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The Evolving Workplace

A conversation on the future of the office & the evolving workplace.

As we welcome our staff back to the office a group of our Rolfe Judd Directors and Associate Directors debate the impact that the Climate Emergency and COVID have had on our office culture and how the events are playing out in our architectural designs within the office sector.

Irene Pozo: How has Rolfe Judd been affected during the past year and a half?

Jason Rudolph: We were impressed with how we, as an office, transitioned to remote working and we believe there are certain lessons and benefits we can take forward into a post COVID working environment. Given that we have worked remotely with our two offices in Poland for 15 years this transition was perhaps easier for our team than others, as we were already used to this approach to working.

Eric Smith: It’s been interesting to try and balance virtual meetings alongside face-to-face traditional sit downs, with it being a matter of preference for many clients. We encourage in-person meetings for important presentations or pitches as we believe in the importance of face-to-face exchange of ideas, but we also find there is a lot of efficiency in doing day-to-day coordination virtually.

John Osborn: We found our workforce was less reliant on transport and that our energy usage was markedly reduced. It is well reported that the reduction in planes, trains and vehicular transport benefited our ecology and that certain species thrived in the quieter environment. We also recognised that working at home left more time for staff to enjoy with their families and appreciate the natural environment.

Jason Rudolph: Despite all the positives, the team were also very aware that the collaborative nature of our business requires a core office environment for people to have face-to-face discussions. Rolfe Judd’s management team are trialling a new flexible working policy, which puts the project and business needs first but recognises a balance through a flexible working environment.

IP: What are the key characteristics new office tenants are looking for?

ES: We are finding that tenants are looking for ‘destination’ and ‘user experience’ focused office space; i.e quality over quantity. They are looking for a fulfilling and collaborative workplace focused not only on efficiency but also a healthy balance of social activities and well-being provisions. Cafés, gyms, retail, art, outdoor amenity, and end of trip facilities are now a requirement within the scheme itself or through a combination of the new space and its local context. While this trend-line was evident pre-Covid amongst much of the market sector, it has and will likely continue to become even more important as companies try to differentiate themselves amongst their competitors to ensure that employees enjoy the experience of working in the office environment.

JR: The climate emergency has also raised tenants’ awareness of the benefits of greening, improving the local ecology and bettering air quality within and around the working environment. Sustainability, carbon footprint and performance are issues which are increasingly more important to tenants. With more business committing to future zero carbon targets, employees expect to see tangible changes in their working environment.

JO: We know from speaking with agents that there is still strong demand for the very best office space, and that energy performance, sustainability, natural ventilation, and the end of journey experience for cyclists is more important than ever for potential tenants. However, lower quality and older stock is struggling to attract interest even in historically strong office areas.

In terms of the pandemic, it is possible that it may generate a different strand of demand for office space. Affordable co-working spaces in less central locations, which are closer to where people live and perhaps not typically in town centres, may become more popular. The need for sequential tests and impact assessments for what’s considered ‘out of town’ office development, may of course hinder this unless policy changes.

IP: What are the key drivers for clients and funders?

JR: Our clients are working to deliver buildings that have the foresight to meet tenant demands for the future. Many clients with existing portfolios had previously set out detailed strategies to improve the ‘user experience’ of their buildings and reduce their carbon footprint, however, the impact of the past year and a half has propelled theoretical discussions into reality. There is more widespread acknowledgement that things must evolve, and that the days of standard CAT A fit out are generally behind us. This is perhaps one welcome consequence of the COVID period.

ES: Buildings and spaces with unique character, charm, and notoriety which can accommodate user focused amenity are especially sought after by clients. Many clients with existing buildings and expiring tenant leases are approaching us with briefs which embrace the integration of these spaces into their buildings, to entice both new and existing tenants. Never has designing offices been more challenging but more fun.

JR: Increased attention on the environment, which has been amplified during the Covid period has led to the proliferation of various benchmarking schemes which are being used by clients to chart their building’s performance during design and operation. The long established and widely recognised BREEAM assessments continue to be used along with WELL accreditation. More recently we have projects that have registered with Nabors UK which appears to be gaining traction following the success of the Australian equivalent ‘Design for Performance’. LEED is also popular outside of the UK.

ES: In some cases where our clients have a cluster of buildings, we have also undertaken studies for consolidation and future connections, to enable older and less flexible buildings access to generous new amenity spaces within a new ‘super facility’ and to create more efficiency and connectivity across the development.

IP: How are the local authorities adapting?

JR: The focus on creating more unique and flexible office space coincides with the City of London and the LPAs’ focus on the creation of more dynamic and active urban environments which promote the provision of new public spaces, the greening of the urban environment, pedestrianizing urban streets, increasing street front activation, and encouraging flexible mixed-use development. The London Plan seeks improvements to walking, cycling and transport connectivity and capacity as part of larger office developments. These ideals will only serve to increase the awareness and implementation of a more diversified, integrated, and healthy office environment.

JO: The GLA adopted the new London Plan in March 2021. However, COVID came a bit too late to have much of an impact on its content. In terms of spatial planning, offices are still directed towards town centres, as these locations have historically been seen as the most sustainable locations with supporting infrastructure.

However, we do see some LPA’s responding positively to the pandemic, and, in particular, some of the more commercially minded authorities recognise that the office environment needs to adapt and change. This is particularly important for old stock, which is more constrained by heritage. Without a flexible approach to such buildings, they will quite quickly become unviable and unattractive to the market.

Recent office policy has generally focussed on ensuring some provision of flexible and affordable workspace suitable for SME’s. There hasn’t tended to be specific policies centred around the quality of the office spaces in terms of wellness and office environment. We might start to see items like the provision of amenity spaces (both internal and external) being encouraged. However this is likely be left to the market to decide.

IP: How has Rolfe Judd reassessed their design approach in light of the above?

JR: Rolfe Judd are focused on realising progressive architecture that works towards zero carbon. Our designs are creative yet analytical from the outset. Early analysis, decisions, commitment and getting the right people around the table is fundamental to drive the project in the right direction.

ES: We are advocates of having a third-party carbon assessor as part of the design team to objectively review and inform the decision-making process. We are encouraging clients to invest in embodied and lifecycle carbon assessments at each stage and use the results to focus on next stage steps to continue to reduce environmental impact throughout the design process.

Key decisions such as frame design, building orientation, glass to solid ratio, openable windows and ventilation strategy should all be considered at early feasibility stage before the appearance and form of the building has settled.

JR: Even on projects which fall outside of BREEAM, LEED or WELL, we are advocating for sensible solutions to things like construction waste management, re-use of existing materials, specification of sustainable products, reduction in energy use and minimizing the building’s carbon footprint. For some of our larger developments, we are evaluating unique technology to reduce vehicular travel, including strategies to collate deliveries, reduce taxi and car journeys and promote cycling. For smaller developments we are looking at unique hybrid mechanical solutions which embrace natural ventilation, mixed mode heating and cooling, heat regeneration, operable windows, and photovoltaics.

ES: We are also acutely aware of the use of BIM, its impact on office projects and our clients’ aspirations to provide more intelligent building design by de-risking the construction process through detailed coordination earlier in the design process, whilst also future proofing adaptation and flexibility with building elements and providing maintainable assets being linked to the model through asset tagging.

JR: We have been progressively changing how we approach input into major schemes and have been seeking influence into how our clients approach them. It is vital that sustainable goals are set early in the brief and that it presents challenging objectives. Merely seeking to meet base London Plan targets is no longer acceptable. Projects should be seeking to meet Net Carbon Zero. Schemes should improve air quality (air quality positive), support decentralised heating networks, meet and exceed Excellent for BREEAM and include a range of measures including SUDS, biodiverse roofs and rainwater harvesting.

Jason Rudolph, Eric Smith, John Osborn

January 2022