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BCO conference takeaways: what we learned in Amsterdam

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The AJ asked leading architects to report on the British Council of Offices (BCO) conference, held this year in Amsterdam, and about the future direction of the workplace

Jack Pringle, managing director of Perkins+Will

This was the conference when the BCO’s focus moved from hardware to software. It was generally accepted that we know how to design decently specified offices (thank you BCO), but now it’s all about how we use them. A telling slide, from Leesman research, showed that an agile workplace with alternative work settings giving user choice delivers the highest user satisfaction.

’Wellness was high on the agenda with repeated presentations from Cundalls who have the first UK certified Well building, and from Delos, who run WELL.

’BCO says the war for talent, especially young talent, is on - and how buildings are used is in the front line. I can’t help thinking our buildings just don’t deliver interesting enough spaces for this new culture. Hundreds of thousands of square metres of well-crafted but vanilla shell-and-core plus Category A space just doesn’t cut it.

’Away from offices, the conference’s star performer in Amsterdam was Guy Verhofstadt, ex-prime minister of Belgium, who gave a barnstorming presentation of why the EU is important, why it needs strengthening and why the UK should stay in and help it change. His full fat EU case is rarely heard by us. Most in the audience seemed to agree that we should not Brexit but stay and fix it.’

David Evans of Lynch Architects

’There was an increasing use of the word “biophilia” at this year’s BCO conference, plus an emphasis on wellbeing, quality of workspace and the experience of the occupier.

’I was particularly interested in the new WELL standard - a concept introduced by former Wall Street trader Paul Scialla and backed by the likes of Bill Clinton. It will definitely be coming our way soon.

’With only a 15 per cent metric overlap to BREEAM criteria, this new standard focuses on the occupiers and their experience of the environment including, for example, the importance in the positioning of drinking water dispensers. It was observed that if you see water you are more likely to drink water, thus promoting hydration.

’As the conference was drawing to a close another point was made by British Land’s Roger Madelin about installing sensors that switch off the lifts when overweight people enter the building, thereby promoting the use of stairs, and fitness, instead.

’Another good joke, but it could also be seen as a logical extension of nudge-enomic principles and does give pause for thought.

The Edge, Gustav Mahlerlaan, Amsterdam, by PLP Architecture

The Edge, Gustav Mahlerlaan, Amsterdam, by PLP Architecture

The Edge, Gustav Mahlerlaan, Amsterdam, by PLP Architecture

’The use of the term “office” itself was also challenged in favour of ‘workplace’ and alternative buzzwords were also put forward, but as was observed in conclusion - at least you know what someone means when they say office.

’In addition to the presentations and talks there were also a series of tours laid on, and this being Amsterdam they were offered by foot, cycle or boat. The visit perhaps provoking the most debate was [PLP’s] The Edge Building which achieves 98.36 per cent BREEAM and therefore claims to be the most sustainable building in the world.

‘Are these two criteria really the same many were asking, and is it really the most sustainable type of model? Some were impressed, but not all were convinced.’

John McRae, Orms

’The aim of the conference was to interrogate and dissect - with the keyword “anarchy” in mind - every aspect of office design, or workplace as it is now commonly called. This year the event focused on how we meet the needs of people who will occupy the spaces and not just ”let and forget”. In the UK we do not tend to engage with the people who will occupy our office buildings until we have speculatively built them. Instead we choose to focus on the business transaction.

’With the rise of BREEAM to soothe our environmental conscience and the advent of the WELL standard, which Paul Finch described as a welcome indulgence from the guilty US that gave us McDonalds and tobacco, are we merely helping financiers justify their investment and returns or will this genuinely help inform the future of office design?

’The conference kicked off with Rem Koolhaas bombarding the mainly construction industry audience with fascinating facts on Holland and Amsterdam including ”current development in the Netherlands is on average two storeys high - Ikea height” and “Amsterdam is one of the most polluted cities in Europe”. He also provided some insight into the design of G-Star Raw and feedback from the client claimed “emails had been reduced by 60 per cent by real physical human contact”. An informative, albeit dry, start to the two-day conference after which he exited the stage flanked by his entourage.

’Open plan offices can reduce productivity by 66 per cent’

The first plenary session focused on the open plan office and Julian Treasure of the Sound Agency provided a convincing talk on the importance of sound in designing our built environment,  asking if ”architects have ears?” Treasure’s concern was that architects don’t seem to listen to people and he wants us to ‘design an experience with all five senses’. He was adamant that open plan offices were far from ideal and claimed research showed that they “can reduce productivity by 66 per cent”. His experience in retail demonstrated that you can’t ignore the customer and in offices there will be people who want quiet reflective space and not noisy distracting space. He identified a sweet spot of between 45-55db to create “decorated silence” and advocates the use of white noise and in particular nature sounds. His interactive presentation which included some very loud alarms and bangs helped keep some delegates from drifting off as they recovered from the excesses of the previous evening.

BCO Conference Amsterdam 2016  4

BCO Conference Amsterdam 2016 4

’The final plenary session, the morning after the conference dinner and entertainment provided by comedian Henning Wehn, was a panel discussion chaired by Ken Shuttleworth. It was a lively discussion between Paul Finch, Roger Madelin and Paul Scialla of the WELL Standard with some interesting introductions including Madelin’s description of Make’s 5 Broadgate as the TVBF - The Very Big F*ck*r.

’The WELL standard, which was outlined by Scialla, is widely predicted to be the next “big thing” that will encourage the integration of wellbeing into design, and it is hoped will help counteract ”the insane drive to smaller and smaller workstations” highlighted by Paul Finch. I can hear the architectural community scream “nothing new or about time” yet while its aim is to be welcomed, I hope this is not yet another way in which investors can soothe their conscience and measure their financial returns. So with this renewed focus on people and wellbeing, Ken Shuttleworth asked ”what is the new architectural response?”

’This year’s conference was well received by the crowds, but for me more anarchy and challenging of our perceived wisdom were required. The main thrust of debate focused on people that will occupy our speculative office space and the need to understand their methods of working.

’The big question still remains: why we still insist on delivering fully kitted out speculative buildings without the end users’ input?

’In fact why were no occupiers participating in the panel sessions and why were so few of them in the audience to add some anarchy?’

Chris Boyce of CJCT Studios

’Two totally diverse kinds of working came across to me:

’The light touch, soft space, flexible, socially conscious, child friendly, bike-tastic, colourful, achingly cool, maybe grey, but defiantly mixed-mode collaborative working spaces for the children of the mid 1990s (G Star)


’The time efficient, super high tech, borehole/solar powered, DC not AC, robot cleaned, plugged in smart building of Edge – that basically assimilates you into the architecture.

’How can we respond to this? Does the BCO need to change? The answer is yes. Adaptive long-life and loose fit specification doesn’t fit with BCO current trends. Categories A, B and C don’t fit.

’How can we reprogramme the spec office to allow this divergent technology? As businesses become larger or define themselves by their unique place/scale/staff/approach/philosophy, we need to be able to design for both in spec marketplace and enable change.’

Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects

’I must have seen the same slide in at least three presentations talking about 90 per cent of company costs being their people (roughly 3 per cent energy, 7 per cent maintenance/rental) – so, in the spirt of Bill Clinton, the message seemed to be, ‘it is all about people, stupid’. [We need to] unlock the human potential of our buildings through wellness, choice and biophilia.’

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