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Beauty and the Beast - Are buildings engineered to deliver?

When leading visionary architects and developers question the need for iconic buildings we would be well advised to sit up and listen.


Whilst I am not entirely sure that this is exactly the message that they are trying to get across, there does appear to be a ground swell of opinion that the design of modern building needs to align with the needs of occupiers rather than creating architecturally beautiful buildings that do not actually respond to the requirements of tenants current or future needs.


The current lack of investment capital combined with low tenant demand means that we all need to consider and understand in detail what the specific characteristics are of any given building will be to enhance its likelihood to attract future tenants and occupiers.


There is significant pressure for the occupier’s real estate teams (both developers and agents) to demonstrate that they understand the strengths and weaknesses of their portfolios, and how they operate them. Therefore any new building, or significant refurbishment needs to be able to demonstrate how it will lead to improvements.


The situation is further complicated by the current economic climate combined with increased regulatory burdens on businesses, continually changing legislation surrounding energy and sustainability and the very real potential for further economic shocks.


How can we as building services specialists influence this?


One of the key issues we find repeatedly when we engage with developers and tenants is how we can design their buildings to assist in improving the overall productivity of their staff, and allow them to use the building in a more efficient way.


In addition, they cite the need for area that they can use more efficiently, ie use less space but better space, which maximises their usable area, whilst minimising their rental costs, but more importantly space that they can use flexibly and be adaptable to their future requirements, both known and unknown. 


In any given organisation the staff costs represent a significant investment, therefore it is essential that the space creates an environment that reflects the company’s brand, adds to their ability to attract and retain the very best staff and is a place that they are proud for their clients to visit and spend time.


We know that flexibility costs money, it is therefore essential that we fully understand what elements of the business model actually need to be flexible, and where the way of working needs to be flexible to adapt to the functionality available. 


From our extensive experience working with the many large corporate / financial companies and prominent developers, we have an in-depth understanding of the particular and varied requirements and how the scope and the extent of the services provided will vary between the front of house functions and the back of house activities. ie providing solutions that are mutually beneficial.


Business culture is much more staff focused than ever before, and adaptability of space to suit the businesses operational changes is critical.


People mobility is another key issue. Businesses want the ability to relocate staff around the office or offices, with minimum disruption and down time. They also want to enable remote working, be that working from home, a cafe or someone else’s office. This latter item seems to be gaining in prominence as businesses move to more collaborative working practises; therefore it is essential that any new development provides its potential tenants with the opportunity to take advantage of these opportunities.


Companies around the world are becoming more global, connected, and mobile. Office design is changing to keep up. People are starting to have more and more freedom to choose how they work, where they work, and when they work.


So just what will your office look like in 5, 10, or 20 years?


You won’t be chained to a desk, for starters. Many companies now plan for on-site coffee shops, cafes, and lounges, where employees can work at any point in the day. In fact, 30 percent of some offices are dedicated to just this type of non-traditional workspace. 


The overriding goal is to provide employees with a variety of comfortable settings that match their individual work styles—and to spark creativity. Half of great ideas come from bursts of brilliance, when people bump into each other in the hallway and start talking.


In the future, offices will look more like trading floors, with individual desks being replaced with communal tables. A number of companies have already seen the potential for idea sharing that this model promotes. 


At British Airways corporate offices, the CEO, who spends 70 percent of his time travelling, recognised that his office space could be turned into a café or a conference space—and wanted to maximize the time he does spend in the office by being in close proximity to his employees.


Space and technology will encourage collaboration. New technology allows employees to sit around a table, plug in their laptops, and instantly share information with the group. Likewise, many companies are stepping away from the traditional conference room and opting for more comfortable lounges and even outdoor meeting spaces.


Conferences will take place anywhere. Multiple clients and co-workers across the globe can view and hear each other simultaneously. Currently, though, it usually requires the equipment to live in a certain room with just the right lighting and acoustics. 


In time, those same teleconferences will be happening in any part of the office from any device. With the help of video chat software, like Skype, a smartphone or tablet can be used to tap in to a meeting and, because technology is moving away from the need for clunky power strips (many offices are going completely wireless), new telepresence technologies will be easier to set up wherever, whenever.


Touch screen panels and interactive displays on tables and walls are going to be the next phase of development. With this technology, you’ll be able to sit around one of these tables with a group and all have digital pens to jot down ideas during a brainstorm session.


Offices are major innovators in technology. Whether they seek to create new products that customers will buy or work to improve their own office processes, many offices consistently embrace change. Information technology has allowed businesses to communicate and carry out a multitude of tasks over long distances cheaply and instantaneously.


Despite the advancement of new technologies such as cloud consulting, which should in theory reduce buildings power requirements, demands and the levels of resilience required for new developments are increasing at a significant rate. 


The availability of power (or potential lack of power), particularly in the City of London, combined with the costs of new supplies to developments is increasingly becoming a key topic of discussion and concern.


Building legislation and its implementation through building control and local authorities will be key drivers in reducing the energy consumption and carbon footprint of buildings. Part L of the building regulations is scheduled for more onerous updates in 2013 and 2016 with a target such that all new building built from 2019 onwards will need to produce as much renewable energy as they consume, making them truly zero carbon. 


This is therefore a key driver when considering the design of buildings and requires architects and engineers alike to consider façade performance, services performance and on-site low carbon generation opportunities.


In London particularly, there is a real drive to implement de-centralised energy generation such that by 2025, 25% of all London’s energy will be derived from such installations. This is not only to support lower carbon generation but also to mitigate the risk of any potential energy gaps which may begin to appear in the UK electricity infrastructure. 


The gap is a by-product of our increased requirements for technology, and hence power, as well as the forecast of coal fired power stations closing to being able to meet the clean air requirements. In addition, the UK’s remaining Magnox nuclear stations are planned to close by 2015. 


Reports have suggested that without action to fill the gap, there could be a 10-15% shortfall in electricity generation capacity by 2015. Mitigation of this through design and de-centralised energy will be a key driver to ensure our building continuing to function in spite of this.


To respond to this buildings must be enabled to provide the functionality at day one to meet typical expectations of tenants, which of course will vary depending on their business arena, location etc, but also have the inherent flexibility and adaptability designed in from the outset, that does not compromise the developments’ investment value, but allows the occupants to readily adapt to their changing business circumstances, with minimum disruption and churn costs.


This includes the need for flexible floor spaces, adequate slab to slab dimensions, and an appropriate level of design parameters and day one resilience. 


Carefully planned service distribution and risers that are positioned to accommodate both tenant and landlord needs a clear strategy for expanding, and contracting the services provision to meet any occupant’s particular needs at any one time.


This last one is always the difficult issue to address satisfactorily.


Clearly funding for any new speculative development is difficult to secure at the moment; therefore any potential development seeking to attract capital will need to have excellent credentials. 


Very good net to gross floor efficiencies are still the key drivers to maximise yields, but this can work against the need to provide a flexible, highly serviced and resilient product. 


Our approach is to use our experience with tenants to understand the likely tenant that would be attracted to a building of the type under consideration, and then to benchmark the services specification against similar developments. 


This informs the correct level for the Shell and Core/Cat A specification to drive through efficiencies.


This will inevitably include some spatial and infrastructure allowances for tenant’s particular services, such as comms risers, plant area for generators, cooling restaurants, etc. It is also essential that at the outset the potential strategy for sub-letting are planned into the design.


We then envisage what possible requirements any given tenants may have, and work with the team to determine how this could be accommodated, for a single-let, a let of 3 to 4 different tenants or a full multi-let scenario.


This exercise ensures that we manage into the design any given fit out option and also allows the developer to respond positively to tenant’s enquiries.


So whilst it is impossible to gaze too far ahead through the crystal ball and predict the future tends with absolute certainty, a sound understanding of tenants needs and how technology is developing and shaping working practices will ensure that projects can be designed to provide flexible buildings that are capable of adapting to future change.