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17 Jun 2008

Jack Pringle

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jasperThere’s no secret to maintaining a healthy balance between work and play, says Jack Pringle. You simply put down what you want to do in your diary at the start of the year and stick to it. In his case, around 50 sailing races per year, not forgetting the regular flights in the plane he co-owns.

And that’s just for fun. The rest of the time, Pringle, 56, runs his highly successful workplace design firm Pringle Brandon as well as squeezing in a two-year stint as president of the RIBA and co-founding the disaster relief charity Architects for Aid, which he also chairs.

Pringle shows no signs of strain from this impressive juggling act. Quite the contrary, after three decades in the business, he’s still firing on all cylinders.

“Last week I was at No 10 talking to Gordon Brown’s advisers about the procurement of schools,” he said, clearly relishing the chance to influence government policy as well as meet the needs of his many blue-chip clients.

He’s witnessed – and played his part in – the transformation of the typical office workplace from the traditional cellular set up into the diverse open plan and mobile technology-driven office landscape of today. And having predicted the impact of flat-screen technology on office design back in 1996 in his 20/20 Vision report, he’s enjoying something of an office guru status and is regularly asked what will be the “next big thing” to hit the workplace.

Not bad at all for someone who struggled at school with what he now realises was undiagnosed dyslexia. He only got on with art and maths, and so ended up studying architecture at Bristol University, with no particular passion to actually be an architect. But he very soon found he loved architecture, and was particularly enthused by his year-out stint at Powell & Moya, the practice best known for designing the Skylon at the Festival of Britain, as well as admiring the hi-tech generation of architects led by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

After finishing university he ended up working at Powell & Moya. Here, he gained experience of running projects from the early age of 23 before leaving in 1981 to set up on his own, and five years later formed Pringle Brandon with Melvin Starling and his university friend Chris Brandon.

Those early days were pretty hard going. “When we started the practice, workplace design was a really dispiriting place to work in,” says Pringle. “Clients tended to think the chairman’s wife could help choose the colours and they had no idea how design could play a part in the office… It was a very different landscape.”

Yet the practice started brightly, growing to 30 staff and working across the sectors, but like many it was hit hard by the recession in 1989, shrinking to less than ten staff. “It was terrible,” recalls Pringle.

But from adversity came their big break. Pringle Brandon realised that with millions of square feet of empty offices in the early 1990s, no-one would be building new offices until the old ones were fitted out. So, they stuck their necks out and made a strategic decision to focus on fit out. The only work going was in the public sector, and on their ninth pitch they struck gold with a major fit out for Customs & Excise.

The practice’s next project was the “only job in town” going – designing London Underground’s offices at Canary Wharf, moving them to open-plan working and coming in £2 million under budget. The icing on the cake was scooping the next big job on the market – three quarters of a million square feet of offices for BZW. This was, admits Pringle, a very unlikely win, especially as the practice was inexperienced and operating out of awful offices of its own. He’s convinced they won it by the high-risk strategy of inviting the client over to their offices for the presentation, giving all staff who’d be working on the project a red dot and inviting the client to walk around and ask any of them what role they would have if they won the job.

They’ve never looked back. Fifteen years on they are one of the leading workplace designers, with a big name client list that currently boasts Rothschild (working with Rem Koolhaas’ OMA), KPMG Dublin, and private equity firm Permira and Fidessa, which supplies financial analysis tools for traders. Recent projects included bright, open-plan offices for Unilever at Blackfriars in central London, with lots of white furniture and transparency to transform its workplace culture. For British Land, they engineered another significant change, moving the property development company away from its grand but unsuitable Nash Terrace premises to open-plan offices at York House on the Edgware Road. Law firm Allen & Overy now enjoys 46,500sq m Pringle Brandon-designed offices at Bishops Square.

At the moment, he reckons that the huge technology-led change in office organisation has plateaued in that flat screen and bench seating are pretty ubiquitous, along with small format PCs. He sees this as going hand in hand with the other great change – the democratisation of the workplace with businesses operating much flatter hierarchies.

The result is what Pringle calls “the social office” – lots of different workplace settings in the one environment, a concept once alien but now firmly embedded to various degrees in all but the most conservative organisations. And although designers still need to make the case for it, he’s found increasing recognition of the workplace’s role in recruitment and retention and helping businesses achieve their objectives.

“The office has been used and we are pushing for it to be used much more as an HR mechanism. In the end, the only thing about a firm is the quality of the people. A really dynamic, attractive, sociable, well-designed office plays to the self-image of bright, engaged young workers. That’s one of the key issues now. We’re in a highly competitive workplace.”

But the next big change in workplace design, he reckons, will not be technological or organisational but motivated by climate change. Already many clients are keen on green specification and getting recycling protocols right, and Pringle expects far more emphasis on reducing the embedded energy of fit outs. He also expects far more use of video conferencing as international companies seek to reduce their air miles.

“A really good video-conferencing set up is worth its weight in gold and there are two or three good packages out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re putting them into every office soon.”

But the big issue of building services and air-conditioning needs to be tackled at the base build stage – although Pringle reckons this will happen as more companies set out their sustainability strategies and green issues gain more currency in the boardroom.

Pringle admits he’s always being told he’s highly competitive and this has obviously stood him in good stead. He’s open about his ambitions for the 80-strong practice to be the leading workplace designer, instead of one of a handful of top practices, and having done his time-consuming term as RIBA president – where he campaigned particularly on improving the quality of PFI procurement and climate change – he is now in more of a position to make it happen.

"We’d like to pull clear of the pack. We need to be differentiated,” he says, keen to attract the very best designer. Another plan is to design hotels and mass housing.

But Pringle still has time for other matters. Aside from his ongoing RIBA activities, he is busy with Architects for Aid, which has completed dozens of projects in just three years. Another long-held ambition is to recreate the Skylon on the South Bank, and Pringle launches a scheme to do this at the Festival of Architecture in July, where a life-sized image of the iconic tower will be projected on the Shell Centre.

He clearly loves what he’s doing: “The great thing about running an architectural practice is that you’re working with young people and they don’t let you get old. It keeps you in touch and interested.”

Just don’t mention the R word. Retirement is absolutely nowhere on the radar and, as he says, architecture’s an old man’s game anyway. But with a flight route book never far from his pocket and a diary full of sailing dates, if he did ever decide to step back from the office design world, he’d have no problem at all adjusting his work- play balance.

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