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Worktech 12 London

The ninth annual Worktech London conference takes place at the British Library on 14-15 November, exploring the convergence of technology, real estate and the workplace.

A range of masterclasses on day one will cover topics such as Psychological Wellbeing at Work and Living Stages: What Can Workplaces Learn From Theatre Design? On day two, a programme of talks chaired by Jeremy Myerson of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, features keynote speakers Chris Waugh, director at IDEO, Cisco director Peter Escery Merrens and authors Alan Moore and John Williams.

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onoffice readers can get a 20% discount on tickets, just click here

Proving a credible link between human performance and the built environment is architect’s next big frontier. Is the research-led approach of evidence-based design going to deliver it?

In a perfect world, every workplace would fit, hand in glove, with its workers: desks would be occupied in an optimally efficient way; meeting rooms would never be under- or over-booked; no one would be too hot or too cold; and yes, that statement staircase would produce those “chance encounters” to boost the productivity of collaboration-hungry knowledge workers.

Nice idea. But life is messy. Outcomes don’t always match expectations, and people don’t always use buildings in the expected way. To minimise this, however, many practices are now taking a more rigorous, empirical approach to workplace design, which relies on extensive front-end research.

Evidence-based design is “a concept whose time has come”, says Richard Francis, director of environment and sustainability at construction consultancy Gardiner & Theobald. “We know from academic literature that design clearly influences people’s behaviour; the real challenge is trying to identify the principles of design that will enhance not only environmental performance, but human performance.” As he sees it, from a business perspective, even the greenest of office buildings isn’t really sustainable if it lacks efficient, engaged workers. “We’re beginning to think about what buildings do, as opposed to what they are, and that’s a fundamental shift,” says Francis. “When I’m talking to clients, the criticism of Building Regulations or certification schemes like BREEAM is that they’re not really real; there’s always a gap between what you think you’re getting, and what you actually get.”

The UK Green Building Council’s chief executive, Paul King, warned last year that post-occupancy proof of a building’s poor performance could expose the profession to negligence claims: “If we rethink it, redesign it, we are going to have to prove we’ve made it better,” he said. “There is a great role for architects here. It will require more rigour, more science. It is going to require continued up-skilling of the profession.” In this light, the stakes are high for EBD to deliver a more scientifically rigorous result.

Although the environmental impact of a building is much more measurable than ten or 15 years ago, measuring its social and economic impact has garnered less attention. “The idea that the way your building performs can have an impact on its value – or if you’re the occupier, an impact on your reputation – is something that the industry is still coming to grips with,” says Francis. It’s partly because measuring how “successful” a workplace is in a scientific way is problematic. To explain the background, EBD has its roots in healthcare design, where there is a credible body of research linking design to improved patient safety and faster healing – for example, single hospital rooms are consistently proven to reduce infection compared to wards. What are the workplace equivalents, though? Productivity was once measured by increased typing speeds in the secretaries’ pool, but where does that leave the business that wants its fit out to deliver increased collaboration, more flexibility, or a repositioning of their brand? “Productivity is in many ways the silver bullet, but what’s much more informative, especially for knowledge-based organisations, is the engagement of employees,” says Earle Arney, Woods Bagot’s director of workplace. “If you’re able to increase engagement scores, that’s really massive.”

Arney says that EBD “underpins everything we do; we’ve built a business around it,” and the firm’s One Shelley Street in Sydney, for bank Macquarie Group, shows very encouraging results. Macquarie’s post-occupancy research with the University of Sydney into how its new activity-based workplace – a pretty radical concept for a bank – has fared showed that 97% of workers preferred their new environment, 93% preferred the new ways of working, and that 60% felt they were more productive (although how productive they were in reality wasn’t measured).

How does scientific research translate into practice, though? “There are quite a few challenges that stand in the way of design being more research-based,” says Dr Kerstin Sailer, lecturer in complex buildings at UCL’s Bartlett School of Graduate Studies. “Methods may not be quite understandable to lay people, with results normally written in academic papers, using jargon that is not very friendly for practitioners.” She thinks the problem runs deeper, though: “It’s a culture clash. The way we set up the research process, in a very scientific way, is not always appealing to architects, who have been trained to work quite differently. On the one hand there’s method, rigour, science – and the limitations of science, obviously – and on the other hand there are practicing architects, who have intuition, experience, judgement and working with their clients’ expectations.”

There is plenty of research that appears to link good design with better, more efficient workers, but it is hard to isolate cause and effect. Ideally, research should be replicable as well as empirical, but so much of what goes on in the workplace is about unique organisational culture rather than broader factors like, say, levels of daylight. “There have been studies showing, for example, that in LEED buildings, productivity increases and sickness decreases, and satisfaction with the building increases,” says Richard Francis, “but we need to be careful, because it’s difficult to separate out exactly what is causing those results.” He says that there is some good evidence for linking environmental factors such as natural ventilation, and acoustic and thermal performance, with positive worker experiences, but it’s different when it comes to research about how people behave and interact. “The robustness of the research, and its transferability, is always going to be a big problem in EBD,” says Sailer. “When I look at the evidence base we have for healthcare, it is relatively robust, but for workplaces, it’s all over the place.”

Sailer’s consultancy work for workplace designers Spacelab, whose clients include Virgin Money and publishers Emap, focuses on space usage – the creation of environments for optimum business effectiveness. This is what most workplace designers mean by EBD – systematic up-front research that takes a lot longer than the typical amount of work needed to fulfil a brief, but which results in a space based on what’s actually happening, rather than what the CEO might tell you is happening, or what a designer might be able to glean from a few walk-throughs and staff interviews.

“We would normally do a study of eight to 12 weeks, where we don’t do a single design move; all we do is assess who the client is. By the end of it we have a better understanding of how these people work than the people themselves,” says Sailer. This encompasses interviews with those at management level; an online staff questionnaire that includes questions about which of their colleagues they interact with, how much of their day they spend in meetings or out of the building; and standardised, structured observation about how many people use the tea points, for example, or are at their desks at any one time. Sailer says that it was initially hard to persuade clients on tight budgets and timescales that it would take two to three months just to assess their needs, but her initial work with Spacelab was mostly funded by a government grant, which cushioned the blow: “It helped to establish our processes, to offer pilot studies at no cost, to get a feel for the kind of data we should collect and how we could use it. It’s easier now, because we’ve redesigned those buildings and the clients are super-happy, and that’s the best marketing you can imagine.”

AMA Alexi Marmot Associates first developed workplace design strategies for IBM in the 1990s, and has more recently acted as consultants for Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (onoffice 66). AMA has developed standardised assessment tools, called WorkWare, that assess how buildings are used and its occupants’ opinions. It uses a mix of questionnaires, observational surveys, interviews and focus groups, with the added benefit of benchmarking data from previous surveys – some 60,000 desks’ worth – that reveals what that data means. AMA director Joanna Eley says: “We collect data because we believe evidence improves decision making. It creates new layers of understanding about what’s going on in particular type of workplace.” She adds that it also “makes it easier to communicate with people about what’s really going on” – so, for example, clients are more readily persuaded to move towards non-assigned desks if there is strong evidence of low desk utilisation, or significant business is already being conducted in meeting rooms, corridors, the canteen, or off the premises.

How does a multi-national, multi-disciplinary firm disseminate and manage research? Woods Bagot has its own research arm, Public, to which it devotes 2% of revenue, and a searchable intranet portal for accessing the latest information. Arney agrees with Eley that EBD can make life easier when it comes to pushing through change: “It is more demanding at the front end, so that the resource curve is closer to the front, in terms of the work you need to do. But it’s certainly a hell of a lot more rewarding for our client, be they end users of corporate office space, or developers who want to make sure that they are most aligned to what their clients want.”

Just as key, though, is creating a research-friendly culture, says Arney, “applying it on day one of a project, and making it really acceptable to all our people.” Woods Bagot publishes its research – “I think an organisation of our size has an obligation to the profession, and a duty to the environment, to share this information” – but that’s not the norm. The issue of post-occupancy study is a crucial one: such documentation should be the building blocks for ever-better workplaces, but rarely is a firm as interested in evaluating their new workplace as Macquarie were – Arney puts it down to the fact that they’re a bank, and thus obsessed with evaluating and putting a figure on everything (Macquarie has worked out that its new building will save it an impressive AUS$10m a year over ten years).

Richard Francis laments the fact that he cannot categorically say to clients that a certain type of building will boost performance: “The feedback mechanism, the collection of data, the experience-based results – they’re just not there. We’re constantly examining prototypes; we should be further along than that.” Francis is the new chair of the BCO’s environmental sustainability group, and says that he will be pushing the EBD agenda via the BCO’s research and discussion programme. So, while no one’s going to be proving the communications effectiveness of a feature staircase any time soon, what might happen is the creation of a more open culture of information-sharing, which in turn might find a way to place a tangible value on good workplace design.

One of the largest, most complex and most expensive workplace design schemes of the past 50 years will draw to a close next March. By then, the BBC will have shifted the last of its 6,000 staff into New Broadcasting House in London’s Portland Place, marking the end of a decade-long exodus from Aldwych and west London, codenamed The W1 Project.

The new building, a glassy, corporate curve meshed into the heavy masonry of George Val Myer’s purpose-built art deco barge, expresses the BBC’s future identity as a more coherent, fluid and ultimately more transparent organisation. It has taken three architects to bring us this far: MJP and Sheppard Robson carried out the base build and Phase 2 respectively, and HOK thwarted 120 other contenders (including Sheppard Robson’s interiors arm, ID:SR) to win the fit-out.

In the BBC’s swish new cafe, onoffice met W1 Project director Andy Griffee, the Beeb’s very own Moses tasked with leading the people to the £1.04 billion promised land. “This is the first time in the BBC’s history we have all the programme makers under one roof,” Griffee says. “We see massive creative opportunities from throwing those people together, so we needed an interior design that allowed us to collaborate more.” Journalists, however, are generally not great collaborators, and the move toward more shared content, driven by the financial pressures the BBC faces, must surely endanger the BBC’s originality. It is a risk Griffee is all too aware of. “The idea that we churn out some grey porridge that’s the same for every single audience would kill us. But there is a financial reality as well.” Our shiny new surroundings belie the austere times, but Griffee calculates that by selling off buildings and cancelling leases, the BBC has summoned £750m to offset against the budget. Moreover, he points out that Auntie’s great strength is revealed when all its various muscles pull in the same direction – Children in Need and Comic Relief being excellent examples.

Events like these, which mobilise and engage audiences in such a direct way, are practically unique to the BBC. Consequently, a significant chunk of HOK’s many-sided brief was to ensure the building could handle tour groups and live audiences as well as the legion of journos going about their daily business. Our tour begins in the Media Café, a semi-public space adjacent to the main reception that will be used as a waiting room for TV and radio audiences as well as a casual meeting/eating area by BBC staff. Only the World Service has fully occupied its new digs and the space is quiet. HOK’s lead designer Claire McPoland explains how important it was to strike the right balance between modern, forward-thinking workplace while studiously avoiding anything too flash. Well-put-together but understated work by homegrown talent such as Hitch Mylius, Naughtone and Deadgood features throughout, and hanging above us are sizable red light boxes, which both define the large rectangular room and reference the blocky BBC logo.

The cafe is the hardest working space in a building that has been designed for intensive use and, decked out in the BBC’s potent red and orange palette, is also relentlessly on-brand. Connecting the cafe to the reception is a wide corridor displaying icons of programming (Dr Who, for example) while bulletins of the world’s tragedies, hostile takeovers and crimes glide by on thin digital strips. The reception itself is pretty standard save for the mock-up studio where tour guests can read the weather or present a show. To enter the office proper one must negotiate first the reception and then pass through a blast-proof glazed wall onto a gangway that overlooks the newsroom. Sunk one level below the entrance and flanked by two spiral staircases, it feels like a gladiatorial arena. HOK’s Daniel Herriott describes it more prosaically: “It’s more of a trading floor than an office.” That said, there is a sense of theatre to what is reportedly the biggest newsroom in Europe. TV studios (there are five in total in the building) form a live backdrop and are positioned so that the journalists, sitting at desks fanning out from two horseshoe shapes, can produce lightening-quick bulletins. Hovering above like a halo is an enormous light feature, which breaks down the soaring atrium into a more palatable scale.

Awash with technology, the dense desk layout is wilfully intense, a space to ramp up, rather than ease off, the pressure. “We did live one-to-one mock-ups made from card and tested it on 40 journalists to see what shape would be the most effective,” explains Herriott. “In the end, they wanted to be on each other’s laps. As you can imagine it gets pretty fiery.” Occupying a nook by the staircase that spirals down to the underground TV studios is a Vpod, adapted to be DDA compliant, where guests can record radio pieces. As we stroll around the second floor it becomes clear that HOK has squeezed as much use as it could from the 80,000sq m space by turning the whole building into a giant studio. “Staff can set up a camera and broadcast from almost anywhere. That was why it was important to get the branding right so nothing jars.” HOK also designed classic on-air/off-air lamps that blink on and off periodically when the 50 radio studios are in use. “It brings the whole thing to life,” says Herriott.

The office’s flexibility is striking. A variety of meeting/touchdown areas pepper each floor and light-filled collaboration lounges hug the apex of curved facade. Elsewhere, McPoland astutely transformed otherwise dead areas around the atrium perimeter into intimate meeting zones. “Each floor was tailored to suit their needs. This becomes a private space, but News needed larger breakout areas across the floor for big get-togethers,” she says. Herein lies a problem. With extravangant architectural interventions off-limits, HOK was left to conjure some variety through the furniture. However, with multiple brands rubbing shoulders in some areas, some of the lounges feel too busy.

Things calm down in the News Cafe. Aware that staff might need occasional respite, HOK stripped away the branding for this private canteen behind the newsroom. Playful PXL lights hang in a mellow space populated with James Burleigh furniture and decorated with out-of-focus graphics. “The whole building is on-air apart from this area. Here you can come and switch off,” says McPoland. At times HOK battled, with limited success, to inject some soul into the corporate architecture, naming meeting rooms after notable BBC figures and wallpapering railway-carriage-style booths with photos taken by foreign correspondents.

The World Service, now on the fifth floor, was HOK’s toughest audience because of its emotional bond with Bush House, from which it broadcasted for 70 years, surviving Luftwaffe bombings in the process. Bush House and the new premises are diametrically different – open plan versus compartmental – which made the wrench even more compelling. To its credit, HOK has transferred art and gifts from Bush House, displaying them in the lounge alongside a classic BBC microphone. It is nigh-on impossible, however, to recreate an atmosphere built up over decades in a building where the paint is virtually still drying.

Still, watching a journalist study a huge TV screen is a reminder that the W1 Project’s success or failure hangs on how well the building works. No one can really know until the building is at full capacity, but all the ingredients are in place. Modestly, McPoland and Herriott praise the base build architects for a “fantastic canvas” and admit to being somewhat humbled that their design will be beamed to millions of viewers across the globe. Successful film set design goes unnoticed when it’s believable. Certainly, for the BBC and HOK this project is no leap of faith.

The spacious new HQ for Dutch energy company Eneco on the outskirts of Rotterdam has all the qualities a big corporate would wish to convey. Inside, the design is fresh, vibrant and clean, with a workplace strategy focused on collaboration and efficiency. Outside on the roof and southern wall, sun-tracking solar panels harness power for the building. And then there’s the huge living wall that wraps around the first few floors of its exterior and stretches into reception, a reminder of the company’s green credentials and a softener of its otherwise rather businesslike facade.

Eneco has a particular business focus on sustainable energy, and the reason for commissioning the new building also came from eco foundations. With five divisions at five separate locations, it wished to consolidate its 2,100-strong workforce in one place to reduce traffic between its offices and increase interaction between different departments. Dam & Partners designed the building itself, but fellow Dutch practice Hofman Dujardin Architecten came in during early planning stages to collaborate on the interior architecture and make sure it aligned with its vision for an open, lively space. “Eneco wanted the office to be flexible and dynamic, so we came on board early enough to influence spatial elements,” explains Michiel Hofman, partner at Hofman Dujardin. “We added three staircases, we took out glass partitions, we added voids; we aimed to maximise openness.”

At the heart of the building’s form (a curvy-sided triangle) is a central atrium, a vast light well stretching up eight floors of the main building, with a glazed roof and ground-level courtyard. Overlooked by six floors of offices and two levels of open-plan communal areas without a gloomy corner in sight, the utopian, all-white atrium fills the building with natural light. It’s also the centre of all the action. In the middle is a cafe, bordered by two floors of meeting areas, which are adjacent to the restaurant and auditorium within the attached tower; taken together they create a town-centre-type space through which people are constantly moving. Three staircases connect the two floors of communal areas, a further nudge towards centralising the flow of people, and there are no secret back routes. Besides various necessary hidden elements, like the Board of Directors’ room and the food preparation area, the architecture dictates that employees walk through the atrium. “Our starting point was to create a central area for people to gather. We called it Eneco World,” says Hofman. “Everybody goes through there, it’s so easy to see and talk to colleagues. There are diagonal relations.”

Community and transparency are big themes. It begins that begin the minute people walk in – visitors are met by three receptionists, each with a Corian pod to stand at, with views past reception into the atrium. “When you enter, there’s not just a high wall with a logo,” states Hofman, “you are immediately part of the experience. Usually at other offices, security guards are the first people you see, looking at you suspiciously, but here the receptionists come and meet you.”

The entrance and atrium are clinical and, in parts, intentionally futuristic, but in contrast to the gleaming white backdrop, the work areas on the ground and first floors are hubs of bright colour. This is another technique the practice (together with Fokkema & Partners Architecten, which collaborated on the interior fit out) has used to determine how employees use the space. Dotted around a swish corporate setting, these meeting and working spots of various sizes and levels of formality – from clustered Egg chairs and sofas to good old-fashioned meeting tables – are clearly defined by blocks of vividly coloured carpet with furniture in harmonising hues. Hofman describes them as “islands”, each serving its own purpose. “In the Netherlands there is a lot of development into activity-based working, where different environments suit different types of work. We explored how we could emphasise different atmospheres, so on the islands it is vibrant, and in between it is neutral.” He adds that employees can also orientate themselves by the colours, for example arranging to meet at the orange island. The in-between areas feature a more muted palette, such as the cafe, done out in blonde oak, while an LED lighting scheme by Studio Rublek reaffirms the island effect. Instead of a constant and even light source, a sure-fire way to produce a banal atmosphere, light was concentrated on the islands to segregate pathways from areas of work.

To align with its new flexible way of working and improve efficiency, Eneco conducted in-depth research into the patterns of its workforce. From profiling every employee and assessing their individual schedules, it found that, because of sickness, work travel or holidays, only 1,500 of its 2,100 employees were present at once. The design therefore incorporated 1,500 desks, just enough for its newly adaptable, hot-desking workforce.

Most of the core working areas are housed in a 14-floor tower attached to the main building, which also contains the auditorium and restaurant, two starkly different, dramatic spaces with black ceilings and grey furnishings. The island theme is carried throughout, with pockets of colourful carpet adding warmth. The list of material and furniture suppliers namechecks everyone from Arper to Vitra, all recognisable quality brands to fit a brief for modern, classic and corporate. And as you might expect, every company’s sustainability policy was checked from head to toe.

Simon Pengelly’s knack for intelligently simple and subtle products is based on pragmatism and a love for manufacturing 

Unlike many designers for whom style reigns supreme, Simon Pengelly’s pragmatic approach leads with function, ergonomics and market need, with a simple aesthetic seeming to emerge as a by-product. That’s not to say he is lacking finesse – that’s the easy bit, having grown up immersed in craftsmanship. With a career founded in the workshop, he champions manufacturing and so-called “quiet design”.

“Learning at the bench gives you a practical approach to problem solving,” says Pengelly. “Every product is visually derived from the materials and the processes that go into it, as well as functional aspects like relevance to market, price point, etc. It all has a bearing on the final design, and none of it is from fashion – that’s not important to me. Design should not shout; it has to be respectful of the other things it has to go with.”

Around the age of eight, Pengelly began to potter in his dad’s workshop, but with a dad who was the chief designer at Ercol, this was no ordinary garden shed.

One day, when he wanted to build a box for his butterfly collection, Pengelly Senior taught him how to make dovetail joints, and the rest is history.

“He left me to it for an hour,” Pengelly remembers, “and when he came back I’d done it. He said he couldn’t quite believe it.”

His father set about training him in cabinet making in the evenings and weekends until he could attend Rycotewood College followed by Kingston Polytechnic, leaving in the mid-1980s.

A young graduate with a bank of skills to put to the test, he landed a job at the Conran Design Group, earning his salt on projects for the group’s client Storehouse, the retail umbrella for Heal’s, Habitat, The Conran Shop and others.

When that suffered huge redundancies he jumped ship onto the design team of the newly independent Habitat, a self-confessed dream come true: “As a child, Habitat was an inspiration to me, so working for them was something I never thought would happen.” Even when he founded his studio as an independent designer in 1993, he was still managing the design for Habitat’s whole furniture range, until the arrival of Tom Dixon in 1998. “I’d done hundreds of products anonymously,” says Pengelly, “so Tom said that had to change.”

“It takes more rigour to design something understated”

The Radius collection, Pengelly’s first range for Habitat under his own name, launched in 1999, and – besides being the most successful range the brand has ever produced – it also said much about what was to come from the designer. 

Well-crafted furniture stripped back to the simplest essentials, the extensive range was designed to be economical to produce, adaptable to any home and people-centric, vital attributes of a marketable product.

“Generally the best designs are not shoving things down people’s throats,” he says. “They should be easy to use, familiar, obvious; you shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. I believe it’s much easier to design loud things that make a statement. It takes far more rigour to design something understated.”

Pengelly’s inbuilt understanding of what makes a successful product has since led him and his studio to collaborate with a long list of big names, from Allermuir and Boss to Virgin Atlantic and Foscarini, and the commissions keep on coming.

He mentions that there is more work in progress with the airline, plus some very small products to design and even interiors, as well as more lighting and furniture. The studio is a small team of four, including Pengelly, and while he describes himself as a “sketchbook and pencil kinda guy,” he says the rest of the team are fantastic with CAD, which is ever more crucial. The team has had to be temporarily extended of late in preparation for Designjunction in September, where you couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into one of Pengelly’s new pieces, with a staggering 15 products launching at the show.

Talking about his latest wares, it’s clear his recurrent collaboration with brands such as Modus and Hitch Mylius can be pinned on a skill for economy in making and the sheer saleability of his products; he knows how to build collections based on market need without over-the-top and risky investment. Take Hitch Mylius for example, which launched the new hm87 chair (above) by Pengelly: an extension to the hm86, a big seller for the brand, with a cocoon added for privacy in public spaces.

Design-wise, it looks like a natural extension to the chair, and business-wise, it makes perfect sense. “You can put it with the 86 within the same environment,” explains Pengelly. “It’s an attractive thing for customers to come and buy variations of the same thing, because it’s far more cohesive.” A two-seater version was also launched, with plans for a two-seater cocoon, so two together can create a meeting space.

“The government needs to pump money into manufacturing”

It’s a similar story at Chorus, a brand that launched with the Pengelly-designed Theo stacking chair and table last year and has this year extended the range to a bench, high stool and table, stacking armchair and stacking pew in response to huge demand. The exact form of the legs is repeated through much of the range (except on the bench) allowing for cross use of components and therefore lower investment.

There are brand new products as well – a fluid door handle for Izé and a rocking chair for Montis – but the majority lies in British hands, with other new work for Modus and Chorus. “I’ve probably got more British clients than many [other designers],” he admits. “With my connection, through Dad, to the British furniture industry, I’ve always felt like I had to do my bit.” Though an advocate for the many fantastic British manufacturers, he believes that it is no longer seen as a worthwhile career route to take, and unless we boost the industry’s younger generation, much knowledge and experience won’t be passed down.

“Unless we preserve what we have then we won’t have people there to pick up the baton,” he says. “The government needs to pump money into manufacturing and make it easier for small businesses to grow.” And what advice would he give to those emerging designers, given his invaluable wealth of experience? “I always say to people, compromise isn’t a negative word. The right amount of compromise is vital to get your product out there. Without it, you won’t succeed.”

“This is an absolute dream space to work in,” says Philippe Malouin of architecture and interior design practice Post-office, gesturing to an expansive, herringbone-floored space illuminated by two white walls of tall, Victorian windows. It houses Touch Digital, a photographic retouching company based in Perseverance Works in Shoreditch, for which Malouin has created a monochrome heaven of black aluminium, grey fibreglass Eames chairs and grey woollen curtains.

The space recalls stylised 1950s black-and-white photography, but beyond aesthetics there is a practical imperative for the restrained colour palette. Dressed head to toe in grey, Touch managing director Graeme Bulcraig claims he never wears a brightly hued T-shirt to work, since placing colours near images skews the way we perceive them. Happily, Post-office’s favoured aesthetic is one of understatement. “We didn’t want to go all Google,” says Malouin. “And anyway, AstroTurf and sofas is not our style – we are anti-bling and anti-trendy.”

Bulcraig is in the middle of a day of interviews to expand his team to eight. “So far, the interviewees have been impressed: in most retouching places you are stuck virtually in the dark, in tight little rows,” he says. Coming from a creative background himself, he had an unusually significant input into the design, putting together a thick scrapbook of images to inspire Post-office. “It was all about textures, and ply,” says Bulcraig. Accordingly, plywood and timber used are in abundance, adding warmth and charm to the scheme. One especially quirky feature is the herringboned walls surrounding the entranceway (an upward extension of the original flooring) punctuated by a row of beautiful Bakelite 1950s light switches, sourced from Germany.

Touch moved here in March, from its former studio in nearby Rivington Street. After 13 years in business, Bulcraig calls this “a massive step up in terms of investing in the look and feel of our studio,” adding that clients “enjoy coming here because they can relax and switch off after being in the hectic environment of a photographic studio.” It really is strangely relaxing here – the monochrome hues and natural wood are gentle on the eye – but the bold lines and big bold box-like shapes offered by the fixtures strongly signal that you are in a creative space. Malouin, who spent a year at Tom Dixon’s studio after graduating in 2008, has created most of the office furniture, including a massive, castor-mounted desk to store photographic papers. Opening the doors at each end of the three-metre-long free-standing cupboard reveals a set of neat box shelves that each house a single roll of paper. This is truly bespoke storage space – Malouin had to order outsized ply to make it.

Having enormous paper means printers to match, but these machines are by no means obvious as you walk through the space. They are disguised as black monoliths, sheathed in anodised aluminium – the same material used for second-generation iPods, notes Malouin. “These shapes help to show that the printers’ position is purposeful, rather than just being randomly parked,” he says.

Malouin also custom-created much of the lighting in the office, including 17, metre-wide disks of LED-illuminated aluminium that hang over the kitchen space. Like colour, lighting was another constraining element in this project. Retouching studios are by necessity low-lit, yet this is a bright and airy space. Post-office’s solution was to create freestanding work pods constructed from adjustable vertical steel and wooden louvres, allowing the retoucher exquisite control over the light levels in their workspaces. The pods are striking objects, built to resemble “giant sculptural installations, or shipping containers,” says Malouin. Over on the other side of the office are more slatted room dividers, only these “slats” are made of grey Bute wool fabric stuffed with polystyrene beanbag balls. They are oddly reminiscent of lilos.

While this project may have had a fairly modest budget (“Luckily we like Graeme, so we didn’t feel exploited,” quips Malouin), there is nonetheless a close attention to detail. Malouin betrays a fastidious streak – a desirable quality in any designer – when he tells how he sent Post-office’s intern on a frantic dash across the Channel to buy 90mm-diameter dowel for the legs of the birch-ply desks. “The only place with that diameter of dowel was Paris, and I had to have them; they absolutely had to be that diameter. Because the desks are so simple, they have to be perfectly proportioned.”

Here’s a conundrum. How do you design a headquarters for a company that produces building materials? If you don’t use the company’s product enough (or at all) it seems visually disjointed from its corporate identity, plus you risk the company looking like it doesn’t trust its own materials. Use a lot and it’s restrictive, and could seem predictable. In the case of engineered wood producers Vanachai, Thai architectural practice Open Box has built a sophisticated monument to the creative potential of its client’s product.

Vanachai is one of Thailand’s largest manufacturers of engineered wood products such as MDF, HDF and particle board, with a number of umbrella brands including Vanatur, which produces laminate board. The latter is normally used for flooring, but Open Box chose to think bigger, applying it to the floors, walls, ceiling and staircases in the building’s dramatic atrium space. “Our main aim was for this to be the company’s landmark,” explains Nui Ratiwat Suwannatrai, design director at Open Box. “The building and the interior would become an exhibition of the company’s philosophy and products.”

The atrium reaches up through the full height of the building’s four floors, with a statement staircase connecting them. Angular, irregular and grand, with a definite Escher-like optical illusion effect enhanced by the use of a single material and the clashing lines of its wood grain, the staircase is the project’s pièce de résistance, and shows how a common material can be transformed in the hands of a lateral thinker.

Vanachai translates as “victory in saving forests”, an exalted philosophy that conveys a fierce pride in its eco credentials, which had to be reflected in the design – and what better way than to use the company’s own ecologically sourced products? The fit out also had to reflect a new era for the company, which was changing at the hands of a younger generation of board members. This called for a more contemporary look while remaining true to Vanachai’s respectable reputation, a balancing act that Open Box has managed to pull off.

As part of the design process, the practice visited Vanachai’s factories to observe the production process and glean inspiration, not just for material aesthetic but also for shapes and patterns. Describing the staircase as “lengthened objects, placed randomly in the middle of the atrium, leaning from one floor to another,” the architect also likens the design to images from a logging factory. Similarly, the exterior, dominated by a puzzle of rectangular windows of differing sizes, is “based on images of MDF and particle production processes: pieces of small material coming together to form an image of dynamic, functional surface.”

The project began when Vanachai approached Open Box to extend its existing offices, which over the years had been periodically extended and renovated as the company grew. It needed a major extension, but the only space it could expand into was an awkwardly shaped piece of land that was being used as a front plaza and car parking space. “The land was in such an odd shape that the board members always had been sceptical about whether a proper building could be built there,” explains Ratiwat Suwannatrai. “The site was long and narrow, with an acutely angled open area facing the main road, so Open Box decided the best solution was to simply follow the shape of the site, stretching it to the maximum possible envelope of space (bar a regulation 15 metre setback area from the road). Ratiwat Suwannatrai saw this unconventional footprint as “an unexpected opportunity to exploit unique form and space that would be difficult to justify under normal circumstances.” The atrium sits at the centre of the extension, accessed by a staircase from the ground level, with office space taking up the rest of the floorspace.

Linked to the existing building via a connecting section, the extension stands on stilts, thus still allowing for car parking in the old forecourt. The architecture is slick and modern without being too disparate from its surroundings, achieved by the warm tone of its aluminium cladding (by Hunter Douglas) and the vast windows that make up most of its facade. These big windows also provide a peek inside to disjointed portions of the jutting staircase.

The interior fit out was similarly designed to make full use of available space. No ceiling panels are used, so the pipes, wiring, air ducts and structural elements are exposed on the concrete ceiling, optimising space and creating a “refreshing, raw and industrial look” according to Ratiwat Suwannatrai. “This also reduces the amount of dust, humidity and moulds that usually accumulate in the ceiling, creating a healthier environment for staff.” The building also benefits from plenty of natural ventilation and indirect sunlight.

The main office space was planned according to diagrams of how the workforce used their current office, as well as how it they might interact differently in the near future. Each floor houses a separate department with each space customised to the function of its users. Meeting rooms range in size and type, from smaller, more casual lounge spaces to large, formal, glass-walled meeting rooms; work areas are open plan, intended to encourage more interaction between co-workers. Open Box was faced with a tricky floorplan, but by connecting it all with an impressive atrium and staircase, the practice has worked the space to its advantage – even bringing some impressive acute angles to the much-sought-after corner office.

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Lights by Duhovich

Akin to something out of Caractacus Potts’ workshop, Azhar Duhovich’s eccentric bricolage lights stood out a mile at the recent Tent London show at the Truman Brewery. Each piece is a unique composition of wood, metal, brightly coloured cable and exposed lightbulbs, hand made by the young designer in his North London workshop.

Duhovich initially based the collection around the structure of an artist’s easel, and now uses recycled easels as bases for the floor lamps. The range then extended to include table, pendant and wall lights, each made in a combination of new and reclaimed oak, beech or teak and steel brass or chrome. Overall, the collection has a quirky industrial aesthetic that Duhovich describes as a middle ground between Art Deco and Bauhaus.

We didn’t quite have room for Duhovich’s incredible lights in our upcoming LDF review, but we couldn’t resist sharing them. Find out what else we found around London Design Festival in our full review in November issue, out later this week.

The K&L Gates offices at One New Change, London, fitted out by Lehman Smith McLeish, has won the Best of the Best prize at the BCO awards. Having already won the Best Fit Out of Workplace category, it went up against the other category winners for the top prize and won for its forward-thinking fit out strategy. Awards chairman David Partridge said, “K&L Gates has set an impressive example of the importance - and potential benefits - of keeping the ultimate end use of any project in mind as early as the base build. The result is a consummately assured design which has had a positive effect on the business – showing the impact a successful new workplace can have on wider corporate objectives.”

The President’s Award was given to Gerald Ronson, CBE and Chief Executive at Heron International, for his six decades of service to the commercial property industry.

Six more national awards were also given: Best Commercial Workplace went to Heron Tower, London; Best Corporate Workplace went to the Greater Manchester Police Force Headquarters, Manchester; Best Refurbished/Recycled Workplace was awarded to Virgin Money, Edinburgh; Best Project up to 2,000m2 went to Creative Scotland, Edinburgh; the Innovation Award was won by 7 More London Riverside, London; and the Test of Time Award went to Fort Dunlop, Birmingham.

See the list of regional winners and read more about the national winners on the British Council for Offices website.

At Interieur later this month, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer Emeco will officially launch the So-So aluminium seating collection designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. He designed the range to comfortably follow the human form, and referred to this quality in its name, in true Nouvel style: "This chair is special because it intimately embraces the body. But compared to my girlfriend, it is just So-So."

Emeco has been known for its lightweight and durable brushed steel furniture since the launch of its Navy chair in 1944, which is still in production today. Like all of the company's collections, the So-So range is made from recycled material from industrial and consumer waste, hand made in 80 percent recycled aluminium.

The design was first installed in the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom hotel, which Nouvel also designed, before being put into production for retail by Emeco. They were previewed in September in Paris, but will be fully launched at the Interieur fair in Kortrijk, Belgium, taking place from 20-28 October.

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newsletter 2015