Smooth operators

Nicky Churchill takes a tour round BT’s offices at Stockley Park, where flexible planning is paramount, after a word from the client and DEGW the design group.

Client

Tony Wilson

BT Building Construction and Maintenance

In March 1995, Stockley Park was chosen from a shortlist of five buildings as BT’s second Workstyle 2000 location. The Workstyle 2000 programme had been developed two years earlier in response to the constantly changing needs of an increasingly competitive communications market, and in recognition of the fundamental change in the nature of work that had taken place. The hierarchical and largely static workforce that typified the company in the days before privatisation was, through the use of new technology, rapidly being replaced by a new mobile workforce which was demanding greater freedom of choice in their work patterns and work settings.

The objectives of the Workstyle programme were to provide a better quality working environment, a greater choice of flexible work settings to suit the changing needs of individuals, teams and customers, as well as offering a showcase for BT’s latest technology. Effective communication underpins the Workstyle concept, whether by means of technology or through face to face contact. Therefore, not only do the Workstyle buildings contain the latest in communications technology, IT network access, wireless voice comms and video-conferencing facilities, for example; they are also designed to encourage both formal and informal meetings in recognition of the fact that this new highly mobile workforce is rarely in the same place for any length of time.

The brief to DEGW, the chosen design group for the Stockley Park buildings, was therefore to create a stimulating, lively environment, which would most importantly be flexible to the constantly changing needs of the business, and would also provide key social areas where people could meet and interact.

The 16 800m2 of space that BT now occupies at Stockley Park is split between two buildings – Building 5, the larger building at 5 Longwalk, designed by Foster & Partners, and Building 4, next door which is by Arup Associates.

First impressions of the two buildings suggested that the more “workmanlike” Arup building would always be something of a poor relation when compared to its more glamorous neighbour. This feeling was reinforced when nearly 4.5km of partitioning used by the previous occupier, BP, was removed to reveal the expansive and dramatic nature of the space within the Foster building.

An extremely tight programme allowed DEGW only 12 weeks to complete the design before work commenced on site, and also meant that the lessons learned from the first Workstyle building at Westside in Kings Langley had to be quickly assimilated into the new design. The basic space-planning principles used at Westside – of workspace arranged around a central core of support functions – were maintained, but a much more energetic interior design scheme was developed in contrast to the more muted scheme at Westside.

A characteristic of the Foster building, given the widespread use of hard materials and open spaces, is its lively acoustic nature. This is both a strength and a weakness, creating a buzz in the central areas where it is wanted, and the potential for distraction in areas where it is not. The scale of some of the open-plan spaces has also provided one or two problems of individual and team identity which have had to be addressed. DEGW is helping us to fine-tune these areas with various visual and acoustic techniques in order to strike the right balance. Generally, however, DEGW’s scheme for the Foster building complements and enhances the drama of the original building, and has created an exciting and stimulating work environment.

Meanwhile, Arup’s building, far from being the poor relation, has been transformed into a more intimate, club-like space. DEGW has used the footprint of the building to its best advantage in order to create discrete, team-sized work areas of around 20-25 workstations, again arranged around central support areas. A café created beneath the central atrium also acts as a focal point for the building, and, in common with similar facilities provided elsewhere, is extremely popular with the occupants.

The dynamic and energetic design for the Stockley Park buildings is a reflection of BT’s current and future aspirations, as it seeks to establish itself as the leading global telecommunications company in a fiercely competitive market.

DesignER

David Sadeghi

Associate director, DEGW London

The two buildings designed by Arup Associates and Foster & Partners were conceived to guidelines evolved by DEGW for Stockley Park in the mid-Eighties. The objective was to create building forms capable of responding to organisational change and overcoming the restrictions which buildings place on the evolution of working practices and the use of new technology.

The two refits represent the first test of these concepts – particularly in the ability of both buildings to respond to organisational demands. The ease with which change has been absorbed can best be judged by noting how both buildings have switched from a highly enclosed, cellular culture adopted by BP to a mainly open-plan, team-based operation for BT.

In January 1995, DEGW was commissioned to undertake a Comparative Building Appraisal of five alternative locations on the north and west periphery of the M25 orbital motor way. We developed a spatial profile of Workstyle 2000 and applied an analysis across a wide spectrum of criteria from site and environmental issues to spatial planning potential, cost and their ability to support the technological infrastructure. From this selection, the two buildings at Stockley Park rated highest in meeting the evolving needs of BT. The subsequent commission was to implement and set a design benchmark for the office environment of tomorrow, accommodating up to 1500 staff, relocated from a number of sites in and around London, at 1300 work settings across the two buildings.

DEGW has seized the opportunity to reinstate Foster’s original intention for Building 5 by restoring the open-plan floors in place of BP’s cellular arrangements, providing views across the floor plates and maximising environmental benefits. The interior design approach uses the building envelopes as simple, engineered and rational backdrops to the application of colour and texture to help in orientation in the buildings as well as creating a lively and dynamic atmosphere.

A predominant use of open-plan work settings ranges from short duration touch-down stations to hot-desking and more permanent workstations, all of which can be booked. This allows users ready access to the extensive IT network, video conference facilities and supporting team meeting spaces, project and conference rooms.

Social facilities include the combined copy/vending areas in the office areas in both buildings, the new Oasis café and link-stair at the base of the atrium in Building 4, and extended restaurant and café in Building 5.

The original reception area and main entrance to Arup’s Building 4 has been extended within the refurbishment to suit the greater staff and visitor traffic predicted for BT’s occupation.

Extensive research was carried out to identify the appropriate workstations and personal and central storage facilities to support the rapid turnaround in staff. Each workstation has IT and power services above the work surface for rapid laptop connection. Visitors’ workstations can be identified by a different footprint and fabric screen colour to the remaining work settings, where BT’s computer-based video conference facilities are located.

This project provided an opportunity to house a dynamic organisation in two buildings by different architects using consistent guidelines. The result confirms the value of Stockley Park’s approach in providing quality buildings that can adapt over time, while providing for BT’s dynamic business solutions that help realise its Workstyle 2000 programme.

On-going work at Stockley Park includes the introduction of a number of lightweight fabric structures into the entrance atrium space of Building 5. Part of the initial design concept, these elements were intended to add visual breaks to the space, provide a suitable surface to project images and colour on to, and possibly help to screen the adjacent open office spaces from activities at the base of the atrium. While these did not form part of the original construction contract, the occupation of the buildings has highlighted the need for such devices to control noise and provide screening, especially over the café area at the base of the atrium. Striking the right balance between acoustic control and maintenance of the sense of the overall lightness and volume of the space has been challenging. The canopy is due to be implemented later this year.

Appraisal

Nicky Churchill

The early philosophy of the business park was all about the relationship between location, architecture and landscaping. Stockley Park, near London Heathrow Airport, is no exception to this rule. Masterplanned in the Eighties by Arup Associates, it set a standard to be followed, providing prospective occupants with quality architecture (by the likes of Foster & Partners, Ian Ritchie Architects et al), community amenities (golf course and leisure facilities), a profusion of planting (even in the car parks) and man-made lakes. It is, therefore, fitting that the two buildings should have an interior environment planned by DEGW, itself part of the original Stockley Park development team.

Though sited next to each other, the two buildings are very different – both in terms of architecture and ambience. Of the two, Building 5 is the more architecturally pleasing, with its full-height glazing and twin reception desk being more akin to an airport hotel than a corporate office. Through the entrance barriers and around the central core you immediately get a feel for the building as you approach one of the two atriums or “streets” with open staircases leading up to the working areas. On the day of my visit, it was very quiet.

The adjacent building seems more familiar as an office with its smaller, not-so-grand entrance and an imposing security guard. DEGW has, in fact, extended the entrance from the original design, inserting new revolving doors and a new canopy, but it is still an enclosed space giving no indication of what lies beyond.

The different architecture of the two buildings could have posed a problem to any designer attempting to devise an interior strategy that would work across both offices. Yet, there is little evidence that DEGW has had any difficulty in achieving harmony, and certainly no apparent evidence that one building has been given preferential treatment, apart perhaps from the stylish Le Corbusier chairs in the reception of the Foster building.

The designers’ task may have been made easier by the brief for a generic office plan. Yes, this is an egalitarian working environment, and while there are different types of workstations – including hot-desks and touch-down desks – no single workstation has been designed for a specific department or task. Cellular offices account for 4 per cent of the total area, and are mainly confined to the centre along with the project and meeting rooms, and the remainder of the space is open-plan.

Generally, the desks are arranged around the perimeter of each floor resulting in long runs of bright red or blue screens – depending on which direction you look – as far as the eye can see. While this arrangement undoubtedly encourages communication between staff, as a visitor, it is easy to get disoriented with little signage in evidence to guide you. Strategically placed banners erected by the more permanent staff in some departments would suggest that a certain number have also been suffering from the “fish lost in a big pond” syndrome.

Storage for these work areas is provided centrally, but, as part of BT’s move towards the paperless office, it is limited. There are no large banks of filing here, and certainly no filing clerks. If storage is needed, the member of staff is allocated an individual box or file which he or she then takes to the allocated desk. At the end of the day, it is simply locked away in a labelled drawer until the next morning.

For the even-more transient worker (those who want to drop in and plug in), touch-down desks with PC and/or video conferencing facilities account for 3 per cent of the total workstations. These are individually numbered, differentiated by a smaller footprint and a green screen-fabric, and are generally sited near the lifts or staircases for ease of access.

And for those wishing to use the full conference facility, there is a central complex in Building 5, inherited from BP (although it has obviously been adapted to suit BT and its wondrous technology). Here, the walls slide and fold away to become one large space for up to 150 people, with storage cupboards provided for the overflow of partitions and furniture.

But it is in the social areas where the designers have had the most scope, both in the hub areas on the office floors and in the cafés in each building. Support services in the office areas are discreetly tucked behind high walls providing the strange juxtaposition of vending machines and printing facilities. The walls, both curved and straight, are lined with colour-coded mosaic tiles – blue for the side of the building that faces the water and green for the side that faces the trees – and the Magistretti bar stools and a black granite counter give the illusion of a “designer bar”. But as the photocopier lurches into action, it’s back to reality and your desk.

For longer breaks away from the office floor, each building has an all-day café and a quiet social area, though only the Foster building benefits from a more formal staff restaurant. Sadly, the designers were not given full rein here as, again, much has been inherited from BP (the quirky “oil rig” balustrading is all too evident), but it is a pleasant enough space despite the lack of daylight. For that, you enter the atrium spaces each side of the restaurant, one housing an informal meeting space complete with tub chairs and the other a café.

The atrium café in Building 4 also benefits from natural light. Previously a library situated at first-floor level, DEGW has cut through and inserted a staircase to the upper floor allowing staff at both levels direct access to this facility. Illuminated, engraved glass screens and a centrally hung mobile serve to humanise this area while banks of storage screen it off from the main run of workstations.

So how is the mobile workforce settling into this shared office environment? Inevitably, there have been some teething troubles as staff become familiar with the two buildings, and as the site is not yet fully occupied (to date, only 900 staff have made it their base), it is bound to continue for a time. However, following a post occupancy survey, the in-house facilities management team has made great strides to assist to the extent that visitors entering the offices are now presented with two guides – Visitors Guide to Stockley Park and Touch-down Facilities Guide – each with a layout of the buildings and full details of services available. And as the building facilities manager, Max Horner points out “once they’ve been here for a while, they get used to it”.

The lack of signage is also being addressed, (helped along by the facilities team placing notices on meeting room doors with the name of the person who has booked it), and the lightweight fabric structures in the reception and atrium areas of Building 5 are soon to be installed to overcome potential noise from the café penetrating the upper levels. The only other angst is from the staff in Building 4 who, during the winter, have to traipse a few hundred yards through the cold to get to the staff restaurant. Surely a small price to pay.

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