Lunes  12 de Julio de 2010

The balance between form and function in the office

Establishing a corporate headquarters in an architectural landmark is great for the brand but it also needs to fit the needs of employees

The trade-offs between having a prestigious building that makes a mark on the skyline but which is also a good place to work in are notorious. A spectacular landmark, such as London’s 30 St Mary Axe, the Lord Foster-designed building known as the “Gherkin”, can literally put a business on the map and broadcast its owner’s ambitions to the world. But monuments to corporate pride also create a host of challenges for their occupants.

“Curved funky structures use space inefficiently and can be expensive to fit out,” says Hugh Mulcahey, a director at Cyril Sweett, the property consultants. Tall, thin towers often wreak havoc with team working by splitting departments across several floors. And, while a soaring column may look good from the outside, hermetically sealed interiors can leave occupants feeling jaded.

Linda Felmingham, director of administration at Hunton & Williams, a US law firm that rents space in the “Gherkin”, says working in “a lovely building that everyone knows about” definitely has the wow factor. “If I get in a cab I don’t give the address, I just say ‘The Gherkin’,” she says.

On the downside, she highlights security, which has to be watertight to guard against the possibility of terrorist attack. “All our visitors have to go through airport-style scanners.”

Bold attempts have been made to resolve the tension between form and function in workplace architecture, and not all have been successful. In the early 1990s, the architect Ralph Erskine designed the Ark, a vast ship-like building next to the Hammer-smith flyover in west London, as the perfect space for open-plan working. But for years it stood empty.

The basic problem, says Stuart McLarty a partner at De Novo-Architecture, which radically restructured the inside of the building in 2006, was that the hollow interior mirrored the highly bespoke specification of its intended owner-occupier and could not be partitioned. When that company quit the UK before moving in, the property struggled to attract tenants.

Another drawback was the soaring interior walkways, which terrified vertigo sufferers. “We went to one event [before the redevelopment solved the problem] where a caterer was too scared to cross an internal bridge to get to the reception,” recalls Mr McLarty.

Germany’s tallest build

ing, Commerzbank Tower, home to Commerzbank’s Frankfurt headquarters and also designed by Lord Foster, has done a better job of marrying statement architecture and employee comfort. After conducting research among staff, the bank built the tower around garden atria that let in natural light.

Creating a double-layer facade solved the problem of how to draw away wind from the upper stories, allowing occupants at the top of the building to open and close windows instead of relying on air-conditioning. “We looked at how we could make working more attractive,” says Arno Walter, the bank’s head of organisation.

In the financial centre of Shanghai, a futuristic 632m skyscraper is under construction that its backers also hope will resolve some of the tensions between function and design. The Shanghai Tower, scheduled for completion in 2014, will be the third of three super-tall towers that rise from the city’s financial centre in the Pudong district.

According to Christopher Chan, design director with Gensler, the tower’s architects, The Shanghai Tower Construction & Development Company, the building’s developer, wanted a building that made working in a tall tower more comfortable. “We started by asking how do we want the building to work, and that determined the form,” Mr Chan says.

As China’s tallest building, it will certainly be a landmark. But practicalities rather than aesthetics have decided its shape. To avoid building congestion, the tower is being stacked like a wedding cake in nine self-contained cylindrical tiers, each with access to its own services. These include atrium sky-gardens, cafés, restaurants and shops designed to improve access to natural light and encourage socialising.

The building’s twisting, tapering exterior was chosen to minimise the size of supporting columns, increase useable space for work areas and reduce wind loads. Lower wind loads should make life inside the tower more comfortable.

“If you go into restaurants of super-tall towers, you can often feel them sway,” says Callum MacBean, managing director of Gensler’s Shanghai office. “After a large lunch the sensation can be quite off-putting.”

Of course, nesting inside an existing trophy building is generally more affordable than commissioning a monument from scratch. The downside, however, is that the floor-plates may not fit your way of working or even your choice of furniture. So how can businesses make the best of an inherited layout?

One way to get the best out of a building that has not been designed with the needs of your workforce in mind is to use space creatively. Jeremy Myerson, director of the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre and co-author of New Demographics,

New Workspace, says “rectilinear glass boxes” found in identikit offices are easy to fill with rows of desks but the awkward pockets in unusually shaped, stylish buildings can provide the quiet nooks in which knowledge workers flourish, provided they are used imaginatively. “As well as areas for collaboration, offices need quiet zones for concentrated work and places for rest and recuperation,” he adds.

How space is divided up also speaks volumes to employees about how their bosses value them. This can have a huge impact on morale. Working in a nondescript dark interior does not have the feel-good factor of occupying a lofty corner office with a bird’s-eye view.

Rather than saving the plum spots for executives, Sevil Peach, director of Sevil Peach Architecture and Design, recommends placing communal areas around the edges of buildings so everyone gets a “democratic share” of natural light and panoramic vistas.

However, it is better not to position desks too close to windows or force employees to walk through narrow glass-sided corridors, cautions Jack Pringle, co-founder of interior architects Pringle Brandon. “People might like the views, but many would rather stand a metre or two back,” he says.

Putting in connecting stairways overlooking work areas can build a sense of community among departments stacked on top of each other, overcoming the problem of tall towers that force teams to split up.

Another way to pull people together is to create a communal floor with cafés and soft seating. “Otherwise people just e-mail each other,” says Ms Peach.

A building that makes a splash on the skyline may be high-maintenance, but for some companies, at least, it seems the investment can pay off.

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