If you haven’t heard of international architecture firm HASSELL yet, that is about to change. Founded in Australia some 70 years ago, it has more than 900 staff and 14 offices in Australia, China, south-east Asia and, as of a few months ago, the UK too. It designs hotels, airports, research facilities, bridges, parks, rail stations and offices, among other things. In China alone the company has 300 staff, working on mega-projects like the masterplanning of sustainable cities for 100,000 people. And in Australia it currently has two AU$1.2bn hospitals on the way to completion, says Tony Grist, who is head of architecture at HASSELL and heads up the new London office. “We are also designing a number of major research facilities as well. That keeps us in a knowledge leadership position not just in Australia but internationally.”
At the core of HASSELL’s success is a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach, and an ability to work holistically on a project from masterplan right through to architecture, interiors and the public realm. Its non-hierarchical respect for all disciplines is shown in the backgrounds of its leaders, who are landscape architects or interior designers, as well as architects, by training. At HASSELL’s new studio in Clerkenwell, Grist tells me about the practice’s workplace design philosophies. A great illustration, he says, is the ANZ Centre, the 85,000sq m HQ designed with global property developer Lend Lease for one of Australia’s main banks, located in Melbourne’s Docklands area. “The three main conceptual ideas behind ANZ were permeability, diversity and sustainability,” says Grist. The ground floor, with its cafes, public art, a visitor centre, a daycare centre and a gym “is more like an extension of the city into the building,” he says, adding that this level of public accessibility has rarely, if ever, been seen before in a global banking HQ. “It says a lot about how ANZ wants to interact with its customers and be more transparent.”
The project, for which HASSELL worked on the architecture and the fit-out, has been showered with awards. It is the largest and greenest commercial office building in the country (having been awarded the six-star Green Star Office Design rating by the Australian Green Building Council). Water consumption is 60% less than the industry average and the building’s green roof and exterior shading help to reduce heat gain and loss. Though it houses a workforce of 7,000, no staff member sits more than 11m from natural light. It uses ideas taken from urban design, with a concept of a town square with a main street – or an urban campus, as Grist puts it.
In this urban campus, putting an emphasis on how you move through a building is key, says Grist. That means putting in stairs instead of lifts where possible, and bridges so you can see people moving around, “creating a village on a number of levels,” he says. “Psychologically, if you’re in a building and you’re going up and down in the lift you’re not as connected,” he says. “It’s a bit like using the tube versus using a bus. If you travel by bus in London you get a better idea of the city.” But it’s more than that. If you’re stuck in a lift you are cut off from the incidental interactions and connections during which important innovations and ideas are often born.
It may sound straightforward but the ANZ building, like most HASSELL workplace projects, was the result of an “iterative and collaborative approach to concept design”. HASSELL took the client to see roughly 15 projects around the world, “analysing what was good and bad about each one and what the client did and didn’t like”. Research into workplace behaviour was done with global workplace design consultancy DEGW, identifying things like the fact that senior people are at their desks the least, meaning less need for a private office or permanent space. “This translates into a 30-40% floorplate saving over a traditional building,” says Grist. The design focused on 44 individual hub spaces spread out over the building’s 13 storeys. “Wherever you are in the building, you’re IT-facilitated,” says Grist, “and you’re never more than a few steps away from a power point and a coffee machine.” Creating zones and nodes, meeting spaces, breakout areas and collaboration spaces is how you create communities, even in very large footprints, he explains.
Another recurring theme for HASSELL is how the workplace and education sectors are increasingly crossing over as the former becomes more flexible and mobile through new technologies. “The workplace is increasingly seen as a learning environment to develop people professionally on the job, a collaborative and interactive place where ideas are realised,” says Grist. “As new generations of technologically savvy workers arrive from university, their expectations of a workplace designed to offer a choice of settings for different work styles is having a great impact.” The flipside is that tertiary institutions are realising they need to make better connections with the corporate world, and that increasingly they will have to compete for students by providing state-of-the-art facilities, “so the education space is in turn taking cues from the corporate world in the design of their buildings.”
Combining the concepts of interaction and learning with play was central to the design of dtac House, the Bangkok HQ for one of Thailand’s leading telecommunications providers, completed by HASSELL in 2009. Formal meeting rooms are balanced by informal meeting spaces; locally sourced solid timbers and locally made cotton and silk fabrics are used throughout the fit-out. Similar to a hotel, an entire floor is dedicated to staff recreational facilities including a gym, a running track, indoor soccer, a band stage, karaoke and two large outdoor terraces overlooking the Bangkok skyline. It’s the sort of office you wouldn’t resent spending time in, and that’s the point. Staff wellbeing, environmental sustainability and “social sustainability” as Grist puts it, are at the core of the design.
Before I leave Grist shows me photos of HASSELL’s own studios around the world. Those in Shanghai and Brisbane are located in a former motorbike and bread factory respectively, and are striking examples of HASSELL’s workplace philosophies in practice. What that means is a lot of communal spaces, places to gather formally and informally (many of which are outdoors in the Brisbane office, taking advantage of the balmy climate) and open access for their clients. “It’s about enhancing the ideas of communication,” says Grist. In a lot of offices you come to a wall and don’t know what’s going on behind it. When the client comes in they don’t understand how you’re spending their money. “We like to involve our clients and bring them right into the centre of what we’re doing.” With this client-centred approach and their expertise in so many different project types and areas, the arrival of HASSELL in the UK and Europe is a breath of fresh air – can-do Australian air, at that. When I ask if they have any projects afoot in the UK and Europe already, Grist smiles and says, “We are already working on a number of projects. All I can say is there are plenty of opportunities.”