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Global trends not European politics will determine office futures

Paul Finch
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Relentless open plan and reduced office space came under scrutiny at the British Council for Offices conference in Amsterdam, writes Paul Finch

There were plenty of architects in evidence at last week’s British Council for Offices (BCO) annual conference, which took place in Berlage’s Stock Exchange building in sunny Amsterdam.

Rem Koolhaas opened proceedings with a typically concise analysis of Europe, the Netherlands, the Randstad and Amsterdam itself. The ‘metropolis without a centre’ had an airport at the heart of an urban approach based on distributed density – or lack of it, now that what is known as ‘Ikea height’, ie two storeys, has become a norm.

OMA's G-Star

OMA’s G-Star

OMA’s G-Star

Robotised greenhouses have replaced traditional agriculture in a fragmented country where there is no large project, but instead a state of continuous improvisation, not least in ‘porous’ Amsterdam, the ideal city for Airbnb. OMA’s office scheme for G-Star Raw is similarly porous, in the sense that there are large areas and volumes for staff interaction, apparently leading to a 60 per cent reduction in emails.

The question of quality of space was discussed at the two-day event. A good statistic: there has been, on average, a 1 square foot reduction in workspace per office employee every year for the last 20 years. The question was whether, as at G-Star, gross space and volume were generous, or whether everything was just getting meaner?

Criticism of relentless open plan as an idea came from office design consultant Katrina Kostic Samen of KKS Strategy, who noted the impossibility of one design approach fitting everyone from the stable to the neurotic and from extrovert to introvert. Executives who made decisions about these matters tended to be extrovert (‘rainmakers’) and often ignored the requirements of some for peace and quiet. Her general conclusion was that open plan plus choice was the best bet.

Julian Treasure’s bombshell statistic was that open-plan design reduces productivity by 66 per cent

Peace and quiet was the subject of a brilliant short address by Julian Treasure from the Sound Agency. His bombshell statistic was that open-plan design reduces productivity by 66 per cent. Interesting if true. He described open plan as a ‘disease’ where thoughtless noise production (not the same as sound) interfered with concentration and contemplation. Is that what we want? His sideswipe at smaller workstations was the observation that cost-cutting is not the same as productivity.

Paul Scialla, who runs the impressive WELL certification scheme via his company Delos, told the conference at the final plenary session that it was too early to give any definitive answer on whether more cramped offices affected staff wellbeing. But he reminded us that design, construction and space represent a tiny proportion of total cost in relation to the 30-year life of a commercial organisation in a particular building; staff costs being by far the biggest expense. His health test for buildings includes measurement of air and water quality, and is the subject of a live experiment in London by multidisciplinary firm Cundall, so watch this space.

As for politics, in a straw poll only a handful of the 500-plus delegates said they would vote for Brexit, with the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, now an MEP, giving a rousing Europhile address. It was left to your correspondent to point out that, stripped of hyperbole, what he had said was that the EU was dysfunctional; that it could not work as currently constituted; that it must become a United States of Europe; and that it needed to be an empire.

Since this is what Napoleon and the man with the little moustache wanted, it put Boris’s weekend remarks in perspective, along with the new borders of Europe, as defined by the Eurovision Song Contest to include Russia, Israel and Australia. Sounds like an empire.

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