The Architecture of Work: The Work of Architecture

May 6, 2010

Bill Dowzer, Michael Rayner, Philip Vivian and James Fitzpatrick discuss best practice commercial office design and AR’s current ideas competition, Proposition 2065.

For more information on Proposition 2065, visit the competition website: www.proposition.com.au

To design a contemporary art gallery has, for many years, represented the very apotheosis of architectural achievement. The combination of cultural value and enlightened ambitious clients drives a fascination that also exercises the imagination of far too many architecture students – whose engaged enthusiasm is only matched by their disappointment on beginning practice, at discovering just how rare such a commission is. After this, one would have to say that residential design remains a prized area of practice, in awards and publications, driven by dazzling sites and the mutual respect that often defines the relationship between architect, client and builder.

But what of the commercial office building – how much latitude and creative prowess can an architect exercise in the design of our future work environments? This is of more than academic interest in the context of our new architectural ideas competition Proposition 2065, which seeks to provide architectural design solutions for a site within Sydney’s St Leonards. Central to the competition’s brief is the need for development in this area to provide jobs, and hence offices. While this is not an exclusive requirement, it will be the primary driver in any design solution to Proposition 2065.

So we sought advice from several respected Australian architects, who have excelled in the area of commercial office design. Is commercial office design a tough area to practice within, how has the work environment changed, what role does sustainability play and what projects, both within Australia and beyond, represent best practice in this area? Suffice to say that for as long as the great majority of us remain stuck at our desks, dreaming of the laptop nomad sitting under a tree, the work environment will remain a place of innovation, exploration and on-going evolution. Not only in plan and internal spatial configuration, but in how each building engages its street and the public urban space in which it sits.

We hope that these following texts, sent to all registered entrants for Proposition 2065, help inform and drive the design solutions submitted to Stage 1, all of which will be published in the following issue of AR116 in August.

AR Would you say that commercial office design is traditionally one of the toughest areas for architects to exercise creativity?

Bill Dowzer, Principal, BVN: Yes and no. In one respect, the move towards an integration of inside and outside has made our work in this area more creatively rich. Some of our recent commercial offices have given us new opportunities in integrating the building into an urban environment, in particular in designing the building edge and the way in which you expose the internal function of the building externally.
It can be challenging to be creative with what can be sometimes little more than a big box, so yes, at that level. But on the other side, this area of design allows an opportunity to investigate technology, orientation and the urban interaction of buildings in their context.

Michael Rayner, Principal, Cox Rayner Architects: The major constraint generically to office building design is inherent conservation by owners and developers concerning saleability. Modernism established a ubiquitous model of the office building as a hermetically sealed glass box creating a limited typology, which has persisted in expectation to this day.
Residential buildings, for example, never suffered this malaise because they only needed to be sold unit by unit, whereas office buildings are seen as single commodities that needed to conform to a particular format.
The only office buildings that have broken that mould are those where individual corporate identity has prevailed over other criteria, one example being the Fosters ‘Gherkin’ in London.

Philip Vivian, Director, Bates Smart Pty Ltd: No, I don’t believe it is. While office design is strongly driven by developer’s performance criteria, ‘rules of thumb’ and numeric standards from the property industry, once these are known and understood there is a wealth of creativity that can and must be applied to achieve innovative environments to sustain today’s new workplace agenda. The accepted office ‘standards’ must continue to be challenged and tested to create new environments.

James Fitzpatrick, Principal, Fitzpatrick + Partners: No, quite the opposite. It is no different in designing any other building. You need to truly analyse the brief for the building first and understand the problem. Saying that, it is very rare to receive a brief, so your own research, combined with your experience will define this. In commercial office design there is a high chance you or your client won’t know the tenant at the early design phase, but the location, the construction budget and therefore the rental structure will be known. This informs you very clearly to the type of tenant or tenant mix the client will be targeting.
From this, it is a combination of research and experience that sets the parameters of the internal functioning of the building. The other big driver is the efficiency of the building, being the net lettable area to the gross floor area. Obviously the higher the number, the more attractive the offer that the building owner can make to tenants. Efficiency and flexibility of the building and the workplace is key.
Once you demonstrate an understanding and a resolution of these issues, you generally find the owner more relaxed in the expression and ideas for the building. You can then choose to see the site and planning controls as constraints, or as opportunities. But don’t be afraid to break the rules, just know why you are doing so.

AR Over the last few decades there are many ways in which we have changed our attitudes to work life. What changes in your opinion have influenced architecture design decisions the most?

BD The biggest change in corporate clients is the flattening of hierarchy and structures, and this has had the most impact in the design of workplaces, creating a need and desire for transparency within organisations. The old structure of the boardroom on top, working down through the ranks has changed, resulting in far more opportunity for campus or low-rise commercial office environments.
The National Australia Bank (NAB) in Melbourne’s Docklands is a good reference point. NAB was moving from the office tower in Bourke Street, where the executives sat at the top and even had their own lift, to allow them complete isolation from the organisation. Going to Docklands brought together 3500 people, where the CEO sits in an open environment with their team. The other example I would cite is Bendigo Bank in Bendigo, which was an exercise in creating a low-rise campus building that is in scale with the city.
Alongside spatial organisation, at an urban and civic level Bendigo Bank made a really important decision not to build in a cheaper suburban green field site. They decided to take part in the city and regenerate it through their investment. This is about the corporate citizenry of the organisation as well, realising that they’re responsible not only to their shareholders but also the communities that support them.

MR There have, as noted, been significant changes in the way people work and communicate. Despite these, the above-mentioned mantra tends to prevail, for the rise of the so-called ‘campus’ office – large horizontal buildings seemingly enabling people to collaborate more easily than in vertical, smaller floorplate conditions.
However, competition for tenants has driven two seminal types of change. The provision of amenities and facilities that staff can enjoy within the building such as food halls, child-care facilities, cycle and fitness facilities and libraries; and environmental performance driven by the need to reduce recurrent costs both for the owner and for tenants.
Certainly, the floor layouts have shifted to open plan, based on improving collaboration and communication, increasing efficiency of floor use, and creating equity/reducing hierarchy while also improving access to daylight and outlook. We are seeing some reaction to that now, with an emphasis being put on privacy and security.

PV The introduction of information technology in the form of the personal computer into the workplace, particularly since 1990, has profoundly altered the way we work. Technology has alleviated the emphasis on manual production in the office and shifted it to communication, interaction and creativity. This has fundamentally changed the requirements of an office environment from one of quiet focused work to one of group activity, teamwork, social interaction and communication, and led to a revolution in office design. As a result, we now see office designs focusing on communication and connectivity with atriums, vertical villages, streets, open unencumbered floorplates, linked floorplates, and dispersed or side cores to create flexible campus style workplaces.

JF The concept of the workplace has been slow to change. We are still dealing with organisations that insist on a cellular perimeter workspace, and consider a freeform workstation layout adventurous. Some companies over the last 10 years have started to explore the psychology of the workplace and work patterns, using this to inform their use of space. This has been spasmodic with varied results, and very rarely measured to understand the benefits – if any.
We are now seeing some leading companies such as Macquarie Bank adopting these new collaborative work styles. The best known is Activity-Based Working (ABW), a flexible work platform developed by Dutch consultant Veldhoen & Company. I believe there are significant benefits to such work systems, creating stimulating, enjoyable work environments that immediately show results in productivity, communication and general wellbeing.
This offers great opportunities for the design of the buildings, moving beyond the traditional 25×100 metre box and allowing for different spatial experiences and therefore different work environments.

AR Commercial office development has been one of the quickest sectors to adapt to sustainable building practices, driven heavily by certification and tenancy competitiveness. What are the most important elements in your own design in securing best performance?

BD Creating the best environmental quality for the people actually inside the building is probably our prime concern; the quality of air and the quality of natural light are key, remembering that many staff spend more time each day at their desk than they do in their own houses. So there’s been a fundamental realisation that the quality of the work environment is fundamental to people’s performance, enjoyment, retention and the building of brand or culture within organisations.
This democratic impulse has led the sustainability agenda. Workers now have the power to demand a quality work environment, and employers are providing that and realising that is important. A better interior environment undoubtedly gives a competitive advantage to developers in securing tenants. However, this is more an outcome rather than an explicit driver. The development community didn’t necessarily lead this in the beginning; they responded to tenant requests, and then the enlightened developers realised that it was a commercial advantage.
Perhaps more important than the green new buildings, I believe we have done some of our most sustainable work in the reuse and repositioning of B grade former office building stock. That’s something we’ve been championing in the work that we’ve done with Stockland in their building, and also Challenger in the old Hilton building; how to revisit and not writeoff old building stock.

MR It is absolutely true that office buildings have led the way in sustainability design, driven by the above. This has not, however, necessarily changed the ‘conforming’ typology as new glass technologies have enabled buildings to remain true to the model and achieve high environmental performance (the exception is Melbourne City Council’s CH2 building, but note it is non-corporate).
Nevertheless, to Cox Rayner, it is passive energy design that is most important because it enables change to the normal typology (that is, technologies do not do this). A good example is our SW1 speculative office development in Brisbane’s South Bank. This project was particularly interesting because we were able to sit down at the outset with the builder (Hutchinson), to which we were to be ‘novated’, and discuss materials and construction methods they would like to employ. We agreed to work fully with these as a ‘palette’ within which we could explore their potentials.

PV There are two primary areas where an architect can make the most important contribution to the sustainability of an office building: typology and façade. Typology effects the location of cores, floorplate depth, horizontal and vertical connectivity; fundamentally setting the building’s ability to perform in a sustainable manner. The façade design allows the architect to manipulate natural light, ventilation and solar gain, which affect energy and indoor environmental quality. While typology and façade are the key drivers from an architect’s perspective a sustainable building requires an integrated team approach with consulting engineers.

JF Sustainable building practices have moved past being a plug-on to a building and are now an integrated part of the building fabric. We must work towards achieving not only an optimum planning envelope, but also a workspace that environmentally works.
Technology is now solving the issues of building systems and integration. We now need to explore the building as skin, allowing the skin to be smarter, in turn addressing the issues of solar gain, light penetration, energy generation, glare etc. This also relates to the material choices of a building – the consideration of full life embodied energy, construction and de-construction viability, recycling as component more so than product. The work of Archigram in the 60s very much comes to mind.
There is definitely a move towards more passive systems, opening windows, timber curtain walls, external sunshading that really works. These also become the advertising for the building, saying more about the occupants and owner than the ubiquitous wind turbine planted on the roof.
Our work is definitely moving toward a truer and honest expression of materials, system and function – removing the wrappings, but balancing this with the slick.

AR Who internationally do you think represents the very highest achievement in commercial office design?

BD I think the work of Behnisch Architekten in Germany has been quite an important influence on the way we’ve developed our projects, in observing how they work with interiors and in creating human environments. Their Institute for Forestry and Nature Research in the Netherlands has been quite influential on us, along with their Unilever House in Hamburg, which integrates beautifully into the city and works really well at an urban scale. Part of this relates to exposing organisations to the public domain. We’re very interested in pursuing similar project types.

MR A very difficult question. Perhaps Herzog & de Meuron, Coop Himmelblau and Morphosis as they always try to challenge expected norms.

PV I believe historically SOM have been the single greatest contributor to office design, from innovative high rises such as Inland Steel Building in Chicago and Lever House in New York; to the invention of the campus office such as Connecticut General Life Insurance Building. SOM continued their early pre-eminence, dominating high-rise design in the USA in the mid to later part of last century.
In contemporary terms, Foster and Partners have been the world leaders, particularly for their typological exploration and innovation of the office type and their emphasis on sustainable building performance as a basis for design. Other practices that should be mentioned are Behnisch Architekten for their focus on the social interaction in their office designs and Ingenhoven Architekten for their focus on sustainability.

JF I would definitely be looking at the work of Veldhoen + Company for their input into what the workplace can be. Clive Wilkinson uses this as a base to create some fantastic interiors – perhaps a bit Hollywood, but maybe appropriately so.
Without doubt, Foster led the way from the 80s, with each new building learning from the previous and pushing the design and systems further. With the development of more relaxed, open and connected work patterns, the work of Ingenhoven Architects has really explored the potential of the office building.

AR Which commercial building in recent years do you think represents best practice?

BD While Bendigo Bank was a really enjoyable project to work on within that community, I think NAB is one of the first campus style projects in Australia for a new workplace. It integrated both the sustainable and the human sides of the brief, creating a genuine community within the bank’s staff. Finally, in terms of its delivery, to provide that building required a genuinely collaborative understanding between tenant, developer and builder. So the whole project registered a cultural change in perspective for the bank.
While its star rating may not be as high as other newer buildings, if you go inside today, it’s still allowing a lot of change within the business, and it still feels as dynamic as it did when it was originally built.
To return finally to your first question, which is about the difficulties of commercial office design, I think it is a fairly difficult environment to be able to express some personality, beyond the architects, but I think that there is a fundamental link between the building use and the occupants that has actually opened up the whole realm of commercial workplace
This relates to the relevance of architecture and architects in the development of corporate communities, and the development of business change. I think the design profession has actually regained a relevance that may have been lost during the eighties and the rational periods of business and buildings.

MR Albeit low scale, Sydney’s The Bond stimulated the impetus to environmental performance. Melbourne Dockland’s NAB building is exciting for its interior dynamics. For Cox Rayner, our 111 Eagle Street tower under construction will have, we believe, significant impact as the first ‘organically-structured’ high rise tower (also achieving 6+ star Green Star rating). For GPT, it is a collaboration between Cox Rayner and Arup’s Tristram Carfrae (Beijing Water Cube), and represents a significant typological shift in office tower design.

PV For a low-rise building, the Bendigo Bank Headquarters by BVN and Gray Puksand. This building incorporates all of the elements of a contemporary workplace influenced by new work practices involving teamwork and communication; including large open flexible floor plates for horizontal connectivity, plates linked by atriums for vertical connectivity, a central ‘street’ with stairs, breakout spaces and cafes.
From a high-rise perspective, 126 Phillip Street by Foster and Partners. I believe this building is under recognized due to it’s relatively severe façade; yet it has invented a new typology – the detached core high rise with atrium. This building has a 21 metre clear span, the longest of any office building in Australia, creating one of the most effective unencumbered floorplates and a full height atrium with glazed lifts. 1 Bligh Street currently under construction in Sydney by Ingenhoven Architekten will create a new benchmark.

JF Commercial office design is about creating space for people to work. The work styles have changed dramatically, with issues of environment, workplace etc being equally important. So perhaps this is best measured by which buildings have demonstrated they can live past the 10 year pre commit, and continue to be significant assets to our urban centres.
Without doubt Australia Square, the MLC Centre, and Grosvenor Place by Harry Seidler have demonstrated this ability. They are still great buildings to work in. They addressed the issues of energy, light, shade and flexibility long before it became fashion. They have all been sensitively modernised to incorporate the new layers of the workplace without loss of their original integrity. There is no reason they couldn’t keep doing this for the next 100 years.
But where do you do your best work? Yes, it partly depends on what you do, but it is still hard to beat sitting under a tree with a laptop…

Proposition 2065 is sponsored by Willoughby City Council, Altomonte Holdings, Graphisoft and Polyflor.

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