Post covid, office developers are struggling to pin down the market and an appropriate business case for any new commercial office project. Office tenant demands are in a state of flux while companies determine the optimum office space needs in the new world of flexible working conditions and working from home. What will the demands and expectations of tenants be in 5 or 10 years’ time?

As a hybrid office working solution is becoming the new norm with employees typically spending 1 or 2 days a week in the office and the remainder working from elsewhere (home, local cafes or libraries?) how will this affect the traditional office as a building type that hasn’t really seen a major shifts in tenant demands since the open plan office.

Covid accelerated a trend that was already occurring in the market. As the speed and security of the internet and VPNs improved and the power of laptop computers increased the need to work from a single location in an office had already started to wane. Hot desking was the starting point but still constrained within the same building, now we are free to roam and choose where we work. It seems like good news however it’s not all positive.

Humans thrive in the modern world together, demonstrated by the worldwide migration of the population from the countryside to the city. So, although we desire the need to be together the modern world with its commuting, higher city densities and pollution isn’t really working in its current form. Is it time for a radical change to the way we think about cities and buildings. It certainly seems that the humble office building needs to evolve. While our means of constructing buildings improves with sustainability and wellness targets the question we have to ask is not only how we build and operate but what we build and operate.

As some companies demand a full time return to the office space whilst others are declining from having any space at all clearly a new flexible norm is needed that doesn’t require a completely new building stock and can expand and contract with demand.

The time for single function buildings is coming to an end. We need our buildings and cities to be flexible and adaptable to change at the same rate working populations’ needs change. It is wasteful and irresponsible to simply demolish buildings and build new every time society evolves.

With the bulk of city centre accommodation being office and residential space we need to be able to balance society needs by moving between them as demands fluctuate. Physically this is possible but for many buildings is very costly as building codes rarely align across the different real estate sectors. Life safety systems, fire evacuation distances, occupancy densities, sanitary, wellness, HVAC and even parking provisions vary sector to sector. Currently many office buildings could not be converted from office to residential for example due to substantial regulation differences in the requirements for direct sunlight and greater parking numbers. Clearly regulations alignments are required to make the transition between functions significantly easier and cheaper.

It is an exciting time for designers as every element of what has been a ‘typical ‘ office building up until now is being put into question.

The single fixed function office building has evolved over time to a market led cost effective optimum that made it very specific regarding floorplate sizes, proportions and depths, column grids, floor to floor heights and even façade modulation. This is now a very risky product to have as building owners face the prospect of having unfillable real estate. Although designing and building with flexibility for adaption will cost more initially the ability to adapt it later mitigates the long-term risk.
Going forwards the key is flexibility not only adaptability into other potential future functions but also how the space is adaptable for office use. No single office ‘product’ suits all office needs. We have seen a recent boom in co-working spaces as greater flexibility was needed in tenancy lengths but also in the physical environment people want to work in. The evolution has been away from private spaces and towards greater shared public spaces. We are also seeing the soft (but important) side of human needs reflected in our buildings and spaces. Important for companies encouraging employees back to the workplace.

We already have projects where planning applications are being prepared with flexible building designs and circulation strategies that would allow for many potential future functional changes whether it’s the whole building or floor by floor. There are instances in the building where known inefficiency for the current function is consciously being applied in the design with the knowledge that in the future the additional flexibility gained will result in a commercially viable building for many years.
We hope this approach will become common place and that the building regulations are adapted to make the transition between functions simpler and cheaper. To keep our cities vibrant and viable we need our buildings to work harder to align with societies demands rather than society to adapt to what we currently have.

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