Office space is changing in step with the way we want to work. PIP’s seminar discussed how to create rewarding and sustainable spaces
What is the first way to ensure the sustainability of your office building? Don’t let it burn down. This insight, which is in the ‘obvious once you think about it’ category, came at the end of the PIP seminar on office design. The point was made by Tom Roche, secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, which argues for the greater inclusion of sprinklers in office buildings. While other speakers had talked about energy efficiency and minimising embodied energy, Roche made the valid point that, if your building goes up in flames, all that embodied energy becomes ash.
Owners of office buildings are worryingly unaware of fire issues, Roche said. Some 70 per cent believe that if they follow Building Regulations they will be protected from fire damage – which is not the case. He also cited fears of flooding and concerns about cost. A study by WSP for the Business Sprinkler Alliance outlines the business case for installing sprinklers, which can bring advantages such as savings in glazing costs and increased flexibility in design.
Different ways of thinking
If offices and the way we work are to change, then we need a new kind of thinking and, in particular, a different approach to flexibility. This was the reasoning behind AHMM’s design of the White Collar Factory office at Old Street for Derwent London, an attempt to create from scratch the kind of successful found space that so many creatives have occupied in the last couple of decades. Stephen Taylor of AHMM explained that in fact many of the ideas were far from new. For example, the use of cold-water pipes in slabs for cooling was first used by Frank Lloyd Wright.
But what may be the most revolutionary aspect of this project is the fact that the design was developed before it was implemented anywhere. AHMM costed an ‘ideal’ building so it could identify the necessary add-ons that would be required on a real and, by definition, non-ideal site. The heart of the idea is to have a concrete structure for robustness and high thermal mass, opening windows and high floor-to-floor heights which make densely packed office floors feel far more spacious. The ‘factory’ floors are offset by generous social spaces, including a rooftop running track which has become synonymous with this prominent building on the Old Street roundabout.
If offices and the way we work are to change, then we need a new kind of thinking and, in particular, a different approach to flexibility
Less snazzy but more crucial is the relatively low amount of glazing – only one third of the south, west and east faces. ‘We worked hard with the engineers to keep the sun out and the structure absorbing heat,’ Taylor said. This is a hard-working building, where every element serves, ideally, more than one purpose, and there are no unnecessary frills.
Bennetts Associates took a similar approach on 40 Chancery Lane, another Derwent London project in an area largely occupied by legal practices. When the firm designed a new building, and incorporated an existing one, it was anticipating this sort of client, but in fact ended up with Publicis, the parent of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. ‘The building proved flexible enough to adapt to a creative environment,’ said Alison Darvill, an associate at Bennetts.
Thinner floors, higher ceilings
Whereas both these practices made a point of designing large floor to ceiling heights, in some existing buildings this is just not possible. Emmanuel Bizien of Halton Projects explained how his firm developed a super-slim induction unit for installation in a building in Paris called Le Greenelle. Floor to floor heights in the 1960s structure were only 2.7m but the floor to ceiling height needed to be 2.6m. The company was able to make the entire project feasible by creating a unit that was only 8cm high. It went on to turn this into a product it could market, assisting other developers and architects with difficult projects.
Ben Hancock of Oscar Acoustics explained how his company can also supply space-saving solutions that allow architects to fulfil their dreams. Acoustic finishes can be anything from deliberately rough for that ‘industrial chic’ look to so smooth that you wouldn’t guess their function.
There was one more project, the award-winning Alphabeta building by Studio RHE. This was an unloved late 20th century refurbishment of an early 20th century building, complete with a soulless atrium that would have looked at home in any middle-American airport. Originally employed to do a swift tart up before a ‘serious architect’ came on board, RHE’s analysis of the building was so thorough that it became a major project. Its solution involved taking maximum advantage of the culture clash between arty Shoreditch and the staid City of London; it opened up views within the circulation and resulted in a lively and contemporary space which includes a ramp taking workers to the basement bike park.
RHE had no previous experience of office buildings. This project confirms that new thinking in the world of work can produce dramatic new solutions – and that just as work is changing fast, so the thinking of the best designers and manufacturers is keeping pace.
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