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Goodbye fusty hierarchical office, hello open democratic workplace The triple-height staircase void, embodying a new age of collaboration Industrial construction materials have been softened and reinterpreted Executive offices are placed centrally, facing outwards – so everyone can get a piece of the view Natural materials and warm colours give a casual look to breakout areas Full-height mirrors reflect the canopy of gum trees outside
17 May 2011

Bates Smart's Conneq project

Words by  Photo by Richard Glover Photography
  • Architect: Bates Smart Architects
  • Client: Conneq
  • Location: Sydney, Australia
  • Cost: AUS $5.5m
  • Duration: April 2000 - November 2010
  • Floor Space: 4,000sq m

More so than ever, the interior design of workplace is intended to act as a business card for a company, and as a mirror of its values. For many years now, we’ve been seeing the transformation of dull office interiors fitted out with sterile cubicles to slick, light-filled and – dare we say it – even fun spaces, their open plans filled up with designer furniture and the odd foosball table. And what is the main message these companies want to convey? Predominantly one of transparency, as well as a focus on the wellbeing of staff.
So when Australian infrastructure engineering specialists Conneq wanted to start afresh, armed with a new name (the company was formerly known as Bilfinger Berger) and a new outlook for their business more or less along the above-mentioned lines, it called for a new Sydney headquarters. And it was architectural practice Bates Smart that was called in to fashion an office interior to reflect this fresh start. Located in a leafy part of Ryde in the north-west of the city, the new three-storey Conneq office is in stark contrast to its previous tenancy, which was characterised by enclosed offices and organised according to hierarchy in the company’s structure. The brief to the architects was intended to change all that and accommodate the firm’s fast continuing growth. “The previous accommodation had resulted in a hierarchical mentality and breakdown of departmental collaboration and ownership of space. The firm’s rebrand and new accommodation would address this,” says project leader Brenton Smith, an associate director at Bates Smart.

“The new design represents a cultural shift in the business, and reflects the client’s position as an established multiservice construction and infrastructure firm bearing a new identity,” Smith continues. “A new management structure, the acquisition of new business units, a new branding campaign and a shift to becoming a public listed company were all key drivers in the final design.”  

Central to this design is the concept of connection. Transparency and collaboration among staff – around 300 employees work at Conneq – were major objectives for the design of the new office. This was resolved in the creation of open plan workspaces, providing informal staff breakout areas to encourage social interaction, and reducing the amount of enclosed offices. The open plan also meant that staff who were formerly segregated into departmental offices, and hence had little contact with each other, could now be united in a larger communal space. Hospitality- and retail-style furniture and fittings (the mirrored reception counter and walls, Kartell’s Papyrus chairs by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec used in breakout areas, and animal-hide rugs, for example) and bold lighting bring to mind a more dynamic casual environment, rather than a stuffy corporate office. Most importantly, the majority of staff workstations have been repositioned on the top floors with access to plentiful light and the best views of the surrounding treetops and the city beyond. Executive offices are placed centrally, and enclosed with transparent glass walls. With the closed spaces located away from the perimeter, the light and views can be appreciated by all staff. Meanwhile, the executive and client meeting rooms are located on the lowest floor.

Uniting the office visually and metaphorically is a dramatic triple-height void with an open staircase that becomes the central circulation and meeting point. “Our approach, which reflects a shift in traditional planning, sent a strong positive message to the staff about the new facility,” says Smith. “It eliminated the previous hierarchical structure to communicate a strong message of equality, accessibility and transparency. This strategy quickly endorsed the fact that the new management team were redefining the business and fundamentally changing the culture of their workplace to put more emphasis back on the staff.”

Drawing from the company’s engineering background, the design of the interior utilises elements that indicate the nature of its work. “The intention was to create details that are a subtle reference to the business, as opposed to an obvious metaphor,” says Smith. Here, normally rough construction materials are reinterpreted in a sophisticated light. Most dramatic is a 12m-high wall of 24 oxidised steel pipes, which rises through the central void to form a rusted tubular curtain that screens off a zone of staff breakout spaces. Suspended clusters of elongated tubular lights – custom-made from powder-coated steel in black gloss – help accentuate the volume of the void. Metal sheeting called Maxirib – normally used for walls, roofs and ceilings, especially on construction sheds commonly found at Conneq sites – becomes cladding for low-height internal partitions, almost unrecognisable when custom powder-coated in bronze. Sealed fibre-cement sheeting is exposed as floor tiles. These transformed industrial materials make a link between site-based Conneq staff and their office-based colleagues, while exposed services further support the interior’s industrial expression.

The warm colour scheme takes its cue from the surrounding canopy of gum trees and nearby bushland, particularly on the south facade. The natural palette – a rich chocolate-toned carpet, leather loungers, plastic cafe chairs in grey and rust –alongside the rusted pipes and bronze metallic sheeting reinforces a connection between the interior and exterior. Full-height mirrors in the breakout spaces further reflect the trees and natural light, bringing them right inside the office.

Regarding the use of materials, a conscious decision was made to keep the selection simple, and to reduce the amount used in the fitout (for instance by eliminating partitions and exposing services). Standard sizes of sheeting were used, to help curb excess wastage. The feedback from the client has so far been positive. “Happily, the anticipated concerns over privacy and acoustics have not arisen,” says Smith. “Staff feel more connected to the business, and people are meeting each other properly for the first time, which is a boost for staff morale and for collaboration.” Looking at all the design elements together, the result is a considered, elegant workplace interior that, most importantly, has been created to the benefit of all its staff. The office provides the right platform for the company from which to launch its new identity and outlook, and should prove a steady anchor for years to come.

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