If, just a couple of years ago, we had asked the majority of industry ‘experts’ what the ideal project reviews for an issue focusing upon wellbeing would be, we doubt many (if any) would have suggested the legal sector.
Yet, here we are, walking through the incredibly forward-thinking new London home of leading law firm Bird & Bird. The internationally renowned law firm boasts more than 1,200 lawyers in 28 offices across Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, as well as close ties with firms in other parts of the world.
Our guides for the tour of the space are Bird & Bird’s UK Finance Director and COO, Chris Billington, and Kevin Britchfield from MCM, the firm responsible for the impressive interiors here. MCM, we’re told, first began working with Bird & Bird back in 2012, when they started to develop a forward-looking property strategy for its London accommodation. Split across three buildings, Bird & Bird wanted to consolidate into one London base and appointed MCM to undertake due-diligence to help with the building selection process.
Following this initial due-diligence, Bird & Bird decided to take the whole of 12 New Fetter Lane, a 140,000 sq ft building over ground and 12 floors. ‘They took a pre-let of the entire building,’ Kevin confirms, ‘with a view to initially sub-let some of the floors – but in fact they haven’t sub-let those υ floors, they’ve taken the lot to allow for the future growth of the firm.
‘The building was delivered towards the end of 2016, so works started early that year. It was handed over as shell and core on the ground floor, the 1st floor and the 11th and 12th floors, and Cat A on the other floors. MCM has been working with Bird & Bird since 2014 with regards to first the consultancy and then the interior design. It was procured as a Design & Build contract on the basis of a Stage 3 Employer’s Requirement.’
MCM worked closely with Bird & Bird to establish a robust brief that would inform the design of the new workplace. Bird & Bird saw the move as the opportunity to work in a different way and to become far more open and collaborative, which they felt better reflected their ethos as a firm. The results are an agile-ready, flexible and much more open working environment that also contains a variety of work settings that support collaboration and concentrated work. The flexibility of space throughout the building has been integral to its design, with the intention to bring clients into the building to work more closely with lawyers, particularly on substantial matters or projects. Maintaining information security at a high level has also been incorporated into the layout.
MCM consulted widely with staff and the Bird & Bird steering group to communicate the designs at the outset to ensure there was buy-in across the organisation. It was important to help reassure staff that the new office would meet their needs in terms of the technology that allowed them to move around easily and in terms of appropriate quiet space for concentrative work.
The agreed layouts addressed these concerns successfully and the building provides Bird & Bird with all the amenities they require, including extensive client facilities with a seminar space and client business lounge on the 1st floor and a further client meeting suite on the 12th floor.
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, however. ‘One of the major structural interventions here is the staircase linking the ground and 1st floors,’ Kevin points out as we walk towards the fantastic new structure. ‘The base build contractor left a soft spot in the slab and we designed this staircase with EeStairs – the Dutch stair specialist – and it takes you straight up to the 1st floor, which is one of the client facing suites here.’
The feature staircase was installed in reception to bring large numbers of visitors easily up to the seminar space and client business lounge. It is very much a focal point as you enter the building and is finished in a liquid metal antique bronze, and features four landings and elliptical geometry.
The 1st floor client suite is divided into an elegant lounge area, complete with eye-catching soft seating, and a smart, professional formal meeting suite. The second suite, high above on the 12th floor, features biophilic greenery, astonishing views of the city and a contemporary, open aesthetic.
Chris tells us that the real heart of the building is the 11th floor, an amazing central hub for staff to grab a coffee or a bite to eat and where they can hold informal meetings throughout the day in a space specifically built to enhance collaboration. The lightness and brightness of the 11th floor and the tremendous views across London from the terrace help to make it a relaxed yet dynamic atmosphere for all staff. ‘This is always really busy,’ Chris enthuses. ‘It really has made a huge difference to the business. It’s been amazing. We didn’t really have a place where everyone could come and meet because we were in a number of different buildings. We wanted to have a space where people could hold informal meetings and catch up. People particularly like the booths and pods here – it really has been a tremendous success.’
“The big, big shift for Bird & Bird is that they have moved from cellular offices to a much more open and flexible environment”
Within the working floors, Bird & Bird have moved away from the traditional cellular approach to a more open environment. This has been a big change for the organisation, and the briefing and early consultation was integral for making the change a success. ‘The big, big shift for Bird & Bird is that they have moved from cellular offices to a much more open and flexible environment,’ Kevin confirms. ‘There were partners here who were somewhat dubious about the merits of it, but I think it’s actually been really well received. The furniture is very much ‘cubicalised’ – a la the United States – but already there is a desire to take down some of the partitions and panels. They are quite high and hopefully some of them will now start to come down.’
‘In our old buildings we did have robust offices with doors you could close, so noise levels were initially a concern here,’ Chris tells us. ‘People were originally concerned about being able to make phone calls and about basically getting things done, but we do have little breakout rooms people can go into if they do want to have a private conversation. Now people are in here, they are completely used to it – to the degree that some people now want those panels removed.’
‘In our experience, people do worry about this – about disruption and confidentiality – but in reality it’s never actually a major issue, as long as there are places you can go to if you do need to make confidential calls,’ Kevin continues. ‘The other issue that was flagged up at briefing stages was that people need access to their desktop wherever they are working – and these guys put quite a bit of investment into the IT to make sure that desktops are available everywhere.’
‘People can log in to any computer – if you go to a meeting room, for example, you can log in to your desktop there,’ Chris explains. ‘We’ve also changed from desk phones to headsets – and people can now walk around with those headsets on and take a call into another room if necessary. The technology has been a big part of the change.
‘Another highlight is that everyone has a sit/stand desk. Previously we only had a handful of sit/stand desks but there is a big emphasis on healthy living and lifestyle in this building – and people really are using them, which is great.’
“People can log in to any computer – if you go to a meeting room, for example, you can log in to your desktop there”
In the office areas, MCM have taken advantage of the excellent natural light and views by placing desks around the perimeter of the building. Opting to move to a more open work environment also had an impact on fit-out costs. These were substantially reduced as there were limited modifications to the base build air conditioning on the working floors and a greatly reduced number of partitions were required.
To ensure that the integrity of the design concept was maintained throughout the construction, MCM worked closely and successfully with the contractor, StructureTone, under the Design & Build contract. ‘The whole team worked seamlessly together – and the result is a testament of what a fully integrated team, including client, landlord team, design team and contractor, can achieve.’
Bird & Bird wanted the new space to reflect their openness to their clients, to provide additional services for their clients and to encourage collaboration and communication across all teams within the organisation. 12 New Fetter Lane has achieved that, with the new environment being embraced by clients and staff alike.