Paul Finch Letter From London: 19 May

Global trends not European politics will determine office futures

There were plenty of architects in evidence at last week’s British Council for Offices annual conference, which took place in Berlage’s Stock Exchange building in sunny Amsterdam.

Rem Koolhaas opened proceedings with a typically concise analysis of Europe, the Netherlands (10 per cent of Europeans on 1 per cent of the land mass), the Randstad and Amsterdam itself. The ‘metropolis without a centre’ had an airport at the heart of an urban approach based on distributed density – or lack of it, now that what is known as ‘Ikea height’, ie two storeys, has become a norm.

Robotised greenhouses have replaced traditional agriculture in a fragmented country where there is no large project, instead a state of continuous improvisation, not least in ‘porous’ Amsterdam, the ideal city for Airbnb. OMA’s office scheme, for G-Star Raw, is similarly porous, in the sense that there are large areas and volumes for staff iteration, apparently leading to a 60 per cent reduction in emails.

The question of quality of space, was a feature of the two-day event. A good statistic: there has been on average a 1 sq ft reduction in workspace per office employee every year for the last 20 years. The question was whether, as at G-Star, gross space and volume were generous, or was everything just getting meaner?

Criticism of relentless open plan as an idea came from consultant Katrina Kostic Samen of KKS Strategy, who noted the impossibility of one design approach fitting everyone from the stable to the neurotic and from extrovert to introvert. Executives who made decisions about these matters tended to be extrovert (‘rainmakers’) and often ignored the requirements of some for peace and quiet. Her general conclusion was that open plan itals plus choice itals was the best bet.

Peace and quiet was the subject of a brilliant short address by Julian Treasure from the Sound Agency. His bombshell statistic: open plan design reduces productivity by 66 per cent. Interesting if true. He described open plan as a ‘disease’ where thoughtless noise production (not the same as sound) interfered with concentration and contemplation. Is that what we want? His sideswipe at smaller workstations was the observation that cost-cutting is not the same as productivity.

Paul Scialla, who runs the impressive WELL certification scheme via his company Delos, told the conference at the final plenary session that it was too early to give any definitive answer on whether more cramped offices had an effect of staff well-being, but he reminded us what a tiny proportion of total cost design, construction and space represents in relation to the 30-year life of a commercial organization in a particular building, staff costs being by far the biggest expense.

His health test for buildings includes measurement of air and water quality amongst other things, and is the subject of a live experiment in London by Cundalls, so watch this space.

As for politics, in a straw poll only a handful of the 500-plus delegates said they would vote for Brexit, as the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now an MEP, gave a rousing Europhile address. It was left to your correspondent to point out that, stripped of hyperbole, what he had said was that the EU is dysfunctional; that it cannot work as currently constituted; that it must become a United States of Europe; and that it needs to be an empire.

Since this is what Napoleon and the man with the little moustache wanted, it put Boris’s weekend remarks in perspective, along with the new borders of Europe as defined by the Eurovision Song Contest, to include Russia, Israel and Australia. Sounds like an empire.

 

 

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