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News feature: Where is the office heading?

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Is there too much co-working space? Has the super-stripped-back office had its day? With the British Council of Offices Conference taking place this week, the AJ asked some of the nation’s leading office designers for their answers 

There are few better bellwethers of the state of the office development industry than the mood and topics of discussion at the annual BCO Conference.

For architects – and this year especially so, it seems – the event presents an opportunity to explore the issues and participate in the discussions which will shape a new era of office design. 

Chaired by Make chief Ken Shuttleworth, this year’s sell-out conference returns to the UK after two years away in Chicago and Amsterdam and is entitled London Refocused. 

According to Shuttleworth, the event will be an ‘opportunity to see the city afresh and think about how to make it even better’.

The conference’s main sessions begin with a keynote speech from Norman Foster, taking as his theme: ‘Challenging the Office Building’, and ends with a discussion: The Future of the Workplace, subtitled: ‘Where on Earth do we go from here?’ 

This is informed crystal ball-gazing, a vital insight into tomorrow’s workplace and the direction of travel for designers, developers and agents.

As well as the set topics, such as the environmental challenge and the uses of technology, attendees will no doubt bring their own questions to the conference.

This week the AJ takes a look at four new workplace projects, including two flexible, bare-bones schemes revisiting the by-now-familiar factory aesthetic. But what comes next?

The AJ, as media partner to the BCO, asked some of the nation’s leading commercial designers to give their predictions about the future of the ever-evolving office.

What one thing do you think needs to change in the next generation of offices?

Leadenhall interior

Leadenhall interior

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners offices in the Leadenhall Building

Paul Monaghan, co-founder, AHHM 
‘Tenancy agreements need to be more flexible and less punitive. Many small businesses are unclear about growth and need flexibility. The growth of co-working, with its ‘pay as you go’ philosophy, is testament to this.’

Jacob Loftus, chief executive and founder, General Projects
‘The focus of the building needs to be reorientated around the individual employee, focusing on their user experience, and delivering both aspirational design and providing space that functions as a service. The last generation of offices were designed for CEOs and corporations; the next will be designed for people.’

J-J Lorraine, co-founder, Morrow + Lorraine
‘Offices have to be made to do more for longer. Offices are empty two days out of seven and when you factor in the broadly diurnal patterns of working, they are empty for twice as long as they are occupied. Isn’t that totally mad?’  

The focus of the building needs to be reorientated around the individual employee

John McRae, co-owner, ORMS
‘Acoustics. The ability to create quiet and lively zones within an open-plan, densely occupied space is vitally important, albeit difficult to achieve. It needs an in-depth understanding of the occupier’s team to pull this off successfully. This is a real challenge for speculative office developers but perhaps an opportunity to bring occupiers and developers together at an earlier stage to deliver a better product.’

Hazel Rounding, director, shedkm
‘There needs to be a greater cohesion between CAT A and CAT B designers. There are plenty of really informed and creative architects these days who can produce innovative shell-and-core/CAT A space, only to have it ‘un-picked’ by the fit-out designers. Exceptional CAT B design is plentiful in existing buildings and for smaller businesses, but we need to educate some of the large corporate tenants in good modern interior design for the benefit of their workforce.’

Julian de Metz, co-founder, dMFK Architects
‘Sensibly priced office space suitable for small companies needs to be maintained. Light industrial space was traditionally relatively affordable. However, many good-quality office buildings are being lost through conversion to residential, particularly through the Permitted Development (PD) route. I would favour stopping those PD rights.’

Christos Passas, associate director, Zaha Hadid Architects
‘What needs to alter is the approach to integrated technology and working habits. Offices need to re-focus on human beings and not the computer. How people feel differs from day to day – in terms of mood and concentration levels – and workplaces need to accept these kind of variances.’    

Has the market become too saturated with co-working space, or is this model here to stay?

C space buckelygrayyeoman

C space buckelygrayyeoman

C-Space, by BuckleyGrayYeoman

Alistair Barr, chairman, Barr Gazetas
‘We have reached peak co-working and we are now actively pursuing pro-working. This respects the needs of individuals and varied group workings.’ 

Richard Hywel Evans, director, Studio RHE
‘Co-working has been faster to react to the changed work place – each one is different and attracts a particular type of occupant. Why manage an office when your real skill is something like advertising or accountancy? It’s only just begun and it’s definitely here to stay.’

J-J Lorraine, Morrow + Lorraine
‘Not only here to stay but to accelerate beyond all recognition. In the future I hope all space will be co-space. Space will become heavily supported by a wide range of services and will therefore have to be co-work, co-learn, co-health, co-play, co-social, co-eat, co-everything. Co-work is the tip-of-the-iceberg; all space will be used for more than one thing all the time. A frictionless pay-as-you-go nimble infrastructure with massive cost efficiencies and truly sustainable principles. The property market will have to change from one that sells space to one that sells a service.’

Why manage an office when your real skill is something like advertising or accountancy?

Helen Berresford, partner, head of ISDR, Sheppard Robson
‘It’s here to stay, although I expect it to slow down. The proliferation of co-working space in recent years has filled a market requirement. It’s given another option to tenants who don’t want the rigidity and commitment of a 15-year lease. As a result, co-working has become a mainstream product in the market, alongside traditional tenancy, which will continue to appeal to businesses that want their own identity and don’t require the flexibility of co-working.’

Stuart Piercy, director, Piercy & Co
‘Co-working isn’t a new typology, it has just become popular because it is more sociable and flexible, with reduced leases and risk for small businesses. What is very exciting is the potential for co-working buildings to create more civic engagement at street level as multiple tenants reduce the tendency towards monoculture. As a result the ground, first and lower-ground floors become an extension of the public realm, which can combine traditionally independent uses of, for example, a spa, restaurant and a making space.’

Dominic Manfredi, director, AHR
’In London the market is very saturated, however in the regional cities this is still a fairly new approach. Developers are requesting more flexible and collaborative working spaces and we are seeing more of these schemes taking shape in cities like Manchester and Liverpool.’

What comes after the ‘London look’? Is there something beyond the ubiquitous, pared‑backed, semi-industrial style?

Fletcher Priest's transformation of a tired 1980s, eight-storey office block in Whitechapel for Derwent London

Fletcher Priest’s transformation of a tired 1980s, eight-storey office block in Whitechapel for Derwent London

Source: Hufton + Crow

Fletcher Priest’s transformation of a tired 1980s, eight-storey office block in Whitechapel for Derwent London

Richard Hywel Evans, Studio RHE 
‘I can’t wait for that to end. I can’t see where Prêt a Manger ends and the workplace starts. The trouble is, it’s very cheap to do.’

Alistair Barr, Barr Gazetas
‘The London look is well behind us, and by using artists and craftspeople we can produce offices that have narratives. Every place has a story to tell and our new office designs can create conversations about neighbourhoods and streets in their internal design.’

Julian de Metz, dMFK
‘It is easy to be critical of a look that has become commonplace. But its root was a rejection of the dullness of ubiquitous institutional office standards, and a replacement with something that offered distinctiveness, more generous ceilings, a more comfortable environment, and a relaxed, less formal feel. If providers continue to employ good architects and designers, then they will always come up with great, original office designs that look fresh.’

If providers continue to employ good architects,  they will always come up with great, original office designs that look fresh

Jacob Loftus, General Projects
‘Fashion and tastes certainly change, but to me the revolution we’ve seen in office design these past five years reflects the increasing expectations of the individual user in wanting to be in a more inviting and inspiring environment. No doubt the specifics of exposed concrete, bricks and services may become passé, however the concept of ‘design-led’ office space that provides volume, light and character is certainly here to stay. Somehow I don’t see a longing to return to generic office space with metal tiled ceilings, blue carpets and 2.6m ceiling heights any time soon … although maybe that will soon be seen as retro and trendy.’

Glenn Howells, founder of Glenn Howells Architects
’As work and play get blurred we will see offices become less like conventional offices, perhaps more like homes, quality of environment and well being will become seen as critical to getting the best business outcomes . This will not just affect aesthetics but acoustics, workplace furniture, access to external green space and legislated lighting levels.’

Hazel Rounding, shedkm
‘It is interesting that you call it the London look. We produced this level of workspace in schemes such as Matchworks and Fort Dunlop in the North West and the Midlands for Urban Splash more than 15 years ago. I’d call it more of a post-industrial look, which arguably started with the regeneration of buildings in areas beyond London. It is now very fashionable though, and although the consumer support of good raw/honest space will remain, there will be the need to move on and reinnovate. In fact we are just reinvigorating some of Urban Splash’s commercial stock of this industrial nature, which was initially conceived up to 20 years ago – time to refurbish some of our own buildings. Prospective tenants and workers will look more and more to a mix of a simple, honest, background palette coupled with colourful, vibrant and personalised space.’

How much further can, and should, density be pushed in terms of workspace per office worker? 

Second home sca 6748

Second home sca 6748

Co-working space at Second Home by SelgasCano

Alistair Barr, Barr Gazetas
‘Space is the greatest luxury any office worker can have. We should always fight for more space.’

Jacob Loftus, General Projects
‘Ultimately it’s about creating an environment that users enjoy and can be productive in. Increasingly individuals spend less time at their desks and more time in informal meeting areas, thinking zones and curated spaces. Consequently the debate should be less about 1:10, 1:8 or 1:6, and more about the quality of the environments you can create within that.’

John McRae, ORMS
‘Any densely occupied office space (some are now 5m² per person) relies upon an abundance of in-between or other spaces to really make this work. I think the shift in technology and the co-working model have pushed the boundaries of density. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a reversal of this trend over the next five years as the market reflects upon the impact of increased density on the occupier.’

The debate should be less about ratios, and more about the quality of the environments you can create within that

Karen Cook, co-founder, PLP Architecture 
‘Work is no longer about the isolated task of data processing, but rather about the social exchange of ideas. The work environment needs to change to support how people work, rather than expecting individuals to adapt to a regimented workplace. This model is proven by the top-performing banks in Australia and is taking hold here in London. Interestingly, while some areas of an office might be high density, other areas are more open. No one has an assigned seat, yet it is not the hot-desking touted two decades ago. The agile workspace offers more seats than people. A variety of environments in the workplace, combined with the freedom to choose a particular setting appropriate to the work, help to improve productivity.’

Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects
I sense density will be measured by the number of workers who are hosted rather than accommodated. Changes in flexible working and booking space will mean businesses can achieve super-dense offices while the reality of a working day feels like 15- 20m² {per peson).

Is the current focus on wellbeing a fad?

Bunker double height jack hobhouse

Bunker double height jack hobhouse

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Littlewoods Bunker, Liverpool, by shedkm

Ken Shuttleworth, founder, Make, incoming president, British Council for Offices, and BCO Conference chairman
‘As a principle, no. But I’m not sure how robust the grading is at the moment. It certainly needs to be able to work alongside other drivers, ensuring the building itself is sustainable as well as providing for the wellbeing of occupants. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive but, as it stands, some areas seem to preclude one or the other, which will need to be reassessed if it is to succeed.’

Hazel Rounding, shedkm 
‘Wellbeing has to become more and more important as technology progresses and isolation in devices prevails. Wellbeing and health will kick back as future generations realise the impact of constant attachment to screens and information exchange. As the boundaries between our work hours and personal lives become more and more blurred, and our expectation to react to matters at any time of the day/night become more demanding, awareness of wellbeing is essential. Future generations may even question our current actions, the same way later generations have questioned the work expectations of the industrial era.’

Jacob Loftus, General Projects 
‘It’s a reflection of how backward the industry has been that we’re only just beginning to think about the wellbeing of the individuals that occupy the buildings we create. The next few years will see an increasing obsolescence in those buildings that don’t deliver environments that foster wellbeing for their users.’

Work practices and mental health are going to be the next big workplace health concern

J-J Lorraine, Morrow + Lorraine 
‘Architects have the patent on wellbeing, although we call it something different: space and light. It is sad that it was probably some North American marketing wonk who coined that populist phrase to describe what architects do … but not surprising when you look at the RIBA’s failings at promoting our skills. We will see mindfulness play an increasing role in the wellbeing agenda, it won’t just be physical.’

Paul Monaghan, AHMM 
‘Wellbeing seems to have replaced the BCO standards for offices. Essentially the new workforce is more interested in the character and design of the room they work in rather than how long they have had to wait for a lift.’

Chris Boyce, design director, CJCT
‘The best thing for your wellbeing is a level-headed and well-run workplace, and the thing we can’t control in there are the staff and the management. Work practices and mental health are going to be the next big workplace health concern, like smoking or drinking in the 1960s or sexism in the 1980s. We now face a workplace where your rights matter. Good employers will seek to measure their ability to protect the happiness and lives of their staff as much as their physical health.’

Russell curtis, co-founder RCKa
’UK productivity is well known to be far lower than equivalent nations, and I wonder whether the introduction of wellbeing initiatives is an attempt to bridge this gap. While I can see the sense in establishing universal certification that assesses the influence of the workplace on inhabitants’ wellness, at the same time such programmes frequently quantify and represent already well-established metrics. I would like to see such schemes expanded to include other variables, including the benefits of incidental social interaction, the influence of workplace design on knowledge sharing and creativity, and the emergence of standards that might codify such things.’

What is your favourite office building by another architect of the past five years?

Foster + partners' bloomberg offices

Foster + partners’ bloomberg offices

Bloomberg offices, by Foster + Partners

Hazel Rounding, shedkm
‘It has to be the Leadenhall Building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Not because it’s a new tall building on the London skyline, but because it’s bold, has distinct integrity and has that calm, raw background palette for tenant personalisation, together with a bold splash of colour to communal areas. Fundamentally, the architects broke the rules and challenged perceptions by creating smaller floorplates at the high-value upper levels – not something remotely viable on most sites, of course.’

Foster’s Bloomberg office will be one of the stand-out office buildings of this generation

Julian de Metz, dMFK
‘I’m really enjoying watching the pink Duggan Morris R7 building for Argent going up at King’s Cross. The combination of shared spaces at ground floor and roof level are generous, vibrant and exciting. The office floors are flexible, as they need to be; and the elevational composition is beautiful. It could be the best building in King’s Cross.’

Ken Shuttleworth, Make 
‘The new Bloomberg office by Foster + Partners will be one of the stand-out office buildings of this generation.’

This article appeared in the Workplace issue – click here to buy a copy

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