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  • The post-pandemic office: design and retrofit for sustainability and wellbeing

The post-pandemic office: design and retrofit for sustainability and wellbeing

Successful hybrid working models will rely on workspaces that recharge and reconnect people. Designers are turning to timber structures and features to help reshape our concept of ‘office’ and what we expect from it.

Hybrid challenge

One of the legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic is a huge shift to hybrid working, where employees spend some days at home and others in the office. Research conducted by the Chartered Management Institute in December 2021 showed that 89% of UK organisations are now offering flexible working arrangements, compared to 58% before March 2020.

For many employees, hybrid working is no longer a nice-to-have or a special concession, it’s a must. A recent survey by YouGov for Microsoft found that 51% of workers who currently enjoy hybrid arrangements would consider leaving the company if the ability to mix home and office working was removed.

The dilemma for employers is that while failing to allow hybrid work could cost them workers, enabling hybrid working could have the same effect; people who come into the office less find it easier to move on, because they form less of an emotional attachment to their co-workers and company. Managers also face the challenge of how to optimise productivity in a mixed working regime.

This huge shift in working patterns and attitudes calls for an equally huge shift in our office spaces. Banks of anonymous hot desks just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Existing buildings must be reimagined and reconfigured to provide a far greater variety of spaces for different team dynamics and activities; it must be a space that people look forward to visiting and working in; it must feel healthy and inspiring, and it must create that emotional attachment that is lost through remote working.

Open approach

With employees coming into the office for fewer days, employers face the twin challenge of creating space that is both engaging and productive. What that looks like is still evolving.

Google offers some inspiration about new workspaces: ‘team pods’ will allow groups to work together when they come to the office; ‘campfires’ interspersing screens and seating enable people to attend meetings virtually and physically; and outdoor working spaces encourage movement and allow access to fresh air.

Only experience will tell which arrangements and spaces work best; office space today must be easily reconfigurable for tomorrow. Large column-free spaces, such as those created by Waugh Thistleton at 6 Orsman Road in London’s Hackney, using a structure that combines cross laminated timber (CLT) and steel, allow flexibility of use. A demountable partitioning system means that it can morph with the needs of its users.

The concept of ‘open’ extends to the ethos of the office building too. Following a trend, which began in Australia well before the pandemic, Santander’s new ‘Unity Place’ HQ in Milton Keynes will throw its doors open to the public, tempting them in with coffee shops and eateries, farmers markets, events and even yoga classes. This open model can extend to clients, suppliers and start-ups, with big corporations attracting them in to enrich collaboration at a business and human level.

Video of new Santander Unity Place 

Bywater Properties has this vision of for its Paradise development near London’s Albert Embankment, with a ground floor that is open and inviting to anyone. Designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, the 60,000 sq ft building will provide space for offices, research, makers and artisans, while sitting sensitively and sustainably alongside the neighbouring Old Paradise Gardens.

A building such as this becomes a focal point for local businesses and residents, providing space and amenities. For home workers starved of human interaction, shared spaces add an extra dimension, while giving back to the community and creating goodwill for the building’s owners or main occupiers. Paris’ vision of the 15-minute city, where everything can be accessed within a 15-minute journey of home, becomes more attainable when offices themselves become mini-villages, catering to a variety of community needs.

Wellness through design

Of equal importance to the way that space is arranged in an office is the way that it feels. It’s not surprising the acronym FORTO – fear of returning to the office – was coined in 2021.

Creating spaces where people feel at ease and happy requires a design ethos that recognises the in-built instincts and responses of human beings. Fundamental to this is the provision of natural light.

We are naturally drawn to spaces that are filled with natural dynamic light,” says Oliver Health, founder of Oliver Heath Designs and an expert in biophilic design which plays to our innate love of nature. “So, I think that the introduction and maximisation of natural light is essential to overall health and wellbeing for all of those reasons.”

It is now widely recognised that a lack of light in winter can dramatically affect some people’s moods, leading to seasonal affective disorder or SAD. But Heath points out that a lack of natural light will negatively affect us all, as our circadian rhythms fight against unnatural environments, leading to changes in our hormones, mood and behaviours.

Another essential feature of healthy buildings is biophilic design elements: views of nature and greenery, water, patterns that mimic nature and indoor planting. One way to do this is to use timber, leaving its natural grain exposed. Studies have demonstrated that rooms with wooden elements tend to have a calming effect, reducing heart rates and stress.

The repurposing of two ten-storey office buildings at East India Dock - the Import Building and the Export Building – exploits both these devices. New structural timber frames of CLT and glulam have created extra space within the atrium of each building. With the timber elements exposed, there are break-out spaces and terraces at each level, all benefitting from the natural light within the atria.

Image of East India Dock

Outside the East India Dock buildings, trees, planting and wooden seating areas offer an environment for outdoor meetings or relaxation. And additional green roofs at lower levels boost both biodiversity and green views from the building.

Counting carbon

One of the strongest messages to emerge from COP26 was that many major corporations are choosing to take the lead on reducing their carbon emissions – rather than waiting for governments to legislate. Landlords and occupiers will be taking a far more rigorous look at the carbon footprints of prospective buildings – both operational and embodied.

One of the huge benefits of refurbishing an existing building is that the materials and energy used to construct it are not lost on demolition. One of the core principles of the circular economy is to increase the longevity of a building or structure as much as possible as this has a huge positive impact on the environment.

In London’s Clerkenwell, General Projects’ Technique development will take two existing buildings to provide a combination of office and retail space, including space for SMEs. A gin distillery and bank headquarters will be stitched together with an extension made from CLT and glulam, a solution that reduced carbon emissions by between 40 and 50% compared to concrete or steel frames.

Structural wood makes carbon sense for new buildings too. For instance, Fielding Clegg Bradley Studios calculated that the sequestered carbon contained in the timber structure for the Paradise building was enough to offset the embodied carbon emissions generated during construction and operational carbon emissions for 60 years.

Joy of office

With office buildings reimagined to offer so much more than a mere workspace, and Covid restrictions easing, the transition to permanent hybrid working could be less traumatic than many fear. Let’s hope that 2022 is the year of JORTO - joy of returning to the office.


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