How to put a spring in the office workers’ step

Words:
Ruth Slavid

Designing a more efficient office building or improving the working environment? Often the two come together

101 Embankment Salford by Flanagan Lawrence – a catalyst for local urban regeneration.
101 Embankment Salford by Flanagan Lawrence – a catalyst for local urban regeneration. Credit: Hufton+Crow

The timing of the latest PiP seminar, on office design, could not have been better. Michael Jones of Foster + Partners presented the practice’s Bloomberg headquarters in London on the day the project won the Stirling Prize.

It is certainly an extraordinary scheme. Discussed last on the day, it was the culmination of a series of presentations, from both manufacturers and architects, that showed how much the world of work is changing and that imaginative thinking can both facilitate and encourage this.

First, Ben Hancock from Oscar Acoustics explained how his company’s SonaSpray treatments can offer a cleaner, more architectural finish with less clutter. The sprayed finish can, for example, sit between beams or be used with shadow gaps to follow the architectural intention.

There are a range of finishes, from coarse to fine. Some deliberately create a feature while others are ‘barely there’. An office with good sound levels but no obvious acoustic treatment may well have used one of these finishes.

David Lawrence of Flanagan Lawrence showed how the practice’s development at 101 Embankment, Salford, not only played a vital part in the city’s regeneration but also acted as a piece of placemaking in its own right. Part of a strategy to bring thousands of people back to live in the city, it plays its part by providing high-quality office space. The practice also managed to open out the site, both recreating links to the River Irwell and creating a welcome pavilion while reducing the length and depth of a tunnel beneath the site.

On the building itself, Flanagan Lawrence  learnt a number of detailed lessons, including the importance of using ceramic wall and floor tiles in bathrooms instead of rubber tiles, for ease of maintenance, and the need to make sufficient shower provision for cyclists.

Karl Strauss of AET Flexible Space explained how his company’s underfloor air conditioning could makeoffices more pleasant to be in. The main advantage is space saving, as ceiling zone can be reduced from 600mm – needed to accommodate ventilation – to a lighting zone of just 100mm. With a floor zone of only 160mm to accommodate cabling, the win in terms of usable height is typically 15 per cent. Flexibility is also improved, as duct positions can be changed more easily below the floor. This is was a clear advantage at Grimshaw Architects’ transformation of the former Olympic press centre into the Here East innovation centre. At an office in Glasshouse Street, London, architect Buckley Gray Yeoman found an additional benefit: circular windows that were a feature of one floor were better preserved by the minimal ceiling height.

 

  • Chair Ruth Slavid opens the discussion out to the floor.
    Chair Ruth Slavid opens the discussion out to the floor. Credit: Charlotte Collins
  • Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg building and the connecting ramp that unifies all the levels.
    Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg building and the connecting ramp that unifies all the levels. Credit: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners
  • BDP’s One Angel Square,  Northampton, brought council staff from three different sites together into one.
    BDP’s One Angel Square, Northampton, brought council staff from three different sites together into one. Credit: Hufton+Crow
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There is a tendency to think that the most interesting office designs are for the private sector, so it was refreshing to hear James Baker of BDP describe the practice’s design of One Angel Square for Northamptonshire County Council. The new building brought staff from 12 separate locations together in one place. It was, said Baker, ‘all about tipping upside-down established working practices – this building is akin to a giant studio rather than an office.’

The project was not straightforward, with a limited budget and challenges such as a significant fall across the site. But BDP managed to create two new public spaces and designed cladding with patterns that pay homage to Northampton’s traditions in shoemaking. In this way it created a building that both offered staff an excellent way to work and was a good neighbour.

These were also the goals for Bloomberg, where a ground-scraping design is cut back at key corners while also reinstating a through way and enabling a desire line. This is in addition to the preservation of the excavated temple of Mithras as a visitor attraction within the curtilage of the building.

Behaviour is influenced differently here to the way it is in Northamptonshire. On arrival at Bloomberg, everybody has to pass through the top-floor ‘pantry’ before descending a spiral ramp to their desk, facilitating sociability and mixing.

And the technical challenges were enormous. The petal-like pressed metal ceilings, while visually striking, were actually designed to offer enough surface area to allow natural ventilation to be effective within the deep plan. The practice used physical models to identify any spots where ventilation was reduced, and simulated a range of weather conditions. 

As with all the other buildings and solutions discussed during the seminar, Bloomberg demonstrated that offices can change the perception of an area, and the behaviour that takes place within them. And that ambitious thinking needs to be backed up with a detailed understanding of technology and components. Collaborative work should ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s workers are happy and productive, thanks to environments that are as good as they can be. 

 

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