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The government’s decision to release 20 empty buildings for start-up businesses at affordable rents has been met with wide debate.

Many praise it for creating more favorable conditions for start-ups in otherwise under-resourced areas[1].  Coupled with the lack of Grade A office space putting increased demand on secondary and tertiary space, and it is a very effective way to create new, cost effective space that gives entrepreneurs a leg-up.

Others consider it a token gesture, an initiative designed to garner column inches rather than improve the climate for small businesses or reduce public spending. The real issue here is that the government’s un-used building portfolio is vast – 20 really is a fraction of its 550 empty buildings.  That’s somewhere in the region of 450,000 sq. ft. of space, costing the taxpayer £70m in empty rates taxes alone.

Although the government intends to increase the number to 300, it has actually missed an early win. Why not start with a more confident target that shows real commitment to small businesses and reassures the taxpayer that one of the many holes in the public purse is being sewn up quickly?

With such demands on the availability of office space, many of these buildings could, with effective office design, fit-out and proper ongoing management, be the answer to established businesses as well as those starting out.  That’s not forgetting other potential uses such as homes for community projects, arts and theatre groups, youth clubs and day centres.  The list goes on.  In resource hungry areas these buildings should be community assets, not reminders of what once was.

Whether or not the government has realised the real potential of its un-used buildings, we’ll just have to wait and see.

It’s been a while since anybody found Dilbert particularly incisive in its once barbed portrayal of corporate life. And of course the cartoon’s depiction of North American cubicle  dwellers was always a bit of a curio for Europeans. Now news reaches us from across the pond that the days of space hungry cubicles are limited for US offices too. Data published by property trade association CoreNet Global at the end of February showed that for the first time the average allocation of space for each office dweller in many North American companies will drop below 100 sq ft (approx 10 sq m) for the first time over the next five years.  According to the research, over 40 per cent of the companies responding indicated they would reach this all-time low benchmark of individual space utilisation by 2017.

Of course, this has been the case over here for some time. In the eyes of some organisations, 10 sq m per person might even be considered a bit roomy. What is telling is the reasons behind the increase in space densities  in both the US and Europe reflect a convergence in thinking as a response to similar challenges and changing working cultures. Even the comparative affordability and availability of land in the US have been unable to staunch the tide of cost cutting initiatives and the need to make buildings more collaborative.

More proof that when it comes to office design, we Brits are the true pioneers.

The past few years have invariably featured new or amended legislation with regards to flexible working. This year will be no exception. In 2012, the Government is due to issue its response to last year’s consultation on modern workplaces, with proposals for introducing a new system of flexible parental leave, flexible working for all employees, amendments to the Working Time Regulations to allow staff to carry-forward holiday entitlements and new measures to encourage equal pay. A response to the consultation has been delayed as a result of ‘ongoing discussions within Government’, and is now due to be published in ‘early 2012’. So watch this space.

One thing that is definitely happening in March will be new legislation in response to the revised EU Parental Leave Directive which will see the amount of unpaid parental leave available to those employees with parental responsibility increase from three to four months for each child under the age of five.

Of course, many companies have their own flexible working policies, many of which exceed their statutory requirements because they are driven by sound business thinking, especially in the way they help to recruit and retain the best staff. As is always the case with new legislation however, what actually happens as a result of its introduction is not easy to predict. Certainly it would be a shame if new legislation in this area discouraged firms from taking on staff.

The office furniture design scene certainly came alive in the early 1990s. New ideas and new technologies wove themselves into the grand narrative of new ways of working. Everything was possible and there was no longer one best way of doing things. In New York, Chiat Day’s offices featured touch-down desks, garish crimson floors and walls and a reception framed by a huge pair of plastic, glistening lips. In Helsinki, Sol Cleaning Services did away completely with ideas as outmoded as desks and working hours. In the UK, British Airways gave their staff olive groves and indoor streams to work alongside. And in London a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash had offices that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share.

Such workplaces were surely one-offs, mere footnotes to the grand narrative. So, while workplace design has almost beyond recognition since that time, plastic lips and olive groves are still a rarity. Little wonder that the eminent workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the Michaelides and Bednash office in his 1997 book The New Office:

‘The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.’

And that should have been that.

Except for one thing.

The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing favoured by Michaelides and Bednash – now commonly known as a bench system – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last few years. Pretty much all furniture manufacturers have a bench system as their standard offering.

But why should this be? With all the space planning and product options now available to us why should such a product have taken off in quite the way it has? I ask this question with no vested interest. As designers we are free to create whatever working environment and recommend whatever products we think best meets the needs our clients. It’s also very apparent to me that the bench is a good solution in many environments. I’m with Frank Duffy on that point.

I’m also aware of the advantages of benches. I know the arguments about teamworking, space efficiency and simplicity. But what seems to me to be less apparent is why they are specified in environments where they are clearly not the best solution. Benches can be inflexible, impersonal, often make overly intensive use of space and can be too regimented. They fly in the face of the notion that the workplace is an organic environment that must respond to and encourage complex flows of people, information and ideas.

The real shame is that they have come to dominate so much of what office furniture manufacturers assume as an ideal workplace solution when there are so many opportunities to innovate. Contemporary facilities managers have a wider range of planning models, finishes and products than ever before. The office furniture market in the UK offers a vibrant range of solutions so while the bench is a useful element in the overall picture, it can also become counterproductive when it is selected as a default rather than chosen as the best solution.

It’s great to see that something simple, effective and really useful has won the UK leg of the international James Dyson Award – bring on the flexible room divider for use in hospitals, developed by designer Michael Korn.

KwickScreen is a portable, retractable, room divider which provides isolation or privacy solutions in hospitals when required. They have a very small footprint for easy storage and use and are simple to transport and clean. KwickScreens enable hospitals, which are often stretched for resources, to make the best use of space offering the flexibility to change a room’s layout. The product greatly helps in the fight against health care acquired infections as well as with mixed sex accommodation and general privacy and dignity problems.

KwickScreens can be printed, which adds colour and interest to wards and can be used to display important messages to staff and visitors and has applications beyond healthcare, in schools, universities, offices and exhibitions where open plan areas need to be divided up in a fast and flexible manner.

Having graduated from the Royal College of Art with a table top model of the KwickScreen, Michael spent much of the year researching hospital environments and understanding the situation. The following year, 2008, KwickScreen was selected to be part of the NHS’s smart ideas programme and in 2009 a clinical trial at UCLH with full size prototypes began. Over the next year further product developments were made, the internal mechanism was simplified and the body was changed from steel to aluminium. KwickScreen was accepted into the Design London incubator Jan 2011 and subsequently the first volume sales came in, by July the screen has been sold into 25 trusts and 4 countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael says ‘ The inspiration came whilst thinking about problems within the NHS; MRSA, lack of space, lack of privacy. No one wants to be denied their basic right to privacy and dignity when admitted to hospital. The NHS has the worst rate of healthcare associated infections in Europe. Nurses required improved isolation for infection control without the use of scarce side rooms, and patients wanted increasing privacy and dignity, therefore I sought to address these problems. I came up with the idea of bringing isolation to the patient. A retractable screen was the solution I envisaged; I sought inspiration firstly from nature. The venus fly trap and a frogs tongue, slap on bracelets and tape measures were all used during this stage until the discovery of rolatube which gave a means of scaling up my idea to full size’.

See more details of Michael’s invention and the other shortlisted projects here BBC News – Showing off UK innovation

Posted by Ann Clarke

We are delighted to have completed the interior design and refurbishment of 41 Spring Gardens (Grade II listed exterior), including reception, WCs, common areas and 4 floors of office space. The design is elegant and contemporary, whilst retaining all of the period features including the ceiling, mouldings, column heads and column bases.

A black glass feature wall and a feature pendant light fitting were installed to give the reception area a sleek and contemporary finish, together with new signage on both external and internal walls.

 

 

 

 

 

41 Spring Gardens was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1890. It is amongst a string of notable commissions undertaken by the celebrated architect during the 12 years he was based in the city. Now, 120 years after the building was first opened, Claremont have restored the building to it’s former glory and created 16,000 sq ft of ‘Grade A’ office space over 4 floors.

As part of the design package we developed a branding package with a new graphic identity for the building.


 

 

 

 

Posted by Ann Clarke

Rotterdam-based designer Reinier de Jong has come up with a great idea for those of us who never know just how many books we have by designing an extending bookcase. This clever design is called REK, and the bookcase consists of five parts, which slide out to accommodate books in the resulting spaces. “REK is a bookcase that grows with your book collection. The more books, the bigger the bookcase, the zigzag shaped parts slide in and out of each other, providing as much space as needed, no need to have any empty shelves anymore because you can make the bookcase any size you wan” explains de Jong.

design: Reinier de Jong
execution: Bom Interieurs

posted by Ann Clarke

The first manned spaceflight caused a sensation across the world and today Russia is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed a single orbit of Earth. It will be marked by ceremonies and a 50-gun salute at the Kremlin in Moscow.

On the morning of 12 April 1961, the 27-year-old Gagarin was waiting to be launched into space atop a 30m-high booster at the Tyuratam test range in Kazakhstan (now the Baikonur Cosmodrome). Standing 5ft 2ins tall, Gagarin was better suited than some for the cramped conditions of his space capsule. He was able to consume food through squeeze tubes and kept mission control updated on his condition using a high-frequency radio and a telegraph key.


According to a transcript of the communication with ground control, Gagarin was struck by the view through the capsule’s window, commenting on our planet’s “beautiful aura” and the striking shadows cast by clouds on the Earth’s surface.

But the cosmonaut had no control over his spacecraft during the historic flight.

“”It was decided right from the beginning that he would not be allowed to control the spacecraft, it would all be done from the ground. No-one knew what effect zero-g would have on the astronauts when they were up there. They were so concerned that he might be disorientated and disabled once he was in weightlessness,” says Reginald Turnill, the BBC’s aerospace correspondent from 1958-1975.

Gagarin’s achievement earned him instant global stardom, and dispelled fears humans could not survive beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and since his flight in 1961, more than 500 men and women have followed in his footsteps.


Before Gagarin, no-one knew for sure if a human could withstand the conditions in space; some believed weightlessness would induce madness, that the G-forces on take off and re-entry would crush the body, and there was concern over the effects of radiation. But when Gagarin’s face and voice were beamed down from space, the world saw that the cosmos was not to be feared – it was to be explored.

“The most emotional moment was when we heard he was walking and waving; his arms and legs were whole. We understood in one sigh that our five to six years of hard work had paid off and we had achieved something huge,” said veteran cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, now 79, who worked as an engineer on Gagarin’s space capsule.

Anyone who has visited Heathrow Terminal 5 cannot help but notice the Butterfly in Flight lighting artwork commissioned for restaurant chain Itsu. Designed by Cinimod Studio of London it’s dynamic trail of glowing and glittering butterfly wings is uplifting and inspirational, swooping across this cavernous space and bringing it to life.




The key components that make up the artwork are the aluminium supporting structure, the light emitting polycarbonate wings and the custom lighting system. The structure consists of a modular construction that when assembled forms a three-dimensionally curving tube. This forms the twisting spine onto which the illuminated wings are fixed. Each wing has inlaid within it a high density LED strip that emits light through the clear polycarbonate with a dichroic coating to one side. Individual control means a series of programs that vary throughout the day animate the lighting to articulate the dynamic motion instilled in the design. The overall result is that the wings appear to have a crystalline and delicate appearance, with an iridescent colour that shift as viewers walk around it

See more fabulous work by Cinimod here http://www.cinimodstudio.com

The new world of work is profoundly liberating for office designers. It used to be the case that space planners applied a fairly simple mathematical model to work out the majority of office designs, based on the size of the building divided by the number (and status) of the people that had to fit into it. Nowadays, a workplace can be a far more sophisticated machine for working in (to paraphrase le Corbusier) and typically include a much greater variety of spaces in which to carry out work.

With people free to wander around with laptops and cordless phones and with an increased focus on teamwork, the need for personal space diminishes just as that for collaborative space increases. That is why so many contemporary offices incorporate a far greater number and variety of meeting rooms, learning areas, break-out spaces and café’s, (and also, conversely, why so many now feature shared, bookable cellular offices for private work – we all need time to ourselves). The same spaces are also perfect for visitors to offices, be they temporary staff, customers, suppliers or road warriors (aka salespeople). As a direct consequence the role of the reception has changed and an increasing number of firms use their reception team in a way reminiscent of a hotel concierge.

The social role of the office is reflected in a new aesthetic with a much greater use of what were once seen as purely domestic forms, colours and materials.

These are interesting times and the great beauty of this new freedom in the way we design offices is the way in which it allows firms to resolve the increasingly complex demands placed on organisations, the people who work for them and the technology they use.

 

Photos of Acxiom by Claremont Group Interiors