The annual British Council of Offices (BCO) conference, which took place last week in sun-drenched Berlin, has undergone a dramatic image change. But did the spirited blowout deliver on its diversity message? Ella Jessel reports
‘Ditch the suits, we’re taking to the streets,’ proclaimed the programme for the annual BCO conference, which this year took a trip overseas to the German capital after spending 2017 on home turf in London
The new BCO chair, Katrina Kostic Samen, took inspiration from the city’s famed cultural scene to give the event a youthful makeover.
The customary black-tie dinner was unceremoniously ditched and replaced with a street-food bonanza at an industrial-chic storage facility on the city fringe, complete with a gin bar and – inexplicably – an Angela Merkel lookalike dishing out selfies.
There was a new conference app with real-time information, a live graffiti demonstration and, after dark, a warehouse party. Had the BCO gone hipster?
But it was not only the refreshments and entertainment that were new. This year, the theme was ‘diversity and inclusion’ with the first challenge for the conference being to improve its own credentials.
Of the 650 delegates, 21 per cent were women, a figure that marks a significant improvement on the 4 per cent of previous years but shows there is still a way to go.
Among the panellists and speakers, 60 per cent were women, including architect Regine Leibinger, co-founder of Barkow Leibinger, who gave a keynote on the changing face of Berlin; and neuroscientist Araceli Camargo, who spoke about designing for those on the autism spectrum.
Set against a variety of scene-stealing venues, from the Frank Gehry-designed sculptural conference centre to the panoramas of a 10th-floor cocktail bar, Berlin 2018 was a hit with delegates. But how did the conference deliver on its topical message? And what did we learn about the state of office design in the UK? These were the highlights from the much-changed BCO.
1. The long view on Brexit
The BCO conference provides a useful bellwether for the industry’s position on Brexit. In 2016, pre-referendum, it discussed ‘Europe in turmoil’, whereas in 2017 in the aftermath of the vote, the debate was focused on how London remained ‘open for business’. But as the negotiations grind on, the conference took a longer view with a discussion featuring the FT’s political columnist Janan Ganesh, and BBC correspondents Frank Gardner and Lyse Doucet called ‘Brexit Britain in a Global Context’. The session was one of the most popular, despite its downbeat message that we will experience Brexit, according to Ganesh, as ‘an insidious and almost imperceptible decline’. Details on how the Brexit vote was affecting the London property market were hazy, with the BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze saying the market was ‘hard to read’.
2. Diversity hits and misses
A perfectly pitched talk on gender equality from Michael Kaufman, professor at Stony Brooke University, kicked off the main diversity session by dispelling the myth we are living in a ‘post-feminist’ society. He called on men to become agents of change in the workplace rather than box-tickers – a welcome reminder that ‘diversity’ must be a genuine force for inclusion rather than an HR buzzword.
As Lendlease’s Sherin Aminossehe, told the AJ in the run-up to the conference, buildings can be ‘enablers of change’ but are not enough on their own: ‘Putting a slide between floors, bringing in distressed mismatched furniture … is just a band-aid approach that won’t turn the dial’.
The message seemed to be well-received by the 80 per cent male BCO contingent, but some felt it was diluted by the evening party entertainment – where a burlesque dancer stripped to nipple tassels and another underwear-clad performer writhed in an oversized martini glass. The dancers were one part of a circus-style bill of acts – including a hula-hooping topless (male) sailor – but it was a case of mixed signals at best.
3. The office of 2035
In the run-up to the conference, John McRae, among others, made the point that the design and construction industry is so slow to react to emerging trends that ‘in some instances the workplace is out of date by the time it’s delivered’. This was one of the key topics returned to in Berlin. But there were some optimistic solutions on show too.
This need for offices to have inbuilt flexibility for their users was explored by the winning entry of the NextGen competition, which challenged young talent to imagine the office of 2035. The multidisciplinary team 88mph, led by Annabel Koeck, project architect at Grimshaw, presented its project The Dynamo at the conference, which reimagined a typical Victorian terrace in London as the headquarters for a major energy company. The concept preserved the existing façades while incorporating reconfigurable interior space and a rooftop garden with staff allotments, a performance space and a meditation garden.
4. Proptech takes centre stage
Proptech, the umbrella term given to the new generation of entrepreneurs disrupting the traditional property market with new tech start-ups, dominated discussions on day two. Speakers such as ex-WeWork’s Rajdeep Gahir made a convincing case for how incumbents must adapt to the new consumers and occupiers and that new forces in real estate are ‘shifting the value chain’.
Architect and academic Ruth Conroy Dalton, who has been researching virtual reality for 20 years, spoke about her research on Seattle Central Library, designed by Rotterdam-based practice OMA, which involved data-scraping reviews of the building left by the general public. Dalton questioned if in the future, social media could be used for post-occupancy evaluation.
Vanessa Butz spoke about how our buildings will be upgraded for the digital revolution and predicted that in two years, every premium building will have its own app, a platform that can connect services community and space.