the complexities and dynamics of the office often have nothing to do with the design of its spaces, but are about something much more important, its users.  Until we engage more purposefully with the agenda of hopes, fears and dreams the offices we design will be by their very nature of yesterday.

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Phil Parker

    This is a very pertinent question and the answer is unequivocally yes.

    But it’s not office design that’s stuck in the past it’s the BCO that’s stuck in the past.

    The BCO should listen more to clients, consultants and designers and less to agents. It’s agents who are unwilling to embrace change because they want to sell product they’re familiar with.

    Increasingly we tell our clients that our proposals do not comply with this or that part of BCO guidance and increasingly they say ‘so what, BCO guidance doesn’t reflect what I want.’

    BCO needs to evolve or become extinct- currently, no body in the wider industry actually needs it.

    London is the most vibrant innovative workplace market in the world and the BCO takes its annual Jolly to Berlin. Says it all.

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  • Richard Saxon

    Its nice to see BDP's Halifax Building Society HQ representing the past that BCO might be stuck in. The 45-year old Halifax, which I had a hand in designing, was one of the few burolandschaft buildings built in UK. That genre died out long before the BCO began in 1990. It was also based on shuffling paper, though it has adapted well to electronic working. The shells of buildings last for generations so we cant do things differently every time occupier fashions change. That's a job for the interior designer, a profession of which the current VP of BCO is a member.

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  • With the advance of modern technology surely the question should be whether we will actually need offices in the future. The ability to work remotely seems not to have been considered.
    Perhaps designers should start thinking about to how to adapt existing offices for other uses.

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