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Anything but vanilla!

What are the trends in office development and fit-outs now shaping our workplaces? And what will be the next big thing? By Andrew Hardwick of Williams Gunter Hardwick

Having spent the last two years in the role of a British Council for Offices (BCO) Judge for the South West, Thames Valley and South Wales I have, to be blunt, seen an awful lot of offices. And while it has had its odd dull moment, on the whole this has proved a fascinating experience. Not least because it has enabled me to see in action new trends in office development and fitting out.

Agile working and wellbeing in the workplace are clearly part of the scenery (and vocabulary) now for occupiers looking to secure and attract ‘talent.’ Developers are trying to respond to these demands by offering product that is individual and ‘anything but vanilla’.

Ironically (and possibly predictably) this trend has also led to some developers applying identical solutions.

New face or passing phase?

I’ve lost count of the offices I’ve seen with suspended ceilings removed to expose shiny services and plant… or concrete laid bare or painted in gothic colour schemes. Or where fitting out consultants have competed to assemble the least uniform collection of Parker Knoll and utility furniture possible… together with an obligatory snooker table and meeting booths where colleagues can talk over a flat white.

It remains to be seen whether this is truly the new face of the office or just a passing phase. With rental escalation driven by low stock levels, occupiers are certainly going to be working their space harder, with higher densities per workstation.

Paper and storage requirements are dropping. Typical desk sizing and arrangement is becoming more efficient as clutter and personal effects are being swept from the desktop. Storage is being confined to lockers – or even exiled to the car boot!

But does it work?

Post-occupancy assessments seem to confirm that occupiers really do like this type of working environment. And productivity is everything – especially if it can also lead to a more ‘creative’ environment where new ideas flow easily.

So how about the other two big drivers in recent years: energy efficiency and sustainability? Both are now firmly back on the agenda after slipping
down the list of priorities during the recession years.

However, the drive for sustainability is confused by the range of standards, BREEAM, EPC, LEED… or whatever.  And that’s a shame.

Institutional leadership and planning standards are probably the key means of lifting quality – but the real breakthrough has to be in occupier attitudes, and relatively few have sustainability at the very top of their agenda. However, with the government taking so much space as a proportion of the regional markets this could now change.

So what’s the next big thing?

Biophilia (the idea that humans seek connections with nature and other forms of life) is something that could link ‘individualism’, sustainability and wellbeing through connecting the workplace with the natural world.

On my travels I have seen encouraging examples of biophilic design – and it has now gone well beyond the token pot plant in the corner gathering dust. Green roofs, green walls, recycled carpets and the use of natural products in the office interior are all the rage.

Google’s new HQ at North Bayshore (pictured) will take the principles even further, with a low impact lightweight structure that will last for decades and which can even be moved around. With its highly versatile interior, it will be capable of many changes in the lifetime of the building.

Utopian visions…

Those of us old enough to have experienced the utopian vision for office parks of the 1980s will remember how we tried before to reinvent the workplace by introducing elements of nature. This goes well beyond a few trees and a pond.

“With trees, landscaping, cafés, and bike paths weaving through these structures, we aim to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature,” say Google airily.  This may just be the shape of things to come for our much maligned business parks…

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