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Future Office charrette: Will we keep choosing the office as a workplace?

Future office main opener
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Will Hurst introduces the Future Office charrette, organised in conjunction with The Crown Estate, where six practices spent the day considering how inspiring and effective workplaces could operate

Choose work. Choose a job. Choose the lifts or the stairs. Choose a desk in a drab open plan space. Choose the water cooler for a gossip. Choose a fire escape to make that under-the-radar call. Choose a moderately attractive colleague to develop a crush on. Choose another Pret sandwich to scoff at your desk before the next pointless meeting. Choose an office.

But why would I want to do a thing like that? With a nod to Ben Adams Architects and apologies to Irvine Welsh, there are parallels between Renton’s mindset in Trainspotting and that of the white collar worker of 2016. Just as Renton’s character rejected the banality of the supposed late 20th century lifestyle of choice (leisure wear and matching luggage anyone?), so today’s highly skilled, highly mobile breadwinners are beginning to turn their backs on the conventional office environment in favour of a better alternative someplace else. 

So what to do about it? In the case of The Crown Estate, they chose to get ahead of the curve. A unique nationwide investor and developer with a £6 billion property portfolio in central London and a major renewal programme on the horizon, The Crown Estate joined forces with the AJ to funnel the best architects and the best ideas to their door through the Future Office competition. 

The contest, open to all UK-based architects and launched in July, asked entrants to consider how inspiring and effective workplaces would operate from 2020 onwards, based on changing ways of living and working and new technology. The first stage was an open ideas competition asking designers to respond to this theoretical challenge. This was not so much about floorplates and layouts as much as wider questions about work and the city. How do you attract and retain the best talent and safeguard their wellbeing? How do you respond to the rise of co-working and disruptive new industries such as the tech sector? And how do you tackle the big problems of working in central London, such as air pollution and traffic congestion? 

The response from AJ readers was extraordinary. We expected 40-50 entries but received 79 detailed and thought-provoking submissions. These were painstakingly whittled down to a shortlist of 10, all of whom presented their ideas to the judging panel before a final six – Emrys Architects, Ben Adams Architects, Zaha Hadid Architects, drummond.lawlor, Chetwoods Architects and Threefold Architects – were selected for the second stage of the contest, the charrette. There was never going to be an overall winner, so this day-long event allowed the six teams to work up their designs in a pressured (but not too pressured) environment alongside the judges and their peers.

Each applied their initial concept to The Crown Estate’s Clydesdale Bank building off Piccadilly Circus, a site visited by the architects the day before the charrette took place on 1 November. Common themes and distinctive ideas emerged, which are detailed by AJ reporter Ella Braidwood. Such innovative thinking gives us every reason to believe the worker of the 2020s will still choose the office.

Crownestatecharette 273

Crownestatecharette 273


Will Hurst, managing editor, the AJ
Paul Finch, editorial director, the AJ
James Cooksey, director of central London, The Crown Estate
Jon Allgood, senior asset manager, The Crown Estate
Despina Katsikakis, independent workplace consultant and member of the DELOS advisory board
Deborah Saunt, director, DSDHA
Robert Davis, deputy leader, Westminster City Council (judged only the charrette)


Zaha Hadid Architects
Cartwright Pickard
Chetwoods Architects
Ben Adams Architects
Emrys Architects
Threefold Architects
Scott Brownrigg

The final six each received a £1,000 honorarium for their time and effort

Comment: ‘We need to think more like hoteliers’

James cooksey

James Cooksey, director of Central London, The Crown Estate

I have a confession: before we began this partnership with The Architects’ Journal, I did not really know what a charrette was. But I’m proud to say a) I now know what it is and b) I am a convert, having witnessed at first hand the buzz, enthusiasm and way in which ideas are bounced around.

It was a great privilege to witness this creative process at St James’s Market, something which doesn’t happen as often as it should in property – especially in an environment without the normal project restrictions, thereby enabling a freer flow of ideas and design. Most importantly for us at The Crown Estate, the competition has done exactly what we hoped for: offered a robust challenge to our thinking about how we meet the needs of our customers and deliver the office of the future.

Our central London portfolio in Regent Street and St James’s comprises more than 8 million sq ft in one of the most sought-after locations in the world. However, if we are to stay competitive, both as a business and as a global city, we must continue to evolve, and in practice that means re-inventing our ‘offer’. To do that, we have to understand our customers’ needs, allied to our long-term business objectives and strategy for the area, combined with the very best thinking from the industry itself.

Development volumes will be down in the near term, so now is the time to invest in research and development

It’s the realisation that, if the status quo prevails, we will lose significant ground, which made us want to collaborate with the AJ. The competition has also come at an opportune moment in the property cycle, as development volumes will be down in the near term, so now is the time to invest in research and development. With lead-in times of up to five years for projects to be delivered, it is essential that we take the time to push our thinking forward. Many bold and exciting ideas were presented from a range of architectural practices, both big and small, some well-established and some only a few months old.

There were recurrent themes around smarter and denser use of buildings; from flexible accommodation and evening use, to greater collaboration between different occupiers. For me, the overwhelming takeaway was the need for a radical change in philosophy: to think more like a hotelier than a real estate company. Our sector has been notoriously slow, particularly with offices, to understand what its customers are looking for and the relationship has often been adversarial.

I’d like to thank all the practices that took part for their passion and insight to help shake this up. After all their hard work, the challenge is now with us to take this inspiration forward and play our part in the wider transformation of the sector that puts customer experience and enjoyment at the heart of its approach.

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