For better or worse, work doesn’t look like it used to. Even from five years ago, a massive shift is evident not only in the way people work, but in where they work. Whether it’s the specifically product of a younger, more dynamic generation that’s sick to the teeth of hot-desking, there’s no saying. What can be quantified is that people are working longer hours, and they’re no longer necessarily doing it at their desks.
So, how does the age of agile work impact workplace design? How are architects possibly meant to respond to such a diaspora, outside of designing a series of non-defined spaces? The answer seems to lie somewhere between commercial, residential and public architecture; a response to the need of long-working employees for spaces that combine personal and professional needs.
Although health is probably the most important facet of human life – both personal and professional, mental and physical – it is one that often succumbs to corporate needs. Perhaps thinking that the addition of standing desks compensates for a more holistic fitness focus, much existing commercial architecture fails to push the envelope of employee wellbeing.
It seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Extensive research shows that, not only does the physical and mental wellbeing result in increased employee satisfaction and less sickness among the workforce, it also improves productivity; a win-win for employers and employees alike. And as much as being desk-bound is bad for the physical wellbeing of an employee, there are a number of less visible factors – such as poor ventilation and lack of sunlighting – that can impact negatively on the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
Physical and mental wellbeing should not be treated separately in workplace design, but rather designed for as part of a singular concept. In the same way that non-physical design elements such as light and air improve the health of a building’s human occupants, so too do the more tangible and traversable elements that are expressed with an office’s floorplan and integrated technologies.
Whether it’s as simple as shower facilities to accommodate staff members who cycle to work, or flexible floorplans that encourage movement between workspaces, here are three home-grown commercial projects that lay out a roadmap for agitating traditional workplace typologies.
KU.BE BY MVRDV AND ADEPT
Outside of rock-climbing studios, there aren’t too many offices that incorporate scalable walls. Particularly within buildings that additionally house indoor running tracks, fireman’s poles, vertical mazes, and multi-level mesh nets.
Ku.Be – House of Culture and Movement in Copenhagen, Denmark might just be the only building of its kind in the world. Designed by MVRDV and ADEPT, this multi-purpose space provides a daily reminder to occupants that child’s play is not just for children.
The 3,200-square-metre space was commissioned by the Municipality of Frederiksberg, who asked for “an innovative and flexible community space focused on exploring and developing our most fundamental process”. This “process” was movement, and its effect was to bring people together through culture, sports, health and movement.
“In a sense, [Ku.Be] is a space that breaks down the barriers that [exist] between these usually separate activities, whether they are indoor or outdoor,” says Julius Kirchert, a project leader at MRVDV. “We wanted to create a space where people can come together, [and] interact and learn through movement.”
The resulting building is not just a novelty admixture of formal and informal space; it is a profound challenge to the way we understand and interact with buildings. Instead of taking the elevator to their required level, occupants ascend a vertical maze. To descend, they can shoot down the mirrored slide that runs from the first floor to the ground-level café. Rather than drink coffee in the café, a number of outdoor garden spaces give occupants the healthy alternative of fresh air and Vitamin D.
Each floor of Ku.Be is unique from the next. The floorplan is spread across seven levels that interact with one another in a variety of surprising ways. According to Das, it’s within the in-between spaces such as corridors and stairwells that the most fun and unexpected encounters take place. In these spaces, “the users often themselves define the functions”.
To avoid confusion, MVRDV conceived of a thematic colour scheme, with an ombre of colours creating what Das calls “affinities” between zones. The colours have been carefully chosen so as to complement one another — “essential in this building where so many surfaces of different kinds are merging”.
“It is more than just a space to drop in for a coffee and a chat, or work fixed to a desk all day,” says Kirchert. “Here in quite unexpected, interesting and at times challenging ways (wall climbing, for example) people engage in all sorts of activities whilst getting acquainted with themselves and one another. It is full of surprising visual contacts and spectacular shared spaces where rather unusual functions inspire movement both physically and mentally. It is a new typology; Ku.Be challenges the regular and offers new ways to think about how we engage with and use buildings.”
MY-HOUSE BY AUSTIN MAYNARD ARCHITECTS
Considering the client for My-House (The Mental Health House) by Austin Maynard Architects was the practice’s founder, Andrew Maynard, it wasn’t the typical project briefing — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging.
When Andrew Maynard set out to reimagine the Melbourne headquarters of Austin Maynard, he wanted “the biggest transformation of the space possible” on a tight budget. To complicate things, the office was also Maynard’s family home, meaning that any solution needed to tackle both residential and commercial needs.
The main concern with the existing build — a small, framed, inner-Melbourne terrace — was that it didn’t let any light in. Between this and an inward-looking floor plan, the result was a space that lacked any connection with the outside.
The benefit of having an architect as a client, according to project architect Ray Dinh, was that you could get away with things you wouldn’t usually get away with. “Our solution was to make the whole roof out of Lexan thermoclick — a poly-carbonate plastic material — and let the light just flood in,” he says.
The existing terrace finished at a double-storey brick wall, behind which a garden space was created. Adjoining that is an open-plan living area, a kitchen and a bathroom. This area now doubles as break-out space and amenity for Austin Maynard staff.
As big a gesture as a transparent roof is, it’s the small touches that really round out the identity of My-House as a ‘mental health house’. For instance, a mirrored splash back has been installed above the kitchen sink so that, even when facing the wall, the garden is still visible. “It was just about creating as many of those connections back to the outside as we could,” says Dinh.
What is hardest to miss when visiting My-House is the sheer brightness of the space — and not just because of the light that floods through from every angle. The home is awash with warm yellow paint, a design decision that grew from the choice of tapware to become a defining theme of the office-slash-residence.
“We found these really nice Astra Walker fittings, and yellow was our colour of choice,” says Dinh. “Then we thought, ‘We should just make everything yellow.’ It adds that extra light and helps lift up the space, and we’ve found the energy lifts as well.
“Our approach to changing the house from a dark space to one where we’re trying to pull in as much light as possible, that’s a very good approach in terms of people’s mental and physical health,” he adds. “That access to light and fresh air and good views really helps productivity. It’s really about sustainability in not just an environmental sense, but the sustainability of your own work day. Those eight or nine hours that you’re at work, you shouldn’t be locked away at a desk — and especially in the winter, when that time is essentially all of your daylight hours.”
PETSURE BY THE BOLD COLLECTIVE
It’s not only the human workforce that is impacted by longer working hours. One thing that is not often considered is the effect on the furry companions they leave at home.
For PetSure, a pet insurance company that forms part of Hollard Insurance, there was, unsurprisingly, a larger push than usual to create a workplace that accommodated all shapes and sizes. Rather than simply allow pets in the office, PetSure engaged The Bold Collective to create a space that responded to the wellbeing needs of its staff and their sidekicks.
“Being a pet insurance company, they were trying to move towards staff being able to bring in their own pets, which was a really exciting transition for them,” says Monika Branagan, design director at The Bold Collective. “Being on the lower ground, they could just bring their pets up through the external fire stairs, so there was no OH&S issue, or any problem with pets in lifts.
“This shift meant we just wanted to make it a really playful space. We have an area dedicated to dogs to hang out, and we designed some cat enclosures as well, which was definitely a first for us. We learnt a lot about designing for cat enclosures [laughs].”
A new emphasis on cross-team collaboration and activity-based working [ABW] was key to PetSure’s shift towards the mental and physical wellbeing of employees. An interconnecting stairway was designed to bridge the two floors of office space, and an amphitheatre with tiered seating was created around this central connection “so that people can just hang out for informal meetings or more formal presentations”. Even the less agile meeting spaces throughout PetSure were designed to what Branagan calls a “kennel aesthetic”, with pitched ceilings and bright colours evoking the sense of a large-scale kennel.
“We really wanted something that would improve the work lives of occupants; something that responded to both physical and mental wellbeing,” says Branagan. “A level of mobility for people to work away from their desks was important. We also incorporated a variety of sit-to-stand options, so people aren’t sitting in a chair all day. As well, just the benefits you get from having a pet in the workplace; how that takes the stress away. We find that in our own office, too.
“It’s been a huge success,” she concludes. “We’re going back in there today to do work on some of [Hollard’s] other floors. Although these businesses aren’t pet companies, they want to take a lot of these aspects [that we used in PetSure], because they can see the benefits for staff. Particularly the informality and variety of meeting spaces. It really improves wellbeing and positivity, and that has a flow-on effect for productivity.”