The offices of the future will be tailored to changing needs and preferences

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By Simon Allford

Edition 3 – June 2014 Pages 15-18

Tags: technology • workplace strategy • design thinking

The title of my talk at the IFMA Workplace Strategy Summit 2014 was my answer to the question ‘is back to basics the office of the future?’ But underscoring my throwaway response is my conviction that there is no single future for the office. Just as there is no ideal structural material, building or city of the future; there is no standard way of working, or standard worker. So there should always be choice of location, of lease, of scale, of volume, of specification, of community, even of character. Without choice, the ideal becomes dogmatic.

So, one thing I can say for certain is that the offices of the future will each be very different. One of the key advantages offered by the technological revolution that is shaping our post-industrial world is that we can return to the pre-industrial world of the bespoke: a world where buildings are built in response to people and places. A world where the environment is tailored to the individual’s changing needs and preferences.

Both the BMW and 2CV will comfortably get you from A to B (admittedly with markedly different levels of comfort!) so the choice you make between them is as much for reasons of taste and aesthetics (and what it says about you as an individual), as it is for reasons of price and engineering. And what a building says about an organisation is ever more important; even more important than what a car says about an individual!

There is a distinction between a building, an office and a workplace. I am an architect, and I design and help construct all kinds of very different buildings for very different clients. We have built our practice upon the idea that each building is a unique response to context: being the particular people and politics, the physical place, and the moment in time in which we all come together to make something. So yes, there are iterations across a series of projects and shared strategies and architectural tactics, but in essence each building is still particular to place, people and its time.

I have, however, had something of a damascene discovery (I cannot say moment as it has emerged over a good few projects and years). While I would still propose that each building is individual, I am very clear that they all share similar essential characteristics: the need for light, volume, air, delight and promenade. This is regardless of typology; be they schools, offices, apartments, leisure or health care facilities; for public or private use and regardless of whether they are small or large, new, old or a combination. While the building is bespoke to its context it is not tailored to its typology. This is why we are so easily able to convert buildings for uses that were not anticipated at their inception.

I made this case for the Universal Building at the BCO conference in Madrid last year, 2013, in an accompanying article for the Architect’s Journal:

In the window of the Vitra Showroom, in yet another old rag trade factory with apartments above, I recently spotted the slogan that ‘Work is a thing you do, not a place you go’, which cleverly conjured up familiar images of working anywhere but the office. My proposition, however, is fundamentally different: ‘work’ is a place you go to do things. A place where you can live, work and play.

Long-term value is not to be found in creating an office, or indeed most other typologically defined single-use buildings. The future resides in architecture that is responsive to change, that can accommodate different programmes in similar spaces, both simultaneously and over time – spaces that have recognisable shared qualities, but that are still particular to their context and arranged around a memorable promenade.

So forget the particularities of the office and think of The Universal Use Class Order of the City Sandwich, a rich mix of stacked uses. This is a typology worth pursuing; even if (in respect of statute, finance and current mind-set) we are obliged to present it as ‘office’.

‘The future ain’t what it used to be’

As I firmly believe this is the case, I inevitably fully concur with Mark Twain’s observation that ’the future ain’t what it used to be’. And, in the case of office design, it never has been. Especially as the much discussed office of the future (if only I had a pound for every time I have heard that title) is very much like the coffee house and club of the past. It is a building that Pepys would recognise.

Of course, there is and has been change: but in global design terms these are but nuances. The successful office building is now likely to include a shop, a bar, a restaurant, some retail; people might even be living close by or in floors in between. Indeed in that sense it is just a building inhabited by people, some of whom work. If it is ‘good’ it is now deemed so because it is an enjoyable space to be, where chance encounters and escape from intrusion are facilitated.

In that sense it is a microcosm of the city, in that its social and cultural importance is increasingly recognised.It is as much about place as space. And the space that it does offer will have personality and volume: ‘vanilla’ specification space is ‘done for’, even when embellished with a ripple! The best offices are a product measured in terms of value, not of cost.

We work too long generally: at home, in the taxicab, on the plane and train and of course, in the office. This is why the spaces in between are as important as your desk. I use the word ‘your’ decisively as I do not believe the trend to lose your personal base and its vital social connections will aid anyone’s efficiency (and incidentally, nor do Google, who provide a desk for all their ever increasing numbers of staff).

But it is all still about the efficiency of space and time. The office of the future is here now, and it is called working everywhere you are and on the journeys in between. As a result, it is both hard and too demanding. And no, we don’t and won’t all work from an attic or a barn. We come to work to meet people and resolve challenges face-to-face, not by email or twittering or utilising the other useless paraphernalia of social media.

Just as in the 19th century, paternalistic employers created ideal worlds (think Port Sunlight, Bournville, Saltaire) now they curate ideal workspace with places that we want to inhabit; with recreation, crèches and storage for your Amazon/Ocado delivery as well as the essential bars and restaurants.

Technology is working hard, but ever less evident; and I believe building services will, depending on location and value, head in two different but equally important and appropriate directions. In one highly tailored option, light, air, water and that other element data, will be supplied only when and where needed. In the other ready-made option, there will be acceptance of a more average condition and a more robust model. Both are highly flexible and are distinguished by both cost and, importantly, an attitude to building services technology. So beware over-specification; beware trends.

Our work for Google is very much about studying the highly tailored option. They are a technological company focused on imagining new futures and bringing them forward into the present.They make their own driverless cars, but for the sake of this article, for their image as much as their operation, they require the building equivalent of the BMW. They require a highly engineered building that is at the forefront of technology. A building, like the BMW, that requires intensive management and user engagement (but hopefully with a more user-friendly interface, as that is what Google’s success is built upon).

The ready-made option, which we are building now, is the 2CV. It is our White Collar Factory design for Derwent London (the name itself was coined in answer to another throwaway question at, I must confess, my wedding!). It is ready-made in that it is being built speculatively and will be occupied by tenants we do not yet know. But it is in fact the result of a twenty-year collaboration and a five year research project involving client, architect, and engineers (AKT2 and ARUP). The shared aim to make a low energy, robust and generous building that will adapt to very different user needs, foster a sense of place and community, and be responsive to individual preference.

It is very much the epitome of the maxim ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’.

It is being driven by five ideas.

  1. Tall ceilings offering volume, daylight penetration, improved thermal comfort (heat –and in event of fire, smoke rise to a ceiling reservoir) and better and more even light distribution.
  2. Smart Servicing is about minimal moving parts, no excess kit and maximising passive daylight and ventilation, bolstered by a radiant concrete slab (with cold water pipes cast in offering active thermal mass). All with upgradable tenant add-ons including extra cold water to create instant chilled radiant panels.
  3. Simple passive façade is about glazing located in the right place to light space; in the right quantity in response to solar load and the need for insulation (this is not a glass building!); and with ‘shading’ fixed and built-in by way of a perforate façade with opening windows behind.
  4. Flexible floor plates are about a good wall to floor ratio, depth and scale providing best opportunity for market share with soft spots allowing for voids, to allow easy access between floors.
  5. Thermal mass/structure is about exposed concrete, night time cooling, minimising carbon footprint and eliminating finishes that will only ever deteriorate.

So the office of the future, be it a White Collar Factory or Google HQ or some hybrid in between is actually very similar to the office of the past. And even as it drifts off into ‘the cloud’ it will still affect how we work and indeed how we build. But the enduring fact is that the office of the future, like that of the past, is about, people, places and buildings. Human needs for comfort and protection and expression have changed little since being elegantly summarised by Laugier’s concept of the Primitive Hut.

The role of the office of the future, like the 2CV and the BMW, is to allow us to get where we want to go at (relative) speed. And to encourage us to believe, when we get there, that it is better to travel hopefully: that way we will continue to embark on new journeys that constitute progress.

As the long term for offices is something of a constant the real interest is in the nuances that affect minor change. Over the next ten years we will see changes in the curators attitude to their clients (currently known as landlords and tenants respectively). Soon leases will become flexible, more easily tradable and occupier needs to shrink, grow or adjust will be more appropriately catered for.

For this to happen, new models of investment will be required, which is, of course, a much more difficult proposition. Sadly the most difficult of all is the necessary abolition of the absurd regulation of space by use: in the UK being called the planning Use Class Orders!

Four ideas for the ‘office of the future’

Of course we still reflect the future, as it will always be elusive and fascinating. Therefore the four ideas that drive our research and thinking on the construction of the office of the future project are Movement, Transparency, Gravity and Resource.

Movement refers to offering choice and creating a diverse movement network. This includes open and visible stairs throughout enabled by innovative and intelligent smoke and fire control (fire curtains, coffers and horizontal escape). This allows arrival deeper into the building – cyclists can cycle into the building even closer to their desk, occupants and visitors are taken up the building through alternative means (escalators, ramps, travelators) reducing reliance on lifts. Alternative transport for inter-floor movement and use of innovative technologies such as ‘fluppers’ (self-propelled vertical movement), vacuum lifts, and shweebs. This also allows an increase in connectivity across floors – split floors are visually and physically connected and they should be able to move.

Transparency is about maximising views (into and out of the building); maximising daylight; optimised comfort; and use of technology to facilitate an ever changing building. Utilising supersize glass and/or innovative glass like gorilla glass to maximise the size of glass panes whilst minimising weight. Glass can be shaped to minimise reflections, this shaping also offers integral structural properties and hence reduces the supporting frame. Innovations such as light directing glass, light dispersing glass, fibre optic collectors, transparent photovoltaics can help direct light deeper into the building and also harvest daylight to be used in deep areas (fiber optics) or as energy (photovoltaics). Comfort and the impact of solar load can be addressed by Aerogels and phase change material that can be used to make the façade more thermally massive whilst still letting some light through.Solar shading can be embedded into the glass in the form of electrochromic films that can change the appearance of the building throughout the day and the seasons. Mechanical shading will be increasingly responsive; think thermo-activated shades or even robotic shading devices that track the sun. The image of architecture can then be manipulated through LEDs that can be embedded to create a media façade. And of course, the structural properties of glass can be exploited to maximise views and increase the sense of being outdoors for example at roof level.

Gravity: The structural frame can be optimised to increase views and minimise material use. Structure can also be adaptable and able to accommodate changing needs. Innovative systems – such as steel plate sandwich panel system (SPS) can reduce the overall weight of the structure and increase floor to ceiling height (approx. 50mm thick plate is equivalent to 150mm composite metal deck. Innovative materials and fabrication – 3D printing can be exploited in combination with nano materials such as graphene to produce complex 3D geometric structures that can span longer with less material. And of course Moving floors – Taking a cue from other industries, hoistable decks from the shipping industry or climbing jacks used to build oil rigs will be used to move floors and change spatial configurations in the building.

Resource: With the focus on ensuring resource is consumed as efficiently as possible; we will move to an all-electric building and focus on peak and annual demand (instead of carbon) as electrical energy becomes cleaner (this is particular to the UK context of wind power). Energy storage on site will enable stored energy that can be used at peak times, with batteries charged at non-peak times. In all cases the effect is to reduce overall demand on the grid and reduce cost. Servicing of interiors will look at a more granular level (think zones of say 3000 sq ft). They will become tailored, dynamic and responsive (e.g.fresh air will only be supplied to occupied spaces, AC power will get rid of transformers and consequent energy loss) saving energy overall. Floor tiles and furniture will have integrated induction charging to increase flexibility. Robotic technology will be used to reduce waste and improve recycling, for example robotic waste sorting and robot bins. An open building operating system (OBOS) with full interoperability of systems will offer greater control, flexibility and communication. All this requires multiple sensors at the granular level and links to a building positioning system. Building ‘apps’will be created for navigation, to allow individuals to control their environment, and to plan meetings based on real time data.

So the office of the future is universal, flexible, memorable, housed with a mix of other programmes. It is a city within a city defined by the quality of its volume, light, serviceability and attitude to technology. Of course the future is exciting and full of potential, but the office of the future is here now and has been in its current form for quite a while; in fact since the Renaissance. The office of the future is the Uffizzi: an art gallery and an office; a memorable space, place, building and piece of city. W&P

Editor’s footnote: What is always interesting about ‘the office of the future’ is how often it is described in terms of observable and current trends. Simon is clearly all too aware of this and makes clear distinctions.

About the Authors

Simon Allford

Simon Allford is Director of London based architects AHMM Allford Hall Monaghan Morris; a studio that works in the UK and internationally. Recent projects include Stratford residential master plan, The Angel, Tea and Yellow Buildings as well as Adelaide Wharf, the Saatchi Gallery and Chobham Academy. He is currently working on the new Google HQ at King’s Cross, The White Collar Factory at City Road, a new tower 240 Blackfriars, three mixed use projects on Regent Street for the Crown Estate, an academic building for the University of Amsterdam as well as large urban scale projects in London and America.Simon is Chairman of the Architecture Foundation, a trustee of the Architecture Association Foundation, a visiting professor at The Bartlett and GSD Harvard. He was recently Vice President for Education at the RIBA and a Chair of Design Review at CABE.

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…One of the key advantages offered by the technological revolution that is shaping our post-industrial world is that we can return to the pre-industrial world of the bespoke

…So, the office of the future, be it a white collar factory or Google headquarters or some hybrid in between is actually very similar to the office of the past


Angel, London. © AHMM



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