WELL, WELL, WELL this year’s ‘Challenge Everything’ BCO conference 2016was held in the diverse, laid back city of Amsterdam and after some 30,000 steps and 13 miles on foot what did I manage to glean from it all?
The aim of the conference was to interrogate and dissect (with Anarchy in mind) every aspect of office design, or workplace as it is now commonly called, and this year it focused on how we meet the needs of people who will occupy the spaces and not just ‘let and forget’. In the UK we do not tend to engage with the people who will occupy our office buildings until we have speculatively built them but instead choose to focus on the business transaction. With the rise of BREEAM to soothe our environmental conscience and the advent of the WELL standard, which Paul Finch described as a welcome indulgence from the guilty US that gave us McDonalds and Tobacco, are we merely helping financiers justify their investment and returns or will this genuinely help inform the future of office design?
The conference kicked off with Rem Koolhaas bombarding the mainly construction industry audience with fascinating facts on the Netherlands and Amsterdam including ‘current development in the Netherlands is on average two storeys high; ‘IKEA height’ and ‘Amsterdam is one of the most polluted cities in Europe’. He also provided some insight into the design of G-Star Raw and feedback from the client claimed ’emails had been reduced by 60% by real physical human contact’. An informative, albeit dry, start to the two day conference after which he exited the stage flanked by his entourage.
The first plenary session focused on the open plan office and Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency provided a convincing talk on the importance of sound in designing our built environment and asked if ‘architects have ears?’. Julian’s concern was that architects don’t seem to listen to people and wants us to ‘design an experience with all five senses’. Julian was adamant that open plan offices were far from ideal and claimed research showed ‘Open plan offices can reduce productivity by 66%’. His experience in retail demonstrated that you can’t ignore the customer and in offices there will be people that want quiet reflective space and not noisy distracting space. He identified a sweet spot of between 45-55db to create ‘decorated silence’ and advocates the use of white noise and in particular nature sounds. His interactive presentation which included some very loud alarms and bangs helped keep some delegates from drifting off as they recovered from the excesses of the previous evening.
In response Katrina Kostic Samen challenged Julian’s thoughts on the use of background music especially tweeting birds which ‘would drive me mad’ and that open plan offices was here to stay but only if zones for privacy, interaction and relaxation are provided. Katrina stressed the importance of really understanding the occupier and their characteristics in order to design a successful office space. She cited the Myers Briggs test as one means of understanding whether you are either Extrovert or Introvert. In Katrina’s opinion most of the ‘Property sector is probably more extrovert and neurotic than most’ which is interesting when you consider that ‘80% of lawyers are introverts therefore why impose open plan on them’ So do we design for the investor or the occupier?
With a greater understanding of their characteristics the presentation focused on volume over sqft and her prediction was that the end is in sight for the mere chase for sqft; personally I am not convinced this will be happening any time soon unless we are able to take a longer term view of investment.
The second plenary session focused on the Brexit debate and perhaps unsurprisingly nearly all of the delegates in the stunning but extremely hot Beurs Van Berlage Hall voted to remain IN when a straw poll was taken. Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium, was convincing and passionate with his ‘Brexit is an opportunity to fundamentally change the EU for the better’ however it was full of contradictions and it was clear he had a desire to create a super state that would benefit from the UK’s participation. He was challenged on this by the other panellists however seemed to be presenting to a very appreciative audience who enjoyed his informative monologue.
One of my favourite parts of a BCO Conference is the building tours and this year my visits to Apollo House, originally designed by the grandfather of Rem Koolhaas, and G-Star Raw were intriguing as they shared common traits including: direct relationship with land or buildings owner from the outset i.e. not speculative, generosity of space and occupancy levels in the order of 1:15+ sqm, generosity of volume and cellular offices for lawyers and open plan for creative’s but both achieved with what Julian Treasure described as ‘decorated silence’. This has been achieved in a very dense city yet contrasts with our approach to office buildings and perhaps offers an alternative way of delivering space.
The final plenary session, the morning after the conference dinner and entertainment provided by comedian Henning Wehn, was a panel discussion chaired by Ken Shuttleworth. It was a lively discussion between Paul Finch, Roger Madelin and Paul Scallia of the WELL Standard with some interesting introductions including Roger Madelins ‘The Very Big F*ck*r’ description of 5 Broadgate.
The WELL standard, which was outlined by Paul Scallia, is widely predicted to be the next ‘big thing’ that will encourage the integration of wellbeing into design and it is hoped will help counteract ‘the insane drive to smaller and smaller work stations’ highlighted by Paul Finch. I can hear the architectural community scream ‘nothing new or about time’ yet whilst its aim is to be welcomed I hope this is not yet another way in which investors can soothe their conscience and measure their financial returns. So with this renewed focus on people and wellbeing Ken Shuttleworth asked ‘what is the new architectural response’?
If we are currently delivering cyclist showers and lockers (not provided in Amsterdam by the way), roof terraces and coffee facilities, perhaps the office space of the future will be in the hands of people. So as Paul Finch asked, let’s make ‘a plea for generosity of space and look at investment over the longer term’.
This year’s conference certainly turned out to be a crowd pleaser. It was well received but for me more anarchy and challenging of our perceived wisdom were required. The main thrust of debate focused on people that will occupy our speculative office space and the need to understand their characteristics / methods of working and not just ‘Let and forget’. The big question that still remains is ‘why do we still insist on delivering fully kitted out speculative buildings without the end user’s input’? In fact why were no occupiers participating in the panel sessions and why so few of them in the audience to add some anarchy; ‘Power to the People’ I hear you chant.back to insights