Building Design V’s User Needs

The question of ‘Building Design’ and ‘Users Needs’ is an interesting one raised this morning in an article titled ‘Building Designers Should Pay More Heed to What Users Need’, published by @officeinsight and written by the excellent @simonheath1. I may not agree entirely with the concluding sentiments which characterise and castigate ‘Designers’ generically as one homogenous mass of ego maniacs who don’t listen, but I value the perspective given and relish the opportunity to respond in humble defence of ‘Designers’, and to shed a little light upon the complex realities at play in ‘Building Design’ (Commercial Offices). My points may be predictably obvious to some readers, but not others. I’m not entirely sure who my audience is at this point.

ChessWith the notable exception of new build design schemes for a single occupier/client, in reality Architects of office buildings will seldom if ever meet the final occupiers or tenants. Strange but true. Their brief is provided by the likes of Developers, Landlords or Pension Funds and communicated through intermediaries. Such as ‘Project Managers’ and ‘Cost Consultants’, who will equally have their own professional duties and even baggage to bring to the table. The architectural brief is indeed a complex one which has many restrictions. Including for example, Site Envelope, Local Authority Regulations, Sustainability and Emissions, Rights to Light, Traffic, Egress, Archeology, English Heritage, Utilities and Waste Infrastructure. The list goes on and is appreciably long.

A headline architectural brief may be as simple as ‘Design an office building that will attract occupiers from multiple market sectors, and maximise ‘Net Lettable Area’ with a net to gross ratio of at least 80%, and which will achieve a BREEAM Excellent Rating’. The location of the site will be significant in who is likely to occupy, and what yield on investment is likely over time. Prevailing property rents are of course a significant factor in what Architectural solution is possible in any given location. In London for instance you wouldn’t view the West End, City or Midtown in the same way as the Paddington Basin, Canary Wharf or an out of town Business Park. As a guide, the cost of constructing a new air conditioned office in a city centre location to Cat A, with raised floors, suspended ceilings, carpets, lighting and power but excluding Cat B (Tenant Brief) of say 12 floors will typically range from a low of £1,200 to a high of £2,200 per Sq M. One could half the costs if constructing in an out of town business park location. Data from ‘International Construction Cost Survey, June 2011’ published by Gardiner & Theobald.

Clearly ‘Building Design’ (Construction & Fitout) is an expensive exercise, and maximising return on investment in both Land & Construction, with a good rental yield over the building lifecycle is not going to go away. Commercial office architecture is always going to be the result of a number of compromises, given the stack of necessary restrictions placed upon Architects. That’s not to say the results are regularly a fudge or a failure in any sense. Architects are increasingly providing stunning new sustainable office buildings, which are a joy to behold and use, and which provide a long term return on investment. Some may arguably be a compromise too far and are designed at the expense of occupier wellbeing, and consequent productivity, profitability, and organisational success. Although I would contend this is very rare these days, and that most amateur Architectural critics are restricted to whether a building looks good in it’s own right, and whether it blends into it’s environment. Any failure in this aesthetic sense is arguably a matter of subjectivity and personal taste. The architect more often than not will notably be working to a generic institutional brief, and will bring personal style and influences to bear on the building design. In a sense solutions can be sculptural, and will doubtless be open to aesthetic debate. Although I’m pretty sure boring is still more fashionable than it ought to be.

The challenge and role of the ‘designer’, a term more generically used for ‘Interior Designer’ in this context, is quite different from the Architect. The interior brief (Cat B) derives from the occupier/tenant, as opposed to an institutional investor. The Cat B tenant specific brief on fitout costs will typically range from around £320 per Sq M (£30 per Sq. Ft.) up to around £1,000 Per Sq M (£90 per Sq. Ft.). Excluding Furniture and ICT budget. Obviously each tenant and market sector will have its unique operational needs and budget to provide further challenges to the design team. Although it should be acknowledged that a generous budget is certainly no determinate of a successful design. No matter what metrics or emotive anecdotes are employed.

There are two types of ‘Interior Designer’ (or Architect) operating in the world today, good ones and bad ones. The good designers never impose a generic ‘vanilla’ solution. A good Interior Designer will have a team that includes those experienced in organizational brief development, sometimes these professionals will be specialist ‘Workplace Consultants’, offering the client an extensive brief development and consultation stage in the project. This stage is sometimes termed as ‘Pre-Design’. This will determine in strategic terms, the design parameters for any specific organisation. Such as who, where, what, why, when and how? It is the operational and functional basis for the design before considering colour, materials, fixtures and fittings. The ‘Pre-Design’ consultation will also identify the degree of ‘Flexible’ or ‘Agile’ working to be employed, and what effect this will have on the scheme.

A good workplace designer will seek to involve as many people as possible in the design briefing, for the logical reason that casting a wide net will arguably lead to a finished scheme that will account for all needs and perspectives. Plus the act of consultation itself is a significant contributory factor in how stakeholders feel about the entire process. Nobody likes to be ignored, even someone who doesn’t actually have a point of view to contribute, its still good sense to ask what thoughts they may have. The technology now exists in social media to canvas opinions widely and almost instantaneously. Although, I think we’ve yet to see a filtering #hashtag on twitter as part of a design briefing exercise. It’s not that ubiquitous yet and it may have confidentiality implications, but one day soon perhaps. Maybe it won’t be long before we see the first workplace design brief conducted at least in part on ‘Facebook’, using not just language to communicate ideas, but also product/furniture/material/colour images, 3d walkthroughs and artists’ visuals. Why not I say?

On the pragmatic side, the perennial problem with planning a new workspace, whether in a refurbishment or relocation is that it will need inbuilt growth potential, and inherent flexibility for the organisation. After all, a major chunk of capital is being invested in what is when all said and done, a balance sheet overhead. It may well be a cradle of burgeoning talent and source of the worlds next great idea or product, but it’s still an overhead. So getting a return on investment is paramount. The benefits provided by an efficient occupancy solution allow for reinvestment in the organisation, and that means jobs and growth. This often sadly includes squeezing the space till the pips squeak, perhaps not on ‘Day one’ to use the design vernacular, but it usually happens eventually. It’s a costly and disruptive scenario when bursting at the seams two or three years into a new lease. Any marginal expansion will likely not justify an overspill space with all that it entails, but if space can’t be found in existing premises, organisations will suffer, with perhaps lost revenue, limited markets and initiatives, dips in morale and perhaps a loss of good people to the competition. It’s an unwelcome downward spiral. A considered compromise is always struck between cost of fitout, long-term occupancy and aspirations of occupants, and this must be gauged against the benefits to the organisation as a whole.

On a related point, the jury is currently out as to whether Yahoo! will lose staff having announced last week the removal of all ‘Flexible’ working rights commencing June 2013. They’ll certainly need more space if they plan to have everyone in the office at all times. To some observers that’s the proverbial ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. I digress.

In-built flexibility and growth capacity is always possible on ‘Day one’ but it does require compromise at a cost, either financially or in terms of space allocation, and arguably to functionality, wellbeing and productivity. Equally, flexibility in every sense of the word is obviously one of the foundations of any business model and workspaces or work patterns (Agile Working) ought to facilitate a range of adaptions to meet unforeseen demands and necessary changes. Growth is an aspiration, if not a clearly defined business objective, but it would be foolish to plan for significant organisational growth in new premises over a short timescale. Flexible and shorter leases can play an important role in a buyers market. Some tenants may be in a position to take on additional floors in a building and sub-let on a short lease, until the space is needed. Most occupiers will seldom be in that situation however, so you need to be sure of the office space suitability to meet all your occupancy criteria, and key amongst these is that you fit, now and for the foreseeable future.

Many occupiers understandably think that their situation, constraints and dare we say boardroom politics are unique. An experienced ‘Workplace Consultant’ or ‘Interior Designer’ will have had the privilege and benefit of working with many organisations in different markets, and this has allowed them to see what often the organisation itself cannot see. This is not blind arrogance, but a common sense perspective that when we step outside a scene, or situation, we can view circumstances more objectively, unencumbered by historical baggage and internal politics. Good design consultants are conscious of the different agendas at play in putting together an effective and inspiring workplace brief (Strategy/Plan). The disparate objectives and aspirations of the executive, workforce and facilities team will be noted naturally, but there will be inevitable compromise. The 19th century Prussian general Helmuth Von Moltke stated, “Strategy is a system of expedients”, and ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy”.

In both Architecture and Interior Design, the brief required to facilitate a beautiful functioning office in order to accommodate any organisation, is indeed an inevitable but well considered compromise, but it is emphatically a well-considered plan. Inspired by Helmuth Von Moltke, I would say a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. ‘Building Designers’ do pay significant attention to ‘Users Needs’, but we must recognise that to achieve some critical project imperatives set down by parties beyond our control we must compromise. Without compromise nothing would ever get done. Where would you like to compromise?

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