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12 Feb 2008

T5 - A BA workplace

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Take 5Kathy Tilney, founding member of design consultancy Tilney Shane, has established herself as a workplace specialist over the past three decades, two of which she has spent working with BA as a client. Tilney acted as design manager for BA’s Waterside headquarters, a project that pioneered the concept of having a corridor laid out as a street interlinking the adjacent buildings. The street idea was breaking new ground by encouraging staff interaction: getting people to meet spontaneously the way people bump into each other on the street, to essentially expedite decision-making. That was in 1999, but two years ago BA called upon Tilney’s expertise to fine-tune the BA staff areas at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

“It’s such a great project to be associated with,” Tilney says, and in the same breath points out that YRM did the interiors and her team were merely “tweaking”, ie working on floor and wall finishes and all those details that are tricky for the other teams “busy building an amazing airport” – on time and on budget let’s not forget. “As with most of our clients [Tilney Shane has 75 per cent repeat clients] we often appear to know them better then they know themselves. We have a wider knowledge of their properties’ potential and can often address things directly because as externals we don’t have to be politically sensitive.”

What Tilney has unearthed over the years is that the intrinsic nature of interior architecture boils down to psychology. When she started her career in a then male-dominated industry, at a time when girls became “either teachers or nurses”, her interest lay simply in making something tangible. “I always thought that was magical. Now I realise the magic is making something tangible out of many intangibles.”

Tilney jokingly describes herself as an agony aunt and emphasises the importance of speaking to client’s personnel through the ranks. “You want a cross cut to know what people want. Often it’s little niggles like the car parking situation, something we can’t do anything about but listening helps get under a company’s skin... And a decent cup of coffee can go a long way in an organisation.”

Tilney likes to bring theatre into the office – shown by touches such as T5’s staff area having a glass front overlooking the runway. “The crew report centre is opening up the space in many different ways. Firstly encouraging integration between pilot, crew and ground staff, secondly the glass partitioning lets passengers watch BA staff report to duty.” That transparency of procedures ties in with the building’s overall theme of clarity and openness.

“With BA, we have a good idea of how they work. In this particular case they wanted T5 to be on a par with other portfolio pieces, to show commonality while still leading from the front.” Tilney Shane had 1,000 workstations to fit in, with hot-desking solutions due to the staff’s shift-working rhythm. The team chose Joy from Orangebox as the main task chair due to its green credentials of being 99 per cent recyclable. The desking is from Tangent, storage from Teknion and partitioning from Lindner Systems in Germany. Tilney Shane also fitted out the rest areas and the room where BA staff wait with their families before they embark on planes, plus the Employer Self Service stations and the unaccompanied minors lounge.

Tilney tells me about BA’s strong focus on safety. She was at the Waterside HQ when the Boeing went down in January. “There was loads of whispering but complete calm and everyone was so organised and professional, no panic. BA has such a good safety record that other airlines use their training programmes.” Overall safety was a big issue. With a project of this size, with 5,000 contractors on site and 37 million man-hours in total the estimated fatalities amounted to five. So far there have been only two (for one it was suggested that the contractor had not been wearing his safety kit). And for the last three million man-hours, there has not even been an injury.

So having fitted out offices since the late 1970s, what changes have been most prominent over the years? “In the 80s, workplace design was very formulaic, hierarchy was found not just in space management but also in furniture, headrests and big wooden desks for the execs. From one corporate to another most were doing the same thing. Then towards the end of the decade new technology started to emerge and showed potential to release us from the desk.

“The 90s were about accepting these changes, accepting mobility, changing management styles, the 00s moved things forward by shifting the focus onto the people as a main asset and work/life balance became customary. Branding is still important but not like in the 80s when it meant having your logo in the carpet. It’s about telling your company’s story and ethos though space design. Today mobility is big, and technology is the younger generation’s second nature. Nonetheless, I have a sense that we’ve plateaued. Like when we switched from the typewriter to the PC it was huge. Since then it’s plateaued! Things have changed more on a global level, the big north-south divide used to be Newcastle-London, now it’s the equator.”

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