Article by Freek Persyn, originally published in *A Typical Plan, Projects and Essays on Identity, Flexibility, and Atmosphere in the Office Building, pp. 144 – 151. Jeannette Kuo (Ed.) Park Books, Zürich, 2013. Order the book here.
The OFFICE+ proposal was not developed in a single go: it is part of an ongoing investigation that started a few years ago as a specific assignment, but was linked to our architectural office, 51N4E’s quest for buildings that generated a certain hybridity while still retaining their generic character. Over the years, we have developed buildings that do not start solely from their programmatic constraints, but are environments that generate and trigger a variety of uses. We have learned not to shy away from designing buildings that are slightly discomfortable and maladapted: the acceptance of a degree of inefficiency often proved necessary to find new freedoms.
STEP 1: RESEARCH BY DESIGN
In 2008, the Dutch Government Buildings Agency approached five architect teams with a design exercise: to devise ways for ultra-sustainable office space. The government was about to adopt a new standard, and wanted to check through a research-by-design exercise to determine what the possible effect on the architectural quality would be.
An analysis of the requested MIG=350 standard, a measurement of high building performance and environmental standards, proved it to go beyond what the available technical means could deliver. With the notion of sustainability being too often coupled to technical solutions, this ambition of the brief happily brought a larger scope of sustainability into play. The social aspect emerged at the same level as the ecological or economical, and the question transposed into one about the nature and future of the office itself.
We kick-started our design by questioning what the standard office from the 50’s on had been: a plateau, sometimes partitioned, sometimes not, but in every case, lit and climatized in a constant manner, throughout the hours and seasons. Rather than trying to produce an ideal climate, we considered how a building could become more climate-sensitive.
The answer we came up with related directly to the user’s perception of comfort. People’s comfort zones can be variable. Experiments are done on the relationship of variable light to productivity in office accommodations. Adaptive models for thermal comfort describe an optimal indoor temperature to relate to the average outdoor temperature. We challenged this observation by taking the idea of climate-sensitivity a step further: having parts of the building climatically controlled and disconnected from the outside, but other parts “out of control”, their performance related to the fluctuation of the outside environment.
We developed a model in which three consecutive zones work together to minimize energy consumption: an un-insulated, un-conditioned outer corridor, an insulated and conditioned functional space and a generous, insulated, but un-conditioned central court. This model represents a building that is 100% usable for 90% of the time. in the remaining 10% that corresponds to the extremes of the seasons, the central court spontaneously retracts in the middle zone of the functional space. The concept scored an excellent environmental performance level, yet the flexibility question struck back: to what extent are we prepared to modify our (personal) ways to better support our (collective) needs?
Imagining this model as an off ice space has interesting effects. if the intermediate zone covers the need for a standard workplace condition, the central space — accounting for 30% of the total area — has an intrinsic generosity that is rare in off ice spaces: the double-height space not only multiplies the potential of the traditional off ice space, but adorns it with new luxury. and this at a friendly price, since this space — neither heated nor cooled — is equipped with natural ventilation. The exterior walkway is the epidermis of the building. It can be seen as a ventilated double-façade, providing circulation, but more importantly, generating an informal meeting and working area around the building’s functional core.
AN OPEN SYSTEM
During the design process, our attention slowly shifted; we had started out being keenly focused on beating the standard, but gradually grew more conscious of the different and diverse types of spaces we could create. The critical step in the design process was to link the concept of liberating the spaces from their dogmatic technical constraints — and the lack of control — to a potential sense of freedom it could give the building’s users. Navigating the thin line between comfort and discomfort, we were excited by the idea of a building that could generate different environments rather than a single one. Offering multiple possibilities for the use of appropriate space also expands the issue of sustainability from a technical into a social and cultural question: what is it that we expect our buildings to do for us?
In essence, today’s office buildings are closed systems: vertical cul-de-sacs directly mirroring the suburban allotment. Just as the layout of the suburban house, the office plan is completely standardized, leaving the only focus for intervention on the facade, the site left to play out the ambiguity of wanting to be different but incapable of being so. Today’s society can no longer rely on procedures and mechanical performance of tasks only; such a closed model does not create a productive environment.
There is a need for more open systems that serve as platforms for encounter and exchange: buildings that increase the possible connections, similar to those valued in the classic urban environment.
The OFFICE+ proposal ultimately focuses on how it can both influence and inspire the people that use the building. It does so by creating the conditions for unplanned and multiple exchange. The deep floor plan is essential to the idea, since it disturbs the simplistic hierarchy of core-corridor-room-view. Next to the uncommonly large footprint, the second important manipulation is in the section, creating connections and viewing relations that further destabilize (or to put it positively: enrich) the possibilities of using and interconnecting the different floors of the building. The building doesn’t try to become specific in the sense
of giving a definitive identity to the different spaces. The aim is to look to what extent the generic office space can be stretched by simply varying some essential parameters: depth, height, temperature, views, and accessibility. The result is voluntarily understated: its main ambition is to offer an open system in which an informal aggregation of spaces and uses — likely varying from intimate to collective — can occur.
STEP 2: THE APPLICATION
Three years after the design of the model, in a competition for an office building in Lyon Part-Dieu, the same prototype was used to propose a new type of collectivity in an environment where uniform office space was abundant. The moment seemed perfect: this was to be the first building in a large scale operation aimed to reboot the Part Dieu district as the second largest business district of France. The competition brief stressed the proximity of the high speed rail, hinted at a flexible and volatile office population, and clearly stated the need for an office building different from the 900,000 m2 of office space already in stock.
The competition is typical of how office buildings are produced today. The scenario of a company having its proper building made to measure is false; in fact, the end user is not known, often resulting in a generic offer of workspace. In the Lyon case, it seemed that the client wanted to do things differently. Additionally, the site along the railway tracks had an ambiguous size: too deep for one building, too shallow for two. We took it as an opportunity to put OFFICE+ once more to the test, even running it through the rating system proposed by the city and the developer, and striving for an “excellent” BREEAM [BRE Environmental Method] score.
The building we proposed offers bulk: the footprint is roughly 80 × 40 m and reaches up to 50 m in height. We absorbed into the volume all the void space normally used to sculpt the building into a floor plan approximating a generic 18 m depth. The massive result doesn’t hide its scale. Rather than being divided into floors, the building is composed of entities combining large double-height floor plates of roughly 3,000 m2 topped with mezzanine floors of 2,000 m2. These mezzanines are shallow rings of space, connected to access balconies that envelop spaces of double height, sheeted with single glass and changing in width. Geared to the mobile office worker, they offer both access and informal working and meeting spaces.
The opportunities for exchange are maximized: in addition to the possibilities within a single model unit, the stacking of several units allows for shifts in the way the different floors relate to each other or divide. And since exchange is not only about introspection, all opportunities for establishing links between the building and the city around it are seized: the ground floor unit is opened up with program that addresses building users and passers-by, while the interlocking floors allow this public program to penetrate the building in height. The outer layer of the building, with its high single-glazing façade surrounding the circulation zone, creates a space that is at once transparent and frequented. It is a truly “in-between space”, open for appropriation, and with an imposing proximity, both to the building and the city around it. In other words, it creates an urban attraction in both directions.
The building is constructed by stacking seven of these units. Calculations show that only 53% of the building can be air-conditioned, leaving 47% as naturally tempered environment. The proposal also proves to be highly performative when it comes to natural light. Contrary to expectations, the combination of a shallow ring of mezzanine floors and a deep interior of 6.3 m free height easily meets the French standards. In the course of two months, together with a local architect and an engineering company, we managed to develop a competition proposal that integrated all aspects extremely well: a generic office building for a business district that was looking for a new type of specificity.
In the end, we did not win the competition, but were told that we stirred a lot of debate in the jury. Discussions were not about whether the BREEAM excellent score we could deliver was correct or not. The real debate was on whether the building would attract users and boost the district’s image — as the city believed — or if it would scare away potential clients, as one of the developers contended. Who is right or wrong remains undecided: the 35,000 m2 structure seemed too large to take the risk of actually building. But it shows that specificity, whether custom-fitted or off-the-rack, is a value sought after, but difficult
We do know, however, that the building user today is demanding, inventive, and is well familiar with customization possibilities. With
the contemporary office population being mobile and unstable, it makes perfect sense to think of office spaces being used in varying degrees, generating new types of specificity and flexibility. The aforementioned model stands for highly specific space. Specific not in the sense of dictating use, but in the sense of a pure spatial specificity that opens up possibilities and invites the user to fill in his own meaning. The combination of standard and non-standard office space that OFFICE+ offers is meant to maximize flexibility. Offering an abundance of (informal) meeting spaces is as conscious a choice. If the office is no longer the default place of production of the work, it still represents an important location for work related exchange to take place. Whatever the type of encounter — whether formal presentations of thirty people or casual conversation for two — physical space is the space of collective experience.
If office buildings were formerly an expression of the permanence of a company, and of its reliability, permanence nowadays depends
greatly on a company’s capacity to reinvent itself. The building is released from the task of bearing an identity for the firm, and is
instead required to facilitate a company to take on multiple configurations. The possibility of reconfiguration for different users, at different times, makes a durable building. In spatial terms, this flexibility and variety of conditions is usually guaranteed through mobile equipment. When space itself offers variety, the existing possibilities are multiplied.
If we can agree that this set of possibilities is important for the contemporary office space, then we should also understand that this is only possible by disregarding what common sense teaches us, namely, that the main target of the contemporary office should be efficiency, both in terms of energy and ways of using the space. Creating a system that destabilizes expectations and fosters encounters means letting go of the standard and allowing a certain discomfort or inefficiency to occur. These important values are easily overlooked; no BREEAM or LEED building performance ratings seem to address these issues, although it seems clear that the shifting paradigms in our economy will require us to sharpen our sense for improvisation and the unpredictable. And our buildings can help us to do just that.