How can workplace design encourage children to express their feelings? What kind of environment will inspire them to engage in fruitful conversations with adults
By Kerstin Zumstein
FEILDEN + MAWSON
OFFICE OF THE CHILDREN’S COMMISSIONER
START DATE: JANUARY 2006
COMPLETION: JUNE 2006
FLOOR AREA: 715SQ M
With 11 million children in the UK, the need for an independent voice for England’s young people has led to the formation of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC), developed to tackle issues such as bullying, antisocial behaviour, discrimination and disability.
In June 2006, the newly established OCC moved in amongst the many offices based at No 1 London Bridge, with the aim of providing a space that encourages children to express their thoughts and share their feelings, and at the same time appeals to adults. The result is a colourful, open world of curves, lights and inflatable objects.
With a budget of £920,000 and only a 16-week turnaround period, architecture practice Feilden + Mawson had quite a mission: firstly to find the location for the brand new OCC and secondly to create a stimulating environment for children to communicate and interact with each other and the commissioner’s staff. “Our main aim is to reveal the issues through information we gain from the children and young people themselves,” explains Lisa White, director of communications at the OCC. “Many of the children visiting the premises may be disabled or distressed, so the ambience of this workspace is crucial to enable communication.”
Kim Graham and Jo Harkins, concept architect and project architect for Feilden + Mawson, took the clients on a tour of five possible locations, but No 1 London Bridge, with its glass facade and a breathtaking view of the Thames, was the obvious choice. “The location in itself is stunning,” says Graham. “It lets in a lot of natural light which helps create the sense of openness.”
The office fit-out was largely based on feedback from children, through research collected by Children Express, the UK-wide news agency for young people. Graham says, “From the beginning, the thoughts, needs and wants of children formed the base of our design.” So her team submitted a concept design in a child-friendly format. They presented a mood, colour and texture scheme to the children, and were overwhelmed by the positive response.
“The main need that the children had expressed was to feel secure,” says White. “They wanted a space that was clean and not like the places they come from, but at the same time made them feel at home.” The OCC’s brief was straightforward: the design should be “out of the box”.
Part of the concept developed by Feilden + Mawson was the notion of taking children on a journey once they arrived at the building – leaving behind whatever “baggage” they came with and emerging into a safe and fun environment.
Indeed, on entering the premises, you feel transported to another world. The reception area shines with colourful lights, inviting children to play on the orange, banana-shaped rocking chairs. Adults prefer the round, bright sofa. “The children immediately start playing, trying to do somersaults in the chairs,” says White. The walls are painted in bright colours and the furniture looks like toys.
“We didn’t want it to be starchy, despite it being a working space. The space itself is very angular, so we decided to soften the room by introducing round elements,” Graham explains. “It’s what I call women architecture.”
This “women architecture” continues throughout the OCC. For instance, a meeting room has been built in the form of a rounded pod. A stripy, circular carpet piece has been laid in the middle of the rectangular room, which is mirrored by a low-hanging ceiling piece in the same rounded shape. “We got the painter to paint stripes, reflecting carpet lines. You need to paint anyway, so you may as well do stripes.”
The site consists of two main areas – the office space and a participation area, which are linked via a tunnel-like corridor. One side of the corridor is lined with white boards. These drawing boards invite children to grab a pen and scribble whatever they want. “Of course we monitor occasionally for swear words, but generally the children love drawing and provide us with a great decorative wall,” White says. “At the same time, it may help us to gather information about them that we can later pick up on as an easy starting point in the interview.”
On the opposite side of the corridor the functional, core elements of the office are signified by large and logical symbols: the cloakroom has a hanger, the stationery cupboard has a paperclip and the kitchen unit is symbolised
by a teacup.
The lighting design was developed by the architects in conjunction with Modular Lighting Instruments to support the concept of an emotional journey from the front door to the participation area. “We were delighted to have the opportunity to fit some of our wacky models,” says Lawrence Hayes, lighting designer at Modular Lighting Instruments. “For instance, the reception area is dominated by our lighting display, Square Moon boards, that have three vital functions: impact, fun and practicality.” The impact and fun elements are achieved by a visually impressive colour combination and the squares can also be used to display mission statements, which gives the staff great flexibility. Unusual light fittings and switches, such as hidden light sources and even furniture that lights the space, create differing atmospheres throughout.
The activity area has “fun” stamped all over it. The glass walls that let in light from the central courtyard have been lined with blocks of coloured film. In the corridors, inflatable and luminous seating objects seemingly float around. The children have their own toilet facilities designed like nightclub loos and there is a multifunctional room exemplifying the general aim to create flexible workspaces.
The main participation floor has a partitioning option, but White says, “So far we’ve always kept it open.”
Despite the Ikea kids-department feel, with its bright colours and cute shapes, the room does convey a sense of ease, play and safety. At the same time it’s quite functional. The space is not cluttered and can hold presentations and meetings for up to 80 people. The actual interview room is the one area that has been kept relatively formal, due to the children’s desire to be taken seriously during the meetings.
Feilden + Mawson has placed a huge inflatable pod outside in the building’s central courtyard. It functions as a breakout space. “Instead of fitting out an additional room, we decided to go with a product,” Graham explains. “The object is called ‘office in a bucket’ and is from Inflate.”
The commissioner, Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, is enchanted by the end result: “One of our biggest successes so far was last week when we had 15 children with autism here. I was initially concerned as to how they’d react to all the lights, and was delighted to see how soon they accustomed themselves to the environment. But the best moment was when we got them all into the inflatable ‘office in a bucket’. It is seldom that autistic people feel conformable grouped together in a small space, so it was wonderful to see how the space conveyed a sense of protection.”
Aynsley-Green, formerly national clinical director for children at the Department of Health and Nuffield professor
at the Institute of Child Health, does admit that he initially feared a migraine from all the colour, “but it really works for the children, which has put me at ease”.
The OCC is currently running a pilot programme with the aim of employing young people as commissioner staff.
For example, 14-year-old Thoryn will be acting as young assistant commissioner. He says, “The offices feel totally unclassroomy and that has to be a good thing! It is a really bright, friendly and positive place to be.”
A deputy young assistant commissioner, 14-year-old Hugh, says, “I like how it is really up to date and young-person friendly. You can tell that children and young people were involved in the design.”
As the commissioner concludes, “If we were to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”