The future is flexibility: How far can we push future-proofing?

1st March 2018

Sheppard Robson's Andrew German was asked by Building to share his views on future-proofing and how to best address a changing workplace. Below the full article. 

With political upheaval and an unstable economic footing on the horizon, designers and contractors will be challenged to future-proof like never before. This will involve working closely with occupiers and developers to think more laterally and creatively about the potential of their building and what work they need to commission at the start of a project to address a changing workplace.

So what’s new? Future-proofing has been integral to the design process for some time but mostly associated with relatively simple solutions; for example; the sub-division of floors and a robust level of in-built services resilience.

Now, given the uncertainty in the lead-up to Brexit, our clients are increasingly asking us to develop strategies that look at more comprehensive changes to the base-build offer in order to push flexibility even further. This ensures that companies taking significant leases with minimal breaks – and significant risk – can expand, consolidate or potentially sub-let/ assign their property.

This will challenge the architect and project team to think creatively about how these can possibly flex in the future. One solution already being looked at by Sheppard Robson comes in the form of a set of rules, which are agreed upon by the building owner and occupier before a lease is signed, outlining how parts of the building can be altered in the future without compromising the property asset.

A good example of one of our rule books is in the repurposing of atrium spaces. An atrium across an open floorplate is often the heart of a project, with the void adding drama and visual permeability to adjacent activities and workspace. Atriums, especially with stairs and bridges, can also limit future flexibility.

Atrium ‘rules’, embedded within a contract, would map out ways that an occupier could reshape and recalibrate the atrium and floorplates in order to make them more efficient and larger. In addition, the ‘rule book’ would also lay out strategies for how future tenants could push the transformation of this space further, for example, how the occupier could use the void space to create spiral staircases, double height rooms – a series of possibilities that would add functionality and interest to the space. 

Considering a much wider range of possibilities from the outset will make it much easier to make these substantial changes further down the line, ensuring the additions are productive but also in line with the architectural quality of the building.

This contractual work done at the inception of projects reveals a shift in the designer’s role description. With pressure on creating empirical “use-cases” and ultra-flexible spaces, designers are adapting to offer a broader range of services and are increasingly challenged to blend creative flair with processes akin to that of a management consultant.

This lateral approach has seen us involved with occupiers and developers much earlier in the project prior to work stage 1. The briefing stages allow a designer to understand the exact identity of a business in order to create spaces that are tailored to specific ambitions and day-to-day requirements. The consultation early on allows a designer to map out potential change that might occur due to: fundamental shifts in culture or leadership; major changes in size of the organisation; or possible acquisitions that might be on the horizon. All of this needs to be fed into a future-proofing strategy, ensuring your client is in the best position if / when their business does need to instigate significant change in their workplace or property asset.