TS-DS design modern Turkish restaurant at Broadgate
Contemporary Turkish restaurant, Baraka, has opened its doors at the British Land Broadgate development.
A workplace design is just the first stop on a journey with a moving destination, never a perfect fit, but adaptable as the organisation evolves. M Moser’s Steve Gale shows how designers and clients can handle a fuzzy future.
We know that the bread and butter theme in modern business is flexibility in the face of constant change, and reconfiguration is an essential survival tactic, but this makes it impossible for an organisation to describe its needs for the whole period it will occupy a space – or even for the day they move in.
Fit-out projects take time to develop and have real inertia, so we want to know the client requirements in the planning stages, which is an impossible ask. How do we fit a dynamically evolving enterprise into a solid, built reality?
A look-ahead of five, six or seven years is an act of clairvoyance that very few directors would attempt. So we are stuck with designing real hard environments for a future that no one can define.
A good example is the number of occupants that might use a space. Organisations can never even nail their current headcount, so projecting it into the future becomes prize-winning fiction. The further away in time, the greater the tolerance needed to sustain the guesswork. So many things get in the way of any stab at accuracy. Internal politics and budgets, and external weather like the economy, customers, technology, regulations and competitors really stretch the error bars when anyone anticipates five or more years ahead. It’s not just the numbers, it’s the organisation structure, activities, working patterns, everything.
We plead for working assumptions, and a way of designing for the unknown. I can only offer comfort in the form of a couple of tricks learnt from past lives.
How do we fit a dynamically evolving enterprise into a solid, built reality?
One is the concept of a volatility measure, which actually already exists in the investment world, and it is called the beta coefficient. It records how company valuations vary more or less than the general market price over time. So a risky business like a pharmaceutical discovery start-up has a high beta compared to a stable business, like an energy utility or large transport franchise, with a much lower beta.
We can’t calculate a precise number for workplace changes, like a stock analyst, but we can ask whether a client is a high or low beta organisation. We might even use their real stock beta as a proxy for estimating the unpredictability of space and layouts in the future. This can be a good start to a conversation about the degree of change expected compared to other organisations we know about, and a discussion of what might be considered a ‘business as usual’ volatility range that must be accommodated, versus ‘exceptional events’ that would demand a rethink, and should be out of scope. This helps us decide how much flexibility to design in, and how much to leave out.
The second model is from Frank Duffy, the Co-founder of DEGW (now part of Strategy Plus at Aecom). I don’t think he ever came up with a snappy name for it, but it is a description of the built environment as a collection of layers with different life cycles. It recognises that different elements mature and decay over varying periods, and shows how certain parts of the built environment can change while others stay put for longer.
Specifically, if the structure of a building remains intact for 50 or 60 years, the services can be renewed every 10 or 15 years, and the internal layouts (partitions, doors, floors and ceilings) can change after just a couple of years, while furniture arrangements could move on an almost weekly cycle, if needed.
These ‘shearing layers’ – as they are called in systems theory – allow us to decide which parts of a building can be modified as demands evolve, and how often. For example, if a high beta organisation looks like it might densify over five or six years, you could invest in air handling capacity now rather than half way through its life. If frequent restructuring is a real risk, avoid cells and walls defining departments. On the other hand, if ways of working are tried, tested and well respected, you might bake them in with walls and doors from day one as part of the organisation’s identity.
A workplace design is just the first stop on a journey with a moving destination, never a perfect fit, but adaptable as the organisation evolves. It’s our job as designers to collaborate with businesses in their daily management of risk.
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