Items filtered by date: December 2011 - onoffice magazine
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Up in smoke?

UK timber manufacturing says that it can’t compete with government subsidies offered to the biomass industry to buy wood – and small businesses are feeling the burn. Will a new campaign level the playing field?

If you were passing through Victoria train station in early November you may have come across a giant Jenga tower in the middle of the concourse. The structure could easily be dismissed as one of those hip interactive advertising campaigns but for the slogan “Stop Burning Our Trees” charcoaled into each oversized block. Up the road in Westminster, people in light-green sweaters handed out saplings and leaflets carrying the same message.

The campaign is the latest move by the Wood Panel Industries Federation (WPIF) to highlight a growing problem facing the industry: the rapid rise in the cost of wood. WPIF represents a broad cross-section of the industry, from sawmillers to office furniture manufacturers. The problem lies in the government’s commitment to renewable energy, and specifically biomass energy plants. “In the last five years there has been increasing interest in biomass,” says WPIF director general Alastair Kerr. “And the preferred biomass fuel is wood.” Burning wood to create electricity has led to spiralling prices, which is putting the squeeze on UK companies.

“So what?” one might reasonably ask. After all, there is nothing to stop different industries competing for the same raw materials. However, the government’s Renewables Obligation – the current financial mechanism for supporting renewable electricity – means subsidies are available to the biomass industry, giving it an advantage. “In a free market we couldn’t complain about it, but the market is rigged by the subsidy,” says Kerr. “Wood has gone up 50% over the last five years as a direct consequence.”

This is having a knock-on effect to companies that use wood to make their products. Kronospan makes wood panel products and laminate flooring, employing 600 people in Chirk, north Wales. Company director Gavin Adkins says there has been a tightening in the market. “The traditional manufacturers are scrabbling to make sure they have availability and that is driving the price up. Inevitably, the whole industry has pushed through a number of price increases over the last 12-18 months, not to even keep pace with the cost increase, but to try and haul something back.”

Biomass is still a fledgling industry, but large plants are planned in Forth, Port Talbot and Tilbury, with two more in Selby and Immingham approved by energy minister Charles Hendry in August. However, plant owner Drax says the subsidy for biomass needs to be increased for the plans to go ahead.

The problem is the sheer amount of raw material biomass plants need to produce electricity. As things stand, the government estimates the biomass industry will consume 80m tonnes of timber a year by 2030. Currently, the UK produces 10m tonnes a year, with the wood panel industry consuming 4.5m tonnes of it; the biomass industry therefore needs to import wood, which the government says should alleviate pressure on the wood panel industry. In a statement to onoffice, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said it expected larger conversion plants (coal-fired plants converted to biomass) to import 90-100% of wood from abroad. DECC also said that it would “retain support for energy crops, which should mean farmers taking the opportunity to grow miscanthus and willow, providing an indigenous supply”. Which begs the question, how fast will a tree need to grow to make this a workable solution?

DECC’s bioenergy strategy will be published at the end of the year, setting out how biomass will supply energy until 2020, but words like “should” and “expected” will be of little comfort to companies that are being affected now. Adkins explains: “Biomass has to import a lot and the government uses that as a reason why we shouldn’t be worried. If they import 90% of the material it doesn’t stop them buying the other 10% from the UK.” If the scenario continues, Adkins says, the consequences could lead to the end of one of the UK’s few remaining manufacturing industries. “Either we don’t have a wood panel or sawmilling industry in the UK and we import all our wood products, or we survive and people pay a huge amount for their products.”

Kerr believes the transportation costs should be reflected in the subsidy: “Why should they [biomass] have the same subsidy whether it is 25 miles or 25,000 miles away? Make it more favourable to import. That does not stop them buying locally, but at least it levels the playing field.”

In industry terms, Kronospan are big hitters. But smaller sized furniture companies like Eborcraft are also under pressure. The 120-year-old company employs 34 people at its HQ just
outside York. It has recently seen its woodchip supplier in Ireland close down and is now sourcing its woodchip from Spain. Needless to say the import costs are not subsidised. Director Chris Williams says that so far Eborcraft has been able to absorb the costs without passing them on to his customers. That’s set to change in January. “We are not a big manufacturer. We don’t have the leverage to challenge price rises because we are using such a small volume of timber.” As Williams points out it is hard to argue against renewable energy sources like biomass.

To the man in the street, subsidies for green energy production sound like a progressive environmentally friendly measure. But people need look more closely. “All we are saying is ‘should our raw material go up in a puff of smoke?’,” says Kerr. “At the end of its life you can still burn it – that’s the beauty of wood. To burn virgin timber for electricity is scandalous. It is a tremendous waste.”

Their work in the public realm reveals a fascinatiom for the way people and objects interact: so how did Antenna’s Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger get along when Knoll asked them to design some workplace furniture?

It’s been a long morning for Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger, the two halves of design practice Antenna. Fresh off a plane from New York, the pair have been thrust into an early morning press conference at Knoll’s Clerkenwell showroom to launch Antenna Workspaces, the studio’s first foray into furniture.

They field questions from the dozen or so caffeine-fuelled hacks with aplomb; Moeslinger later admits that due to email troubles they had no idea what to expect and duly winged it.Not that anyone noticed: the pair’s assured delivery confirms a studio well accustomed to talking about its work.

In truth, however, commissioning Antenna for such an important project was a gamble.

Until now it was better known for designing New York subway carriages or hi-tech computer hardware. However, Knoll’s design director Benjamin Pardo was convinced Antenna’s skill at improving dreary everyday trials like buying a subway ticket would translate well to workplace furniture, and work on the project began in 2006.

“Even though we had not designed furniture, we had worked on other systemic programmes,” explains Vienna-born Moeslinger. “Benjamin valued that we had experience with something more than a single object.”

Still, having deliberately avoided designing furniture since forming in New York in 1997, it came as somewhat of a surprise.

Both Moeslinger and Udagawa hail from industrial design backgrounds – Udagawa at Apple, and Moeslinger at Ideo, where she worked on product development for clients including EC, Matsushita and GM/Hughes.

This impressive litany overlapped into the workplace sphere with a multi-award-winning flexible dual-screen display for Bloomberg. The technological has long been a source of inspiration for Udagawa, who admires Mario Bellini’s Logos 58 calculator for Olivetti. “I learned so much from trying to imagine what he was thinking when he was detailing certain things.”

Some of the more speculative punts that characterise the furniture industry, however, held no interest. Udagawa expresses distaste for what he sees as the exploitative Milan circus.

“The business is very much about young designers coming up and doing things for nothing. It’s hit and miss, but the companies can afford a lot of misses because they aren’t paying for it,” the Japanese designer reasons.

“We observe how people do things and translate that into the new way of doing it”

As it turned out, Antenna had its very own misfire with the Workspaces project. Scheduled to launch at NeoCon 2008, the designers became bogged down in the minutiae and the project was shelved. That might have been the end of the story, but Knoll was reluctant to let two years of research and work go to waste and allowed Antenna a second swipe.

“We weren’t sure if it would continue, but it did, and not only did we have a great learning curve but it also helped with the timing. No one notices a new table when the economy is collapsing,” Moeslinger sagely points out. Knoll and Antenna’s perseverance was rewarded when the project scooped NeoCon’s innovation award in 2010.

The launch represents the changing demands of the US workforce. America may be the land of the free, but it’s the home of the office cubicle, and whereas open-plan offices are the norm this side of the Atlantic, Uncle Sam has been a little reluctant to embrace the concept.

A multi-purpose blend of desks, storage units and screens, Antenna Workspaces aims to eliminate the need for physical barriers in the American office and replace them with something more intuitive. Standalone L-shaped filing cabinets suggest divisions rather than dictate them and in this respect the product has a European flavour, echoing the Bourellecs’ Joyn (2002).

A mix of cantilevered tabletops supported by elegant steel legs, Antenna Workspaces is a good deal less clunky than most stateside office furniture.

Antenna strives to build relationships between the person and object. Many of the studio’s commercial projects are for a mass audience and they don’t come much bigger (or more demanding) than New York City’s commuters.

The R143 subway car the studio designed was the culmination of hundreds of hours of consultation and experimentation taking into account everyone’s need. Aside from wider doors and longer carriages, the practice included cantilevered seats (easier to clean under), multicoloured LCD displays that allow the conductor to reprogram the route display “on the fly”, and a pole with a looped middle section to give passengers more areas to hang on to. Improving the practice of everyday life: de Certeau would have approved.

“Projects often start with some kind of problem that requires new behaviour,” says Udagawa. “The world exists happily or otherwise so whenever you put something new into it, it has to have a purpose. We observe how people do things and translate that into the new way of doing it.” But watching the New York multitudes use it took some getting used to. Moeslinger laughingly recalls arguing with a passenger who had dropped litter in the carriage. “He looked at me like I was completely insane.”

Though neither Udagawa nor Moeslinger are native New Yorkers, the designers’ public installation work reveals a fascination with both the energy and historic fabric of their chosen city.

Bloemendaal, a work for New York’s MTA Arts for Transit programme, attempts to reconnect a new station building on Broadway with its rural origins through rows of metallic flowers that glimmer under the vaulted ceiling’s lights. Light features heavily in Pattern Recognition, exhibited at the Frederieke Taylor gallery, which explored the city as a spectacle, twisting and reinterpreting familiar New York icons like taxi cabs, subway maps and apartment blocks.

After 14 years in business, Antenna is in high demand. More projects with Knoll are in the pipeline and a new subway car, this time for Washington DC, is expected to arrive in 2013.

All this activity has left little time for the couple, who are keen runners, to prepare for the upcoming New York marathon. “We are not in good enough shape,” says Moeslinger. “This year has not been good in terms of training.” With many of their contemporaries scratching around for work, it’s fair to suppose Antenna should not be unduly bothered.

A raft of challenges faced MoreySmith when it came to turning the vanilla Cat A office space in north London’s Regent’s Place into the new headquarters of media giants Aegis Group.

The move, a culmination of a two-year strategic property review, is the first time that the company’s various brands (including Vizeum, iProspect and Carat) have come under one roof. Previously spread around London, in locations ranging from the Qube near Tottenham Court Road to the Tea Building in Shoreditch, each had developed an individual feel to their offices and workspaces. The project demanded a level of unity, so that the brands would sit together in a coherent way, but no individual agency wanted to lose any of its identity in the transfer.

There was some controversy over bringing a group of media companies to Regent’s Place, the British Land development that spans the area behind Euston Road between Great Portland Street and Warren Street tube stations. When it couldn’t find a single space big enough in the traditional media strongholds of east London and the West End, Aegis took the step to move its 1,150 staff to the “other” side of Euston, to an 11,000 sq m site overlooking Regent’s Park.

The company had found the space it needed, but the building itself needed a stamp of individuality. The Regent’s Place development already had everything in place, from the reception, which directly mirrors others in the development, to the raised floors and suspended ceilings. Important decisions had to be made over whether to extensively refit areas, or to allocate the funding elsewhere, injecting personality into the building through other means.

These factors made consulting each individual client more important than ever. The project also had a tight timescale attached – eight months from consultation to moving in. This posed an additional challenge: each contractor had to be closely phased, with all eight floors of the building fitted out in a synchronised manner, meaning that each floor plate needed to relate to the next.

Despite every floor-cum-agency having a unique treatment in terms of design and feel, a layout template was needed to make the project deadlines achievable. On each floor, the meeting rooms sit behind the lift shaft; the lift gives way to reception entrances with breakout space and drinks points leading off them;
and the open-plan office spaces lie beyond.

A skilful balance of creativity and pragmatism was essential to make this project a success. “We had been faced with a similar challenge with another client, Arup,” says Nicola Osborn, a director on the project. “We had to bring a number of companies together, retaining the identity of each. Sony Music was similar; many labels that had existed separately had to come together in one location.” These projects served as testimony of MoreySmith’s ability to listen to each company individually and deliver a shared vision for the client. “It’s this experience that they really valued,” explains Osborn. “This is the most brands we have worked with in a single project, however.”

The main feature as you walk into Aegis’s reception is the staircase, which the architects dropped in, meaning that big clients do not have to go through security, or the main lift lobby, but are linked directly to the pitch rooms on the first floor. It also bypasses the ground floor cafe, which is designed as an informal space for employees to mix, eat and relax. Its style is traditional-brassiere-with-a-twist, with a mix of black and white tiling and wooden parquet floors, and a pre-cast concrete serving counter. The ceilings have been stripped back, and an eclectic mix of grouped pendent lights create more intimate areas to meet. It’s contemporary but classic, rather than all-out Shoreditch, Osborn explains: “It’s designed to accommodate a range of agencies – some more corporate than others – so it has to be inclusive to everyone in the building, and also be somewhere people want to spend time.”

The first floor is split between the offices of Aegis Group executives and the shared meeting room suites, a central resource that teams across the building can book via a meet-and-greet reception desk. “One thing we noticed consulting the clients is how much these spaces get used, and they are now fully booked out,” Osborn explains. The rooms here include a cinema suite for formal presentations and entertaining, and a range of rooms (dedicated to various media legends such as Tim Berners-Lee and Alexander Graham Bell) with high-spec video-conferencing facilities, sliding panels to create a flexible use of space, and walls made from wooden railway sleepers and upholstered panelling to add texture and warmth, giving the area the exclusive feel of a private members club.

Each lift lobby has been branded with the aid of in-house designers, so that coming out on any given floor you’re presented with floor-to-ceiling graphics, and immediately immersed in the brand of the agency you are entering. “Being media agencies, the more flat space each company was given to brand themselves with, the better,” Osborn explains.

It was probably a great help to the schedule that MoreySmith had already worked with some of the companies prior to the move – designing Vizeum’s workplace in the Qube, for example, and Carat’s in the Charlotte Building north of Soho. Osborn explains how, for some of the brands, the move offered the chance to build on what had worked in previous fitouts and refine what hadn’t, whereas with others it was a chance to launch the brand differently, elevating itself through the move.

Digital agency Glue Isobar, one of the edgier brands in Aegis’s portfolio, moved to the building from the Tea Building in Shoreditch, and used it to transfer what they loved about their old home, leaving behind flaws like the dodgy heating and a general lack of facilities. Stand-alone walls made from stacked-up wooden timbers, brick cladding, reclaimed pendant lights, supersized sliding garage doors, brightly coloured fabric walls, wall-sized chalkboards and dropped-in ceiling rafts all do an impressive job to transport some of the industrial warehouse features that had shaped the agency in its last residence, while distracting they eye from the more generic features of the brand-new building.

Overall, while the central resources have been cleverly rationalised, any vanilla aspects of the building have been eradicated behind the energetic graphics, vibrant colours, recurring motifs and natural materials that characterise each agency floor, creating effective brand microcosms in this media mother ship.

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BBC moves North

Bringing readers the story of this BBC North project in Salford has been a long time coming. onoffice visited way back in May, when, to be fair, a lot of the interior was quite literally under wraps. Designers ID:SR only felt ready to talk about it after the summer when, explains its head Helen Berresford, “the majority of those designated to be in are in.”

The interiors arm of Sheppard Robson architects clinched this highly significant scheme in 2008, which sees areas of operation including children’s programming, sport, Radio 3 and 5 Live move from London to a new purpose-built home in the north west. Although it was an open competition, ID:SR’s work with the Beeb at its W1 project (the extension to Broadcasting House at Langham Place) proved useful experience. “They needed something new and different for BBC North and our challenge was to provide something appropriate,” says Berresford.

Bridge House, Dock House and Quay House, plus the Studio Block, are part of the MediaCityUK development, which won the dubious honour of Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup this year. Outside, they look fairly bleak, and even on the temperate spring day of onoffice’s visit, the piazza looked uninviting. Those are not fair descriptions of the interior, however, which is colourful, warm and engaging.  

There are many echoes here of ID:SR’s work on Newham Council’s local government building. The accent colours of magenta and lime green in Quay House are particularly evident. There are stripes aplenty too, on the sofas and in the carpet design, which are intended to invoke the old BBC test card.  

The colour of the timber used is a key differentiator between buildings. While at Quay House, it’s black, Bridge House uses a light grey almost reminiscent of a summerhouse, and over at Dock House a more charcoal colour was chosen. Berresford says that “it is more autumnal in feel; there’s a softer palette of materials such as Melin Tregwynt’s tapestry in purple heather colours.” This wallcovering is inspired by the digital pixel – something of a recurring theme throughout the project.

The implication is this is not just a physical move, but a functional one too. Whether it’s 6Music or iPlayer or web content, the corporation has had to keep pace with the times. Hence the focus on what ID:SR terms “activity-driven design”, which means getting up, around and into the wealth of non-workstation areas dotted about the 35,500sq m complex. From domestic-inspired chairs and tables to bench seating to phone booths to breakfast bars, it’s all here. The circular pods in Quay House are among the most eye-catching designs. “They are comfortable enough for two people or one on their own,” says Berresford. “You are on centre stage sitting there and you have the permission to be there. Those pods represent an awful lot of challenges in terms of reducing the amount of formal meeting space.”

This sea change from desk-centric to amenity-centric working wasn’t achieved overnight. ID:SR’s consultation included a day session with key stakeholders at London’s Hoxton Hotel, where the foyer – a hip masterstroke as a contemporary “third place” to live and work – provided food for thought. ID:SR had to get over the territorial feelings of about 30 different user groups who had their own individual concerns and preferences for how their part of the office scheme should look and work. “In the end, we just said ‘have faith in us’,” says Berresford. “It was about creating an urban approach, making desirable space for everyone, rather than a suburban one, where you’re just concerned about your own bit.”

Engendering a creative workplace was one consideration but so was creating “a real feeling of Britishness”. From naughtone’s furniture to Bisley’s colourful storage, ID:SR worked hard to have 85% of suppliers within the UK. But at what price does this shift in workplace design come? Well, we don’t know. The BBC didn’t come back to us with a figure for the cost of this fitout, despite our requests, because the information is “commercially sensitive” (although The Guardian earlier this year reported the cost of design and fitout as £40m). Given that at least some public money went on this scheme, it’s disappointing that we can’t bring you the full financial picture. Costs are of course a thorny issue for the BBC – any sniff of an overspend and the Daily Mail would be on it like a shot. But with onoffice’s workplace design expertise, it would have been great to give an expert comparison between this and your average corporate fitout – and maybe it would have come out as considered and unfrivolous in budgetary terms as it feels.  

I asked media journalist Stephen Armstrong just how significant the move north is in the corporation’s history. “The BBC feels it ought to reflect regional diversity and this is part of that. Independent firms that are commissioned by the BBC are concerned enough to start setting up there, which I suppose means the move is having the desired effect.” On the other hand, he argues, it could be viewed as “this Blairite vision of imposing metropolitan media values on a regional city; this London bubble that is in no way representative of the area, where the only people born and bred in Salford to get a job there are security.” Of the 2,300 staff this project was originally intended for, at least a third are expected to come from the Manchester area, so you can see his point.

Much in the same way that Canary Wharf looms large physically over the Isle of Dogs, yet has little connection with its local area, so MediaCityUK doesn’t feel part of its neighbourhood yet. But then, Docklands managed to attract Trinity Mirror, the Telegraph and Reuters, so maybe meedja types aren’t bothered by that sort of thing. And anyway, only the most curmudgeonly Manchester refusenik couldn’t be impressed by what ID:SR has done with BBC North’s interior.

When it comes to designing their own workplaces, architects are in a unique position, inhabiting the roles of both designer and client. Logic dictates that, barring schizophrenic episodes, the practice should end up with something resembling the original plans. Pull it off and the workspace becomes a life-size portfolio showing off the company’s expertise and style. Fail, and there can be no buck-passing onto an unsympathetic client.

Running the gauntlet earlier this year was newly formed Chinese practice LYCS Architecture, headed up by Princeton alumni Hao Ruan. Through a friend, Ruan discovered a derelict lift plant space perched atop an office tower in Hangzhou. The architect was quick to see the building’s potential: “I was very impressed by its non-professionalism – it was just built in the most efficient way,” he says, likening such methods to the ad-hoc approach adopted by the garden designers of ancient China. “A lot of things were worked out on site, and that is in the spirit of the traditional Chinese way of building. In Chinese gardens, the architect is more like a scholar. He drinks a little wine and paints a rendering…”  

Despite debris strewn throughout the space, the concrete structure, added to the building’s roof some time in the 1970s, was sound. The main issue was that the floor was actually the original roof and featured a slant to match. “I thought we could make an interesting juxtaposition by adding another layer on top,” says Ruan, so he and his team constructed a new floor 0.8m above the old one. Not wanting to sever the connection between the rough-and-ready original, Ruan cut out five voids across the floor, covering them with removable glass panes. Creating a visual link to building’s history, these voids double up as under-floor display cabinets for architectural models.

LYCS’s neat design solution for allowing access to the lift shaft if needed was to include a small stairway underneath the glass floor. “We thought about putting a fish tank under there, but we couldn’t work out how to make sure it didn’t leak into other parts of the floor,” says Ruan. Although generally a quiet office, the floor has been covered in rubber tiles to further dampen the acoustics.

The practice retained the concrete columns supporting the roof and painted the rest of the space a surgical white. Against this backdrop the columns appear to be ancient menhirs. “We wanted to create a museum-like space, but it is not a pure, delicate white space. We painted over the original walls, for example, so it has this cracked texture.” At 350sq m this is an expansive floor plate and the whiteness only serves to increase the perception of its dimensions. It seems almost too large for LYCS’s ten staff, but with ten projects on the go in a booming city, the practice is expecting to expand.

The workspaces are aligned on the north and south facades, making the most of the large windows (to the south is Hangzhou’s West Lake, a World Heritage Site and the most beautiful lake in China, according the travel brochures). The open-plan layout is extremely flexible and Ruan enjoys the fact that members of his team can see what one another are working on. Breakout and casual meeting space is placed near the entrance, with a more private meeting room at the far end of the office; a decrepit red iron door that originally led onto the roof has been redeployed as the “guardian” to the meeting room. This sort of reuse of materials is a peculiar move for China, a country that is fully embracing the new, but it is an emblem of LYCS’s philosophy. Ruan is critical of the speed of development: “You go into large Chinese practices and it is like a factory or a production line.”

Although he is far from anti-modern, Ruan is more appreciative of the industrial processes that have led China to where it is today. For instance, the practice went to great lengths to display the lift machinery, inserting four windows into the curtain walls so the building’s heritage was not hidden away. The move again taps into LYCS’s notion of an office as an exhibition space, documenting what has gone before.

As time went by the project became a collaborative process between architect and builder. For the lighting, the architects initially opted for spotlights, but were convinced to incorporate strip lights into the steel beams on the ceiling, which throw the light upwards and reflect it back down into the space. The effect is a calming atmosphere, but the project was not all plain sailing: “It was hard because the construction workers could not imagine what the eventual aesthetic would look like,” says Ruan. LYCS also had to battle a building management team that was perplexed by the mix of old and new and wanted something “a little more fancy”. Ruan says that “it took a while for us to explain that this is one of the ways we can do that.”

The timber-topped desks, designed by the architects, express their chosen materials in a straightforward manner and consequently sit well within the space. But the pared-down aesthetic points to a more practical shortcoming: storage. “If I could do it again I would have created some cabinets embedded in the wall or something,” says Ruan. “But we never thought it would be fully completed once it was finished. I thought that when we needed something, we’d just add it on.”

A dramatic curtain wall sweeps through a cavernous atrium, its layered strips of timber evoking the strata of the earth’s crust. Carved out by Dutch architects Group A, it’s a reference to the work of their client, BP: this 9,000sq m office in The Netherlands pulls together previously disparate elements of the company into one gargantuan HQ.

Despite hitting the headlines for an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and a subsequent tongue-lashing from President Obama, BP is expanding. At its Rotterdam refinery, it left the overspill holed up in temporary buildings across the site. Feeling it was time for more coherence, in 2006/7 the company invited three practices to compete to design its new home. Group A trumped the competition with its C-shaped building, and so impressed was BP with the architects’ base build that it commissioned the practice to carry out the interior too. “It was a cool thing to do one total design,” says project architect Folkert van Hagen, but the architect found himself overseeing two teams as well as liaising with the client. “For me it was a heavy job for four years.”

High on the agenda was a new, more transparent working style – a standard request, but the brief also included some peculiarities. BP hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2005 when an explosion at the Texas City Refinery left 15 workers dead and scores injured. “BP said this should never happen again,” says project architect Folkert van Hagen, “so the major concern was that it should be blastproof.” This is more apparent when viewing the building from the outside. Covered in turf, it rises from the ground, curving to form a protective shield. “It’s a very heavy structure, particularly with the earth on top,” says van Hagen. The curved shape helps enormously with stability as does the reinforced concrete frame, while the facade bends and shifts to absorb the force of any blast.

Group A was presented with an extraordinary site to build on. Located on the cusp between the largest port in the world and grassy wetlands, it would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast. Folkert and his team attempted to celebrate this by creating an exchange between heavy industry and nature. “They should really blend together. When you’re in the building you see all the drums of BP on one side, and the other direction, a nice green Dutch landscape.” The glassy east facade contains the main entrance, and moving north the building tapers down, melting into the landscape. The facade is protected from the sun by a series of horizontal louvres, and BP’s logo goes almost unnoticed in the top corner (Group A felt a giant billboard announcing the company’s arrival was overkill. BP agreed).

The workforce, in typically Dutch fashion, cycles between the refinery to the west and their new office, its entrance signposted by a concrete Pythagorean quiff. The building then opens up into its dynamic atrium, its most cinematic moment. Above is a glass roof flooding the huge space with natural light, with office spaces lining either side, stretching for 100m and connected by two bridges. “We felt it shouldn’t be a straight atrium that only delivers light: it should be more like a cave, bringing the idea of the hill inside,” says van Hagen. To achieve this Group A sourced hundreds upon thousands of pieces of cheap Dutch wood, painting them three colours to create the striated effect. The architects chose granite for the floor and added a handful of soft seats that look like pebbles sitting on a black sand beach. While they soften the aesthetic a little, this is clearly not an office space for noodle-armed creative types. “We thought it should be rough,” continues van Hagen. “We used blue steel and wood, and the carpets on the office floors look like young grass coming up through the mud.”

It took two years to convince BP of the merits of open-plan working. Noise was a big concern. In the end Group A ferried a selection of BPs staff to a previous office the architect had completed to prove the acoustics could work. “If you want people to understand acoustics they have to listen to it,” says van Hagen. Of course, much unwanted noise is absorbed by the timber wall, but the architects also used acoustic ceilings to quieten things down.

Protruding into the atrium are large “meeting boxes”, eight on the ground floor and one for every floor above. “When you are in one of these the whole company opens up to you. You can see other people in meetings and you are transparent to the whole organisation. This is like the open heart of the company,” says Van Hagen. Initially this idea was met with scepticism: multinationals that are super-relaxed are a rarity, and no department wants to display nosediving performance figures to all and sundry. In any event, no one at BP has taken Group A’s offer to seal them off just yet.

Improved communication was another important feature of the brief, so the architects arranged the breakout areas and the central staircase around these meeting rooms. “All movement is around these bridges,” says van Hagen. “When you are searching for somebody, you only have to stand there for two minutes and there they are. It’s a cool thing.” With the ground floor of the building given over to shower and locker rooms, Group A put the office canteen on the first floor, further increasing the community feel.

Lasting four years, the design of the project was exhaustive, with the architects discussing every last detail from the signage to the number of coat hooks in the changing rooms. “It was nice, because you get so much feedback,” says van Hagen, who has high hopes of an award for Group A’s effort. “This is the first piece of architecture in this harbour area; everything else is just square technical buildings. But we are still people, and architecture is important.”

Via her design and branding firm Studioilse, Ilse Crawford applies an intuitive approach to places and objects – which can work just as well in the workplace, as her newest project demonstrates 

Ilse Crawford’s loft apartment near London’s Borough Market has the lingering aroma of last night’s cooking – something cumin-y and exotic.

Floor-to-ceiling shelves are heaving with architecture books and trinkets, among them a phrenology bust and a collection of glass teapots twinkling in the warehouse window. Sheepskin throws and feel-me fabrics have been strewn over the backs of chairs and the sofa, and the designer herself has managed to clear a spot for her laptop at a cluttered table in the middle of it all.

The effect is classic Crawford: enchanting, though much less obsessively perfect than might be expected of one of Britain’s most celebrated interior designers.

It feels like a real, lived-in home – and so much the better for it. The space also doubles as an impromptu meeting room and canteen for the 12 staff of Studioilse, Crawford’s multidisciplinary design practice, which resides on the floor above.

“I’ve always liked the idea that you can cook and have a civilised existence when you’re working in a studio,” she says. “It feels human. I like the idea that you can keep some sense of the normal in daily working life.”

Crawford’s fascination with the humanistic aspect of design – “the things human beings respond to” – is well documented. From Bath’s Babington House hotel through to a recent office fit out for London advertising firm Rapier, the experience of people – what they feel, smell, hear and see – eclipses how a space will look.

As it happens, Studioilse’s projects never seem to disappoint visually, as Soho House, Grand Hôtel Stockholm and London eateries Cecconi’s or Kettners can attest.

“For all the physical and emotional connection you need a formal way of manifesting it,” says Crawford. “So the goal is to try to bring the two together – not for the sake of it but because it connects us to ourselves and to the world we live in, to other people. That’s when design starts to get interesting.”

Over the last ten years Studioilse has built up an impressive client base (including Swarovski, Cowshed, Waterford and Aesop) using a self-titled recipe of “modern and emotional design”.

The work is a heady mix of hospitality, domestic and workplace interiors and architecture, furniture and products, with the most recent pieces for De La Espada and Wästberg launched during this year’s London Design Festival.

“We learn through all of our senses, rather more quickly than through the eyes”

Crawford reckons her design sensibilities stem from her Danish mother, artist Jill Tendall, who ran her childhood home with a Scandinavian sense of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-ha), which roughly translates to bringing intimacy and soul into a building.

“It’s that idea that you can bring people together, that space is a dynamic sociable thing,” says Crawford. “That was very much practiced in our family. There were five children but everybody from around would hang out at our house because ours was the one with the big kitchen table, and the games in what was usually the stiff sitting room of other people’s houses. We had fun.”

It goes without saying that Crawford has mastered the art of low-key luxury interiors – but her route into design wasn’t straightforward.

Born in 1962, she grew up with her four siblings near Portobello Market in Notting Hill and later Kent, with sights set on a career in architecture.

“It’s the usual story, creative parents without much money, so we were allowed a lot of freedom,” she explains. Eventually the architecture idea was abandoned for a career in magazines – namely, as an office manager and sub-editor on The Architects’ Journal, then as an editor at The World of Interiors.

But it was after launching British design bible Elle Decoration in 1989, and subsequently seeing four or five thousand interiors over the course of a decade, that Crawford properly began to question things and form her own ethos.

The problem, apparently, was that all of the spaces looked fabulous but very few genuinely felt good to be in.

“I started to realise that I actually felt very uncomfortable with things that were so visually driven. And it’s going back to that hygge thing again. I was interested in what made a space habitable but also contemporary.” This line of enquiry has been the basis for Studioilse, which launched after the designer returned to London following a stint in New York at Donna Karan Home at the end of the 1990s. “It wasn’t my ambition to move up the corporate ladder,” she says of her reasons to move back to Europe. “I wanted to be where the creative ideas start. I didn’t want to be doing Excel spreadsheets.”

After returning from New York Crawford launched a “wellbeing” title, Bare, for John Brown Publishing, which only lasted a year and took a bit of a hammering in the press. But it was an important endeavour, she says, because it allowed her to research ideas and hone her design approach: “I think ultimately we respond to our environment from a physical perspective. We learn a lot through all of our senses, rather more quickly than through the eyes. They all have different functions.”

These themes are explored at length in Crawford’s bestselling books, Home is Where the Heart Is and Sensual Home, but it’s as the head of Design Academy Eindhoven’s Man and Wellbeing department, which she launched 15 years ago, that the ideas are fully explored.

Crawford lights up when talking about recent student work; a de-mining device designed by an Afghan refugee, a project aimed at bringing humour into hospital waiting rooms and a coffin designed to “tuck” a person in, to name a few.

“It’s a funny word, ‘wellbeing’, and a bit soppy in the sense that you can say ‘Ah, wellbeing. Fa lalalala’,” she muses. “But the wellbeing that I’m interested in is Teddy Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights wellbeing – the one that basically says that along with economic growth you need to look at the individual’s wellbeing. That’s essentially what the department is about.”

“The trouble with those old-school offices is that they’re  quite detrimental to human communication of any sort”

It’s hard to pin a signature style on Studioilse, but there do seem to be some common threads, such as the use of simple, high-quality (or what Crawford calls “real”) materials. There is a tendency towards warm colours, texture and a mix of traditional and modern forms, although the designer hesitates to define things in this way.

“What I think is important is the total idea. I think you can mix different ingredients, which might be different periods, but not necessarily,” she says.

More than anything there is an acute sense of the whole experience, down to minute details.

She references the two “modern coaching inns” that Studioilse completed in 2008, The Olde Bell and The Crown: “You can’t use real materials like oak, felt and brass, and serve real food, and then use chemical cleaners. It just destroys the whole world that has been made.”

The place has to have authentic smells, whatever they are, otherwise a person will quickly read the whole environment as a fake, says Crawford. “I think that’s because we’re actually highly intuitive beings and intuition is basically all of the senses added together. That’s how we survive and how we make up our mind about things.”

One can see where the boundaries of hospitality and workplace design blur in Crawford’s office for Rapier’s 150 staff, created in collaboration with architects APA and completed this year (with work still ongoing).

Perched above London’s Westway in the legendary Battleship Building (designed as a British Rail maintenance depot in the 1960s by Paul Hamilton), the three-floor space abandons everything from the firm’s previous home near Tottenham Court Road.

“They’d got to a point where the owner could see it was damaging relationships between people. The trouble with those old-school offices is that they’re quite detrimental to human communication of any sort. There is nothing like lots of little cells to create dodgy office politics,” she says. “And through the furniture you felt uncared for, basically.”

For budgetary reasons the infrastructure of the building was kept as is, with the money spent on things people would sit on, touch, and see. Bulky desking systems and storage were replaced with an eclectic mix of timber tables and a perimeter desk with views out, oriental rugs and lots of plants. Moving away from a Taylorist, factory-driven approach, new and vintage furniture gives shape to zones where staff can work individually or be together.

The difference here is that instead of clinical breakout furniture, Crawford has used everything from light industrial machinery to the sort of stuff you might find at home or a hotel.

Wooden A-frames on wheels have been designed for creative brainstorming, but crucially, they can also be moved around to build barricades. “There is one guy who is obviously less social than the others because he’s arranged four A-frames around his desk. But that’s fine,” she says. “That’s the point. I’m a big believer in that sort of Herman Hertzberger thing of just let people do what they need to do, and it’ll all work out.”

Crawford also took on the issue of lighting – abandoning the rigid “on-off” scenario found in most offices for a series of industrial-style pendant lights and desk lamps.

“The fact of the matter is that a lot of the existing lighting regulation in offices is very old fashioned. It came in at a time when people were badly in need of regulation because spaces were under-lit, but now we’ve gone the other way and we’ve got light pollution, frankly,” she says. “It was so interesting to see the difference in atmosphere when we made that change. People were more relaxed, more jolly – it just became a more pleasant place to be. And I think that if people are happy and comfortable then good things happen.”

newsletter 2015