Interview: Bill Dowzer of BVN Architecture

October 26, 2011

Corporate Culture’s Richard Munao talks to BVN Principal Bill Dowzer about the evolution of workplace design and the firm’s nomination for this year’s IDEA Designer of the Year award.

Bill, congratulations to the team at BVN Architecture for being shortlisted for the Designer of the Year award for IDEA 2011. What have been the most enjoyable projects for you this year?
The Ravenswood School for Girls, Freehills and the Millennium Institute at Westmead. We’ve also seen the BMRI and Griffiths House at Creswell in Jervis Bay recognised with several awards, and of course our own Studio in Sydney. What was most enjoyable about Ravenswood was the engagement with the girls in the design process – which was not only enjoyable but also enlightening. It debunked a whole lot of preconceptions that allowed us to open up to so many other possibilities.
All or our projects now come from the base of what we have learned in workplace design over the last ten years.
The ultimate opportunity for us was the design of our own space. It was an opportunity to put into practice the business imperative of engagement, flexibility and acknowledgement of different working styles. We underestimated the effect it would have on the organisation in terms of the team dynamic, cooperation and inclusion – and ultimately the alignment with our cultural values has strengthened our operation. In some ways it was almost a coming of age for us. There is a quiet confidence as we start to realise what we’ve built in the last ten years.

So what have been your more challenging moments for 2011?
We have undergone a high degree of growth coming into this year and with that growth comes a range of different challenges. One is maintaining design quality – we’ve introduced a critic in residence to address this and make sure we maintain quality.
Another is the speed of projects and the reduced amount of time there is to design. Whilst time frames have been reduced, expectations of outcome have increased. This needs to be carefully managed especially as we want to bring new thought and innovation to each project.

BVN has three commercial projects shortlisted this year: the AECOM workplace in Brisbane, the Energex fitout in Newstead and the firm’s own Sydney studio. What are your primary considerations in large-scale commercial work?
All three of these projects are manifestations of the cultural values of those organisations. The first thing you do with a commercial workplace is gain an understanding of the culture of the organisation that you are designing for. This means you can get their complete engagement, then it – the project – ultimately becomes their solution; they own it.

How do you think workplace design is evolving?
The barriers are being broken down in all organisations. Younger people are demanding access to senior colleagues for mentoring and growth, and individual space is being swapped for shared community spaces where people come together. Technology is allowing portability and workplace design is reflecting that.
There is a lack of formality in terms of organisations. You drop the pretence and celebrate the functionality of the business – clients and visitors are no longer held at arm’s length in a sumptuous reception space, with the offices out the back. The new workplace increases the opportunity for human relationships and it is now influencing most other building types – especially in education and, to a lesser degree, in science and health.
For example Freehills as a legal firm is one of the last bastions of institutionalised individualism and hierarchy. What we’ve managed to do is understand Freehills’ working style and design around the needs of the teams rather than individuals.

What projects do BVN have coming up, and what are you looking forward to next year?
Projects in the pipeline include the Millennium Institute, Kinghorn Cancer Research Centre in Darlinghurst, and IPAS (Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing) at Adelaide University. These are all science-based laboratory projects that have been opened up to create a collaborative dynamic environment. They are workspaces that have gone from being cellular, internalised environments to now being transparent and collaborative research spaces that celebrate the work being carried out.
The two schools we are masterplanning, the Northern Beaches Christian School and MLC Burwood, are both exploring new boundaries in education driven by dynamic leadership and the integration of new technology to break down barriers to learning that dictates the demolition of the traditional walled classroom in the new learning environment.
Workplaces, schools and research labs are all learning environments; the next challenge is to introduce these ideas to the hospital environment. The challenge and opportunity is to change health projects fundamentally from a code and facilities guidelines approach to a qualitative spatial and civic environment for the community’s interaction with health professionals.

BVN Architecture are one of six firms shortlisted for the Designer of the Year: Judges’ Award at IDEA 2011, sponsored by Corporate Culture.

  • Paul November 14th, 2011 1:32 am

    As a resident in one of Bill’s trendy new office fitouts, I concur that the new design philosophy allows for reduction of barriers, formality and hierarchy, improves acces to colleagues, and provides high quality shared community spaces. Collaboration is unavoidable – and this is mostly a benefit. It must also be glorious for those who enjoy overhearing project and personal discussions form dozens of their colleagues.

    Unfortunately the clustering of all personnel in identical phalanxes of open-plan, face-to face worskstation pods without any screening or noise control, is reminiscent of a primary school classroom or a Mumbai Call Centre. It also totally fails to accommodate the diversity of working styles in our organisation, in particular, the need for intensive, focussed technical work which is the core of our engineering, planning and science disciplines. The lack of privacy is an impediment to discreet informal discusions with personnel or clients. The inadequate meeting and quiet rooms are in constant use and are a source of on-going conflict.

    The open-plan-only design is culturally incompatible with the preferred workstyle of many technical and management personnel. The elimination of all privacy and any prospect of peace and quiet or avoidance of distraction is highly stressful to some workers, reduces efficiency and increases risk and liability from mistakes. Even our clients have expressed concern regading lack of confidentiality when discussing sensitive matters on the telephone in open plan. It has also been a disincentive to recruitment of highly paid senior personnel who cannot understand why they will be given the identical desk and resources as the office junior.

    The concept of enclosed offices may be very last century, however the current fashion with one-size-fits-all-collaborative-open-plan has gone too far for some staff.

    I note that BVN identified this need with other clients, but somehow thought it is not appropriate for us….” Jane… principal at BVN Architecture, has noticed a greater appreciation and understanding of different work styles and work settings …. The challenge for any legal workplace is to accommodate the dual needs for concentrated work and a collegiate environment, she says.

    I look forward to office design that better achives the dual needs of collaboration and concentrated work.

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