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Each floor used to have a theme, but no number - now they've got both Quiet areas are at the edge of floorplates, with 'active' areas near the centre Recycled panelling loosely references beach huts, on the 'Beach' level Bamboo-enclosed rooms and lots of greenery in the oxygen-rich Zen Dens
17 Apr 2013

MLC's multi-faceted Sydney workspace

Words by  Photo by Tyrone Branigan
  • Architect: Woods Bagot
  • Client: MLC & NAB Wealth
  • Location: Sydney, Australia
  • Cost: Undisclosed
  • Duration: December 2011 - April 2013
  • Floor Space: 22,300sq m

Woods Bagot has re-worked MLC & NAB Wealth’s Sydney office, giving nod to the company's history while crafting a space that represents who they are now

In 1999 a new kind of workplace was introduced to Australia. It was flexible, progressive, and aimed at improving communication, sharing knowledge, and encouraging teamwork. The workplace was Campus MLC – the refurbishment of an iconic office building in North Sydney by BVN Architecture for wealth management organisation, MLC (since renamed MLC & NAB Wealth).

Fast-forward 13 years and the fit out was once again in need of rejuvenation. Rather than a revolution, however, MLC & NAB Wealth’s then-CEO, Steve Tucker, was after an evolution of the existing interior. Australian architecture and interiors firm Woods Bagot was engaged to bring the interior in line with MLC & NAB Wealth’s vision for the future. With its experience on the One Shelley Street project for Macquarie Group – Australia’s first activity-based workplace – it was perfectly suited to the task.

From the outset, this was a project informed by history – that of MLC, which has been working in insurance and superannuation since 1887; the legacy of the pioneering fit out by BVN Architecture; and the heritage of the base building itself, designed by Bates Smart, which was the first glass curtain wall building in Sydney when it opened in 1957.

“It was a layered approach, paying respect to both the original 1957 base architecture and the 1999 fit out, says Kori Todd of Woods Bagot. “[We wanted to] craft an interior that suits who MLC & NAB Wealth are now and who they hope to be in the future.” Thus, the base building is referenced through timber panelling in the ground floor lobby, which recalls the original interior cladding, while motifs and patterns throughout have been inspired by the glass and steel modernist facade.

“The project moves MLC & NAB Wealth staff into a new and more agile way of working”

The campus style of working that the 1999 fit out introduced to Australia was one that envisioned the workplace as a community – one in which the variety of work and meeting spaces reflected the diversity of spaces within a town. The designers increased connectivity and broke down silos by opening up the floor plan horizontally and – innovatively at the time – vertically, by way of a connecting stairway. It completely changed the way MLC operated.

“The workplace broke ground in 1999 by providing a ‘business refurbishment’ rather than just a building refurbishment,” says Amanda Stanaway, principal at Woods Bagot. “It was a physical embodiment of the transformation of the business and how people work.”

Woods Bagot retained the central staircase as a key feature of the MLC & NAB Wealth Campus, although its role has been redefined. A variety of ‘active’ spaces – collaborative lounges, breakout areas and kitchens – have been clustered around the staircase on each level, reactivating it as a connecting element. Destination floors at levels one, six, and 11 – floors that have a concentration of video-conferencing facilities and various meeting rooms – also encourage vertical circulation.

“It creates an energetic and vibrant heart to each of the floors,” says Stanaway.

The stair also now serves as a dynamic reminder of MLC’s history. The entire height of the glass stairwell has been adorned with a graphic designed by BrandCulture Communications. It tracks MLC from its birth in 1887, through to its acquisition by Lend Lease in the 1980s, and then by NAB in 2000.

Similarly, Woods Bagot has retained a system of themed floors. In the previous fit out, each floor had been given a name, rather than a number, and the floor’s lobby was designed to reflect this name. Staff were fond of the strategy, but they found the lack of any coherent numbering system confusing. So, Woods Bagot retained the broad idea, but refined the execution.

Each floor is now entirely themed, evoking its personality through use of materials and design elements – Stanaway describes the approach as “colourful, diverse and kaleidoscopic”.

The various themes acknowledge the need for a variety of work settings and environments for the diverse staff at MLC & NAB Wealth.

Level 3, for example, is the Zen Den, with a large fishtank at the eastern end of the lobby, a green palette that suggests a Zen garden, and a collaboration pod defined by a circle of bamboo poles; Level 8 is the Forum, and draws inspiration from vibrant debate, with circular meeting pods throughout; and Level 12, the more playful Beach, makes extensive use of recycled, coloured timber wall panelling in reference to beach huts.

In the lobby of each floor, numbers have been given prominence so that, despite the diversity, there is a consistency of wayfinding that make sense of the user experience for both members of staff and external clients.

“It was a layered approach, paying respect to both the original 1957 base architecture and the 1999 fit out”

Throughout, personal space – quiet settings and libraries – are located at the edges of the floor plates, while ‘active’ spaces are clustered around the stair. The number and variety of collaborative settings has been vastly increased, with special attention paid to the integration of technology.

Since the workplace remained in use throughout the build, a key challenge was the staged approach to construction and user satisfaction. MLC & NAB Wealth managed this through an extensive change-management programme designed to prepare staff for the new way of working. As each floor is unique, there was, says Stanaway, “an air of suspense before each floor was unveiled”.  Reactions to the new fit out have been almost universally positive, with much reference made by employees to a renewed sense of pride in their workplace and a deeper connection to the history and vision of the company.

“The project moves MLC & NAB Wealth staff into a new and more agile way of working,” says Pei-Lin Chen of Woods Bagot.

This new way of working will gradually be rolled out across NAB’s entire portfolio, including the much-anticipated new workplace in Melbourne’s Docklands (also designed by Woods Bagot), which is scheduled for completion in July.

As testament to the success of the MLC & NAB Wealth Campus, the number of employees engaged in flexible ways of working has increased from 50% prior to move in, to nearly 98% at project completion.

If you wanted to study the evolution of modern workplace design – moving beyond mere hot-desking to a greater range of collaborative, IT-enabled spaces designed to cater for every working need – then this is a good place to start.

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