Our workplaces are facing a series of challenges in a rapidly changing future. The design and creation of new workplaces will need to be radically different from the past. Here Director, Ed Hayden looks at some of the challenges and solutions in creating the office of the future.
Some of the key challenges we face in new office design can be considered under three general headings:
The very way in which we work has changed overnight, the pandemic has transformed large parts of the centralised office based workforce to a dispersed homeworking society, and the effects of this are likely to last. What does this mean for the structure of companies, and what they require from offices in the future?
Technology offers autonomy, allowing anyone to work remotely anywhere, and the implementation of 5G technology will reinforce this. Individual ‘computer based’ focused working may well take place in the home setting, so we must consider what becomes of the traditional commercial office building.
Whilst homeworking offers many benefits it also has some major disadvantages, dependent on your circumstances and if you have the space it can be great for focused tasks. You can work without interruption, surrounded by all the comforts of a home office tailored to your specific requirements. But this is not universal, and conversely sharing a dining table with partners and young children can be very disruptive. However we can see that this shift to a homeworking lifestyle has been embraced by the majority of those who can do it, so what becomes of our offices, and what do we need from them in the future?
Collaboration, face-to-face contact and human social interaction are awkward and limited over the computer or phone screen. Fluid meetings where multiple items can be discussed in a freeform manner, splitting away from the primary topic and rejoining with new ideas, can be very difficult over networking software. Our buildings need to fulfil that role and become places for human cooperation, and forums for creative collaboration, each one a crucible for a specific field of exploration and discovery.
The new organisational ‘system’ of a company can be seen as a central core around which homeworkers orbit, connected together by a web of powerful IT. Between the core and the home-workers specific groups connect the two, managing Accounts, Technology, Human resources and the like.
"To rebuild acceptance of the ‘office’ we need to provide healthy environments, and to create these will require fundamental changes, which will be reflected in the offices we design for the future."
So what happens at the center?
The ‘core’ contains a Leadership Team, Client Hub, Internal Hub and Academic Hub. Each building becoming a creative crucible, a forum for discussion, presentation and learning, all focused around an area of expertise or creative exploration.
The leadership team sets the direction for the company as they have always done, making the strategic decisions but also forming the ‘glue’ that holds the company together. But there is more to the core than that, the company still requires a ‘forum’ for learning.
The Academic hub is a place where knowledge can be handed from experienced older employees to the more junior staff, (not something that happens naturally over video conferencing software), and where specific areas can be discussed in a freeform way.
The Internal Hub provides space for those for whom home working is not practical or desired, and allows for teams and groups to come together to exchange ideas and socialise. This form of human face-to face interaction and collaboration is a valuable part of building a team ethos and is not easily replicated remotely.
Finally, and possibly overlapping the two is space for the client hub. Presentations, building client relationships and collaborating ‘around the table’ are still of key importance when building business relationships and engaging with clients or external partners.
However, to rebuild acceptance of the ‘office’ we need to provide healthy environments, and to create these will require fundamental changes, which will be reflected in the offices we design for the future.
Responding to the challenges of the current (and future) pandemics the design of offices will need to limit the risk of infection spread. The office of the future will need to mitigate against the spread of future contagious diseases and allow the office to continue running effectively through any future pandemics, this has a number of fundamental effects on office design.
The prevalent use of air-conditioning has meant that in general 90% of the air in offices is recycled, and this is supplemented by 10% fresh air.
This may no longer be acceptable given the perceived risk of airborne infection spread. We anticipate a reversal, with 90% of fresh air being a new requirement, with possible changes to the design guidance such as the BCO, Well building Standards and Building Regulations.
Whether or not this risk has been proven there is still the issue of the building occupants’ perception – knowing that the air is recirculated and not filtered may well create anxiety and discourage occupants from using the space.
A move to a natural or displacement ventilation solution with increased fresh air and avoidance of recycled air is a solution; the office of the future uses the atrium stack-effect to draw fresh air in through the façade and vent stale air out through the roof avoiding cross contamination risks.
A visual representation of the air quality in the form of an environmental ‘dashboard’ accessed from any device and displayed prominently in the office will give comfort to the occupants that the safety and quality of the internal environment is under constant review.
During the winter, stale air is collected at the top of the atrium and used to preheat fresh air using a plate heat exchanger, again avoiding contamination. The heating and cooling of the space is implemented using radiant panels which can radiate heat (or cool) to adjust the internal temperature.
Reduced occupation densities, carefully planned layouts, and limited contact with surfaces (such as door handles) are all matters that may become normal design considerations in the new generation of workplace design.
Other features such as inbuilt routes which avoid close contact, split staircases allowing separated up and down routes, and Superloos with UV light cleansing between uses are likely to be adopted to reduce the infection risk over the longer term.
"30% of the carbon is created during the construction phase, and in order to achieve ‘net zero carbon’ buildings must address this issue."
Finally, the greater crisis that faces humanity is the effect of man-made climate change.
We have a pressing need to address the amount of carbon dioxide that is released in the occupation and construction of our office spaces.
30% of the carbon is created during the construction phase, and in order to achieve ‘net zero carbon’ buildings must address this issue. Switching from carbon intensive materials such as concrete and steel to materials which ‘sequester’ carbon into the building fabric is fundamental in achieving these goals.
The use of mass timber in the form of LVL, CLT and Glulam as the building structure is the solution. This is a ‘better than zero’ solution during the life of the building (and potentially beyond). The office of the future uses, pre-manufactured, zero waste timber construction systems with innovations such as LVL rib deck panels, CLT timber core walls and Glulam columns and beams to create efficient attractive sustainable spaces. This combines perfectly with the other aims of a flexible collaborative working environment and a healthy naturally ventilated workspace.
The new office concept combines all of these considerations, providing a healthy attractive environment which encourages collaboration and creativity without impacting on the health of the planet. We look forward with anticipation to a new era of workplace design which encompasses these goals, and we are already seeing a shift in the mindset of clients, occupiers and developers to be vanguards in the creation of the office of the future.
Discover more about our Timber Office Concept by taking a look around this Virtual Visit, or our virtual exhibition at Singapore Archifest that takes you on a tour of 'The Flute', a timber high rise tower.
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