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Today, there is a plethora of natural, as well as a huge range of manmade materials, which give the designer no end of opportunities. We’ve invited a panel of those transformational experts to Cosentino’s fantastic Clerkenwell showspace to take a close look at what they and their clients consider when turning concept into reality. Whilst the options have never been greater, so are opinions about the relative merits increased, with environmental and wellbeing properties taking more and more prominence. But what are really good (in every sense of the word) materials? We should say a huge thanks to our hosts, Chris Hay (who joined our panel) and the Cosentino team. Here’s a snippet of what proved to be an enthralling conversation…
We began by asking our guests about the weird and magnificent materials out there today – so what is the most unusual material they have specified?
Lindsay: Truthfully, I think the most adventurous material I have used was for one of our tech clients. It had quite a sustainable build to it and we worked, though one of our local architects, using what was basically refuse. It was the punched metal excess from sheets of material – we used what was left for the feature ceilings.
Enrique: My choice is still not installed on the project in question – but we have been testing it over the past few months because it is relatively new. It is a type of paint that, through nanotechnology, emits heat. So basically, any wall in your building can become a radiator!
Jack: The weirdest material I’ve used was for the 200 Hammersmith Road project – which is a £6.5 million scheme for Royal London. We’ve used 4km of shipping rope in a two-storey atrium space. We used this really thick rope to build a kind of wall to help break the space up and to wrap the space. We were really worried it might look awful – but it’s actually amazing!
Chris: It’s always fun to be have our material specified in unusual spaces. We’ve just finished a restaurant project for an ingenious dining experience where first-class food is served directly onto a heated Dekton worksurface. The worksurface is essentially your plate. It’s unconventional but rather wonderful.
Kat: Probably the most exciting thing I’ve done recently was to take the old fuselage from a plane and put it into a workspace. This was for Virgin. Using all those plastics from the 70s and dismantling a plane and trying to create a new cinema was really interesting.
We try to explore different materials and translate them in a different way – which can be great fun
Ben: One of the things that we like to do is to take a material that’s used for maybe a floor or a ceiling and then give it a different language. So we use floor tiles and make them into seats, for example. We try to explore different materials and translate them in a different way – which can be great fun.
Kaja: I worked on the University of Manchester scheme, where we used a lot of extraordinary materials. We refurbished an exhibition space, which showed the history of the telescope at Jodrell Bank. When the old dish was taken down, we used the panels of the dish for the exhibition space itself, so all the projections were placed onto the panels.
Neil: This might sound a bit odd in this new age of biophilia, but the strangest material I’ve used (certainly at the time) was grass. This was probably 15 years ago when, back then, you had your plant suppliers who would supply and maintain within the commercial sector. So we tried to integrate this grass into the scheme and considered irrigation, the right lighting – and we actually used it as benchmarking before the project was completed, to see it if it would work. Surprise, surprise, it didn’t work! It’s interesting to move forward 15 years and see how biophilia is so integral to what we all do today.
Nasim: Everyone’s talking about reusing plastics and we have used two pieces of furniture that are not only sustainable but also look really good. The first one is the Melting Pot Table by Dirk Vander Kooij, which is beautiful – it looks like a piece of artwork, and is made from things like old mobile phone covers. Then there is the Ocean Chair by Mater Design, which uses old fishing nets that are found in the ocean.
It’s clear from our panel’s answers that recycled and reusable materials are high on their agenda – is the same true of their end users?
Ben: It does upset me that we still almost have to force ecological action on people. One of the things I do is to ask about what period of time that installation is likely to be in the space – I think we have to be really careful and really think hard about not being wasteful. At the end of the day, a lot of the stuff that is going into that space on day one is not going to be there at the end of that period of time.
Kaja: You’re right – so you have to be mindful about what materials you’re using and whether they can be recycled.
Kat: It often depends on whether your main contact – who is heading up the project – is the FM or the Creative Director. The FM wants a carpet that’s going to last for 10 years. We did a project for a major fashion brand a few years ago, where they were all about the fabrics and being conscious about what they were using – but that’s not always the case.
Kaja: I agree – a lot of tech brands ‘require’ a certain number of recycled materials to be used, so it can come from the clients, but this is about being sustainable, about doing things they perceive to be right. They do not, however, take into account the carbon footprint of the products and from where they are being shipped.
Enrique: I was going to say something very similar. I do think that the majority of clients are more knowledgeable – or they are on a surface level. As designers, we have a bit of an issue in that we have to keep our clients happy but, as Ben was saying, they tell you that they want this or they want that material – but they haven’t considered the realities. They haven’t thought about how it might be cleaned, about VOCs, about recyclability – and often recyclability is just a tick in the box. They talk about the WELL Standard but they don’t really know what that means. For me, as a designer, I think that just adds another challenge and means we have to keep educating our clients.
Neil: I think you’re right there – they think they know it all. The positive thing, however, is that they are being bolder, more positive and receptive to other proposals. The FM side will always strip things back because they want to keep things simple – they don’t want six carpets, they want two carpets. They are being bolder though – they do realise that they have to invest a little bit more because these environments are for the betterment of the staff. No longer can the operations budget dictate what is or isn’t needed – there’s the bigger picture to think about. At this point in time, everything’s about the environmental accreditations, as well as the wellness of staff, so they have very little choice.
Jack: There seems to be a huge disparity between end user clients and the kind of commercial fit-out client that is looking for that cool design, which will let that space for the next 10-15 years. It’s sometimes shocking to see just how much is wasted when you walk into a building that’s 15 years into a cycle.
Everyone’s talking about reusing plastics and we have used two pieces of furniture that are not only sustainable but also look really good
Lindsay: Whether clients are more knowledgeable or not today isn’t really the point here – it’s about asking questions. I think they are knowledgeable enough to know that they should be asking the questions that take them down a better avenue. That goes for the clients who want to attract, who are looking to tell the right story, because there are generations who are looking for something bigger to be associated with. So, if you, as a company, are looking to do something more meaningful, then this can be a great way to do it. I think if you are able to wrap a story around a particular piece or material, then that seems to grab certain clients more. I think there’s a larger story that every client now wants to tell about their greater contribution…about their impact, and not just the footprint and the detriment they’re having, but the good you can do, what efforts you can make to have positive impacts. If you can weave something magical and cool against that, so that it’s something beautiful and enticing and tactile, then it always becomes a better story.
Ben: The only person who can force change here is the designer, right? We try to create really cool spaces and we all want our clients to come in and pat us on our backs and tell us how brilliant the space is. But Enrico’s right – a lot of this is just a box ticking exercise. It’s to make their social conscious feel slightly better – and it’s also about the brand. We very rarely put brand names out there in the projects we do – actually it’s all the materials that define the space and define who that business is. People walk in and know where they are – they’ve seen the website and they recognise what the brand is all about, what they stand for.
Nasim: Going back to Lindsay’s point, I’ve had that same experience with my clients – where the story is so important to them. They feel engaged – and that then gives them something to take to the people above them. If you educate them on a particular material, where it comes from and what influence it has, you find that they then take it on and it almost creates a connection between that material and the client. It’s the story that always connects them. So if it’s got a great sustainable story, they’ll invariably go for it – although cost is still a huge consideration! Most of the time it is still us – the designers – doing the educating, although recently we had university clients who kept asking, ‘What is the lifecycle of this material?’ and ‘When we leave this space, what is going to happen to this furniture?’ We had to answer those questions – which was great. What we did find, however, was that, towards the end of the project, time, money and availability took over.
Neil: There are so often these aspirations that are set out – and all for compelling reasons and with good stories behind them. All too often, in the end, some harsh decisions have to be made and this really gets undermined. So they don’t promote that original story with the same confidence in the end. In terms of sustainable sourcing, we’re being asked to prove the life cycle and how we take things to landfill and recycle. That is being asked more and more of us.
Kat: Clients are thinking max 10 years ahead – I can’t think of many fit-outs that were undertaken 10 years ago that would still stand up today. It comes more from a maintenance point of view. These schemes aren’t going to live forever – if they did we’d all be out of a job!
Neil: We’ve worked with clients who have fantastic FM structures in place – and if you went back to the space a year later, you’d think they’d just moved in because of how well it had been maintained. On the other hand, we’ve had clients who have landed into their new space, and it’s almost as if a bunch of five year-olds had descended. Much of that was down to a poor FM. If you maintain a job well, it should last – it should stand the test of time.
Lindsay: I love a bit of patina! I like showing a few flaws and scratches.
Jack: You have to tell the client that this is going to happen – and you have to embrace it.
Always try to get that disgruntled person on the steering group! If you win them over, you’ll win the lot.
It’s clear from our conversation that, when it comes to leading designers and design firms specifying both traditional and innovative new materials, sustainability and environmental accreditations are right at the top of the agenda. Our friends at Cosentino were more than happy to show us, after our session, the fantastic variety of sustainably sourced, easy to maintain and incredibly durable natural and engineered materials they can offer. At the end of the day, the choice is now greater than it has ever been – almost the only restriction come from the depths of the client’s pockets.
Inspiration for your next read
Wellbeing: Why do we continue to value engineer something so priceless? We’re at Assmann’s amazing new Spring Gardens Design Studio in Manchester, where we’ve gathered a brilliant panel of leading designers and developers, together with representatives from our sponsor, Altro.