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Office design has yet to put the human before the buck

Richard Waite
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The message from this year’s British Council of Offices conference is that innovation in workplace design still lags behind the nimbleness of today’s technology, says Richard Waite

People are important. What is surprising is that it has taken so long for the corporate office world to realise it. How, when and where we work is changing rapidly. Yet those building workplaces of the future have yet to put the human being before the buck.

Architect Ken Shuttleworth made this point in an AJ column ahead of his trip to Amsterdam to speak at this year’s British Council for Offices conference – a genuine annual highlight of the architectural calendar. ‘The way we currently design office space isn’t good enough,’ Shuttleworth said, adding there had been ‘too strong a focus on investment, particularly when it comes to speculative builds, which has resulted in the commoditisation of the spaces we work in’.

Those thinking differently and creating more than repetitious, bland non-places are rare

Sadly it seems the message ‘it is all about the people, stupid,’ as Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield puts it, still has to be spelt out to the moneymen – particularly the agents, who effectively control the direction of the sector.    

Innovation in workplace design has lagged behind the nimbleness of today’s technology. Those looking to attract the next generation of bright young things by thinking differently and creating more than repetitious, bland non-places are rare.

Jack Pringle of Perkins + Will, also in Holland for the three-day event, summed it up nicely: ‘The BCO says the war for talent, especially young talent, is fully on. Yet 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.’

Yet every year the BCO puts on a horizon-expanding show with an eclectic range of top-level speakers – such as the former prime minister of Belgium – and eye-opening building tours. There are things every attendee can learn.

Chris Boyce, of CJCT, saw two different visions of the future on his trips. There was, he said, ‘the light-touch, soft space, flexible, socially conscious, child-friendly, bike-tastic, colourful, achingly cool but defiantly mixed-mode collaborative working spaces for the children of the mid 90s (Rem Koolhaas’ G Star building) versus the time-efficient, super-hi-tech, borehole/solar powered, DC not AC, robot cleaned, plugged in smart building (PLP Architecture’s Edge) which basically assimilates you into the architecture.’

There were insights, too, from British architects and engineers about the increasing individuality of work spaces and the backlash against open plan. According to Mike Stych of Arup, workers’ desks will once again become personalised: responsible and adaptable in terms of heat, light and air quality. Control of building management systems will be devolved to the user.

Is the BCO inadvertently promoting the demise of the office?

Phil Doyle of 5Plus Architects pointed out that half of workers will be non-office-based freelancers in the near future, as well as explaining how technology was already available to tell us when to take a break, walk about and open a window.

And so, given the nimbleness of tomorrow’s more nomadic workforce envisioned by these innovators, I came away from Amsterdam feeling uneasy. Was the BCO inadvertently promoting the demise of the office? What would become of the well-oiled commercial champion of better workplace design and its much-hailed guide if the more radical visions of an almost office-free future came true?

Fortunately for the BCO not all the commercial fraternity is so worried about our vibrant future.

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