Activity in the office market is once again on the up, leading to more work for interior space planners and the hope of increased business for furniture manufacturers. With relocation comes reorganisation, the planning of the office environment. And with the rise in office costs comes the need for efficient use of space.
The design process
Today’s office is very different from that of 20 years ago, with advances in technology prompting a changing environment. Flexibility and mobility are high on the agenda as companies try to cope with the new working methods that technology is thrusting upon them and their workers. The interior layout of any new office and maximum efficiency of space is fundamental to this advancement, but as one designer comments “the majority of clients don’t understand space planning… seeing it as being akin to a jigsaw puzzle”.
Help is at hand, in the form of the “interior workplace specialist” as companies such as DEGW have been dubbed. Senior designer Jonathan Reed-Lethbridge sees his position as “initially a consultancy role, particularly where organisations are changing”.
Paul Scrivener, design director at design consultancy Marshall Cummings Marsh, agrees that “space planning is not just furniture layout. We get clients to question the way they use the space.” This process can involve interviews and focus groups to determine the culture of the company, individual staff needs and ultimately the level of reorganisation required. “The time spent up front is time well spent,” says Scrivener. “If you have gone through the process then at least you know the solution you have arrived at is most appropriate,” he adds.
This process can be seen at Seagram’s new offices at the London Ark, for which MCM was appointed to provide a total interiors package. Premises manager Brian Hunt says: “We moved from a number of buildings around London and were looking at a whole concept, not just at space planning. It was a hugely democratic process involving an executive steering committee, project management teams, staff representatives on the executive steering committee and so on. Everybody had a feeling of buying into the project so there were no surprises when we moved into the Ark.” These meetings continued throughout the life of the project with information relayed back to the designer at each stage. Has the result been a new and more efficient way of working? “Yes,” says Hunt “because we are now all in one building… which is almost totally open-plan. A number of senior vice-presidents also elected to sit in the open-plan, and it works very well.”
The Furniture Plan
Into this equation comes the office furniture company or dealership which undoubtedly has a role to play in providing space planning services for its own furniture systems, whether that is via a design consultancy or dealing direct with the client. But it is the direct client relationship which has grown in recent years, not just because of the increase in client expertise, but also due to the advancement in computer software packages which serve to make the planning of space that much easier.
In this scenario it is the furniture which is selected first and the office which is planned around it. The client will choose half a dozen potential systems, often on a personal preference basis, and then provide each furniture company with a list of staff and their tasks. The result will be a number of different space-planning solutions all provided free of charge, the incentive to the furniture company being sales of workstations. There is little or no consultancy role and no design involvement.
And with the recent increase of activity in the commercial office market it would appear that furniture companies are providing more and more free of charge in the hope of winning the furniture contract.
Mike Swalwell, chief executive of Paragon Business Furniture speaks for many when he says it is “all part of the cost of doing business” in this competitive market.
Others disagree. Kevin Higgins, Survey and Design manager at Flexiform Business Furniture has an in-house design team which is split between furniture and planning, storage and survey. “A lot of the time we are within one to three of getting the job before we reach planning stage” he says, but he nevertheless feels “it is rather stupid to ask companies to duplicate the work to get to the quoting stage… it is a waste of money and resources”. However, he continues, “if you go for the multi-million pound jobs, you have to risk it… and there aren’t many jobs that we don’t get”.
There are also other services coming on to the market such as the new space planning software package recently launched by Paragon. Aimed at small to medium companies, this tool allows clients to design, configure and cost a layout on their own PC – while Paragon sales staff are employed more lucratively on larger contracts. Accompanying this is an A4 book with typical layouts for different types and sizes of department, plus pictures and specifications of the furniture available. It’s a clever idea, but one that is a million miles away from the MCM philosophy that “space planning is part of the design process” and Scrivener’s argument that “desk layout should be related to the fabric of the building. It shouldn’t take over.”
The facilities manager would seem to agree. “In a working environment, furniture is just one element of supporting an activity” says Steve Burton, head of workplace consultancy at management consultancy CBX. “Sure, the furniture company knows its systems very well, but that has to be balanced against the right solution to create the right environment. We work on behalf of a lot of large corporations managing their space over a period of time, and unlike the furniture manufacturers, we see the whole lifecycle of the furniture.”
And the client view on office planning? Ken Beedle, Head of External Affairs at Halliburton Brown & Root believes that you need expert advice. “We relocated from 10-12 offices in Wimbledon into a new headquarters building in Leatherhead, and in doing so we made the decision to move away from the traditional cellular office space to an open-plan environment. There came a point when we realised how important it was to get that open-plan designed correctly. DEGW looked at the use of space and did a full analysis so that we could decide who would be located where, and what functions would best sit next to each other. The result made us aware that a lot of senior managers do a lot of travelling and that a high proportion of staff are out of the office at any one time. So we’ve introduced touch-down desks and shared desks within the office environment.”
“It’s all about getting the best out of the open-plan space” says Beedle, and he adds that in this case “it also helped us with the car parking requirements”.