Workplace Interrupted: Spaces. Processes.Technology.
Architect and Interiors India|February 2021
Evolution of office campus design has been a progression of existing archetypes and renewed experimentation. We seek insights from some of the most powerful and creative minds in this domain
Rashmi Naicker
How far can one’s sense of innovation in design and architecture go? Can they make the elements of a structure offer varied experiences within the same spatial coordinates? Can it address the need for sustainability, leisure, and work, simultaneously? Can the design appeal to a vast demography of users with varying sensibilities? Can it justify the initial capital invested and build on year-on-year RoI?

One domain that offers positive responses to each of these questions, is commercial architecture and office space design. Although, incidental, these buildings do play an important role in shaping the minds and ambitions of their inhabitants. Office campuses speak of a conglomeration of cultures, characters and spatial experiences that last through years. Enriching this experience and enlivening lifeless corridors, architects and designers, in this domain, are the creators of this journey.

The world of workspace design today encompasses more than just shells for work desks, cubicles and meeting rooms. Office architecture, as we know it, is moving beyond its historical function as a quasi-workspace for employees to something altogether more sophisticated, sustainable and even nurturing. Adapting to diverse markets, their design renders its purpose by re-inventing their stakeholder’s identity through its architecture and interiors.

Office buildings today intuitively connect the brand and its culture within the architecture and interior landscape of its physical entity. Elaborating on this interface, Akshay Lakhanpal, CEO, Space Matrix India, says, “I think the brand and the culture, are two, truly holistic elements. It resonates and represents the present-day demands of office culture and workspace design. The culture of a brand defines how the company wants to project itself to its employees or to the new millennial talent coming in. It represents what the brand stands for. It is a two-way process. While we strive to understand the aspirations of the client organisation and those of the people using the workspace, it is important to design the space as per employee needs so as to make them feel at home. From a company’s perspective, the brand is the key element, especially for multinationals setting up shop in India.”

The evolution of office design has been over constant appreciation of existing archetypes and renewed experimentation. In the design realm, architects have constantly appraised ‘technology’ and its constant upgradation as the key role-player. But how much of our obsession with technology is for dialogue and how much of it manifests as an element to derive efficiency? Do the designs just satisfy our visual bias or find their satisfaction in functional solutions? Is their ethos the offering of an enduring (sustainable) edifice or simply a materialistic statement in which other industry counterparts run the show?

In pursuit of finding answers to each of these questions, we, Architect & Interiors India, seek insights from some of the most powerful and creative minds in this domain.

SHIFTS & CHANGES: THE ADVENT OF ‘SUPER-FLOORS’

Office campuses today are a culmination influences from of various fields of design – right from the influence of “home-like” environments, amalgamation of sophisticated hospitality design and now in this post-pandemic world we are also witnessing the ingress of healthcare design in this domain.

While analysing the layout of an office, it’s clear that the floor plan itself has undergone several amendments in the past couple of years alone. Though, largely, space per person or area per person on the overall usable space has not changed in corporate infra standards over time, what keeps reinventing itself is the individual work space and the collaborative areas with supporting spaces surrounding them, now keeping in mind the norms of social distancing too. The current day’s trends are not purely about density or space per person. Linear settings while encouraging openness in office while being community friendly has given rise to want of smaller enclosed spaces like phone booths, twoseater meeting rooms for private working when required.

Giving a context to designing efficient workspaces, Ulrich Blum, associate at Zaha Hadid Architects, begins by explaining about the changing nature of work and businesses across the world. He emphasises on the fact about how rapidly this transformation has been occurring in the past decade driven by the war for talent and the start-up culture. He states that it is not productive anymore to be working in 2x2 meter boxes along triste corridors.

Given that data exchange and cross-pollination of information is imperative for businesses today, the reach and the stipulated working zone for every employee has grown multifold; the workplace it no longer limited to just the desk. Hence, Blum asserts that “it’s time to shed away the cubicle and the notion of a uniform work style and embrace the age of diversity and connectivity.”

Technology has entirely changed the way the contemporary workplace functions. Bringing down physical barriers, office building floors today are getting larger and larger. The majority of the office buildings in the world constitute a typical 60x60 meter tower with 2500 sqm usable area per floor. “We see a worldwide tendency that organisations are looking at bigger floor plate sizes. We currently work on office structures with ‘mega-floors’ that scale up to 20,000 to 50,000 sqm. These super floors contain anywhere between 2000 to 5000 inhabitants. Every single floor is treated and operated like a city in itself,” Blum elaborates.

Going further, he states that “There are then the ‘gigafloors’ that scale up from 50,000 sqm to 100,000 sqm with an occupancy of almost 5000 to 10000 employees per floor. Today workplaces are like organised communities that can enable large-scale operations.”

The firm is working on some massive projects in China, where they have floors that are 400m wide and two kilometer long. Blum quips that it takes almost half an hour to get from one end to another and that employees might have to use electrical scooters to traverse through such expansive floorplates.

Shedding light on this shift, Yatin Patel, founding partner at DSP Design Associates, states that “Although, open floor plans have been a matter of high debate in the fraternity, we are not anticipating the entire concept to be shunned. The challenge is how we, as designers, can envision a newer way of designing floor plans that do not migrate to old school but are countered well enough to be qualifying as physically safe. On the other hand, occupancy planning and the staggered return will be largely informed by data analytics. A simulation through workspace design and occupancy software lending outputs of varied scenarios to fulfill the precautionary norms and yet optimise the existing space and budget intelligently is going to be the way forward.”

Further elaborating on the other aspects within an office space design, Shawn Basler, Co-CEO and executive director, Perkins Eastman, says, “Health and wellness will be a major focus going forward. Indoor air quality will become a priority. High-quality, efficient HVAC systems to prevent the spread of airborne diseases will be important. Creating a hybrid-design workplace that allows people to collaborate when needed or have head’s down focus space will be important. Allowing people to work from home yet seamlessly connect digitally with colleagues in the office will be critical. Flexibility will be expected. Many employees like working from the comfort of home, and will need incentives to return to the office full-time. When they do go into the office, many will want fewer permanent/assigned workstations, and more unassigned touchdown spaces.”

PUTTING ALGORITHMS TO WORK

With the innumerable factors that go into designing large offices, ZHA has deployed technology at its best to develop various permutations and combinations of work floors that address connectivity, movement, flexibility, etc. The firm has an in-house tool that studies hundreds and thousands of different layouts for viability. This tool analyses parameters like light penetration, views, visibility and movement of people within these spaces and helps identify the best possible solutions for a hyper connected workplace.

Research by MIT professor Thomas J Allen found that communication frequency across the office floor rapidly decreases with distance. The ease of conversation between employees next to each other is extremely high. This reduces when it’s with someone on the desk opposite and further diminishes to individuals eight meters away and is completely absent beyond the distance of 24m. Integrating these figures into their work, ZHA measures communication and collaboration statistics of every desk and creates the most efficient layout with the best possible seating positions. Furthermore, in order to facilitate communication between individuals who are seated within a walking distance of 24m, ZHA devises layouts which enable the maximum number of people to be close to each other without being crammed in.

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