Friday 20 November 2015

LBS Clifton Housing, Peckham

AMA is working in the Mott MacDonald team on two projects in Peckham. The Cator Street Dementia Daycare facility (centre of Excellence), and Clifton Housing. The housing scheme will provide 8 units, including one accessible unit, and is currently on site and due for completion early in 2016.
This is a very difficult and tight site. Formerly a series of underused garages it was important to knit the proposals with the local infrastructure and community needs. The project was overwhelmingly popular with local residents and at public meetings the reaction was totally positive and the proposals seen as a strong indicator of major improvements in the area.

AMA’s role was to develop proposals for this tight site and get the best orientation possible on this polluted and inhospitable road. This was achieved by good acoustic insulation, putting living rooms to the quieter east side, and the option of using fresh air mechanically delivered from the cleaner rear areas.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Alexi Marmot to speak on Bath Spa University’s uncommon Commons

How are university buildings evolving to accommodate new ways of teaching and learning? Alexi Marmot will be addressing this question when she speaks at next month’s Education Estates conference in Manchester

Alexi will describe how AMA helped to articulate and deliver a new vision for the Commons building at Bath Spa University. Design Director David Jenkin led the interior strategy, consultation and design. Commons is a fascinating, flexible and innovative new facility. Designed by Cube Design and opened in 2014 by David Puttnam, it is the university’s largest building at 8,000 sq m and the hub of the Newton Park campus.
Lord Puttnam opening the Commons building
Commons was conceived as a different type of university building. Providing learning, teaching and meeting spaces, staff work bases and major specialist digital studios, it needed to be highly flexible, fit for the current and next generation of students and staff.
Different furniture and space types encouraging a range
of activities
The university recognised that a different approach was needed for the shell and the interior, says Alexi: “Both architectural and interior workstreams maintained an inventive and collaborative approach, allowing each to focus on their different domains: one on the building fabric to create a robust shell, naturally ventilated, energy efficient, and the other on end users and anticipating future change in university activities.”
Spaces encouraging collaborative working
The new building represents quite radical change for the university.  Staff and students share the same building, and many of the same facilities. Academic staff work in a club-type zone with few conventional workplaces, none individually owned. Elsewhere, teaching rooms are interspersed with breakout and group study areas in local hubs. Interactive group learning spaces, individual and quiet study areas, are provided generously on the ground floor alongside a design lab, recording studio, and large flexible conference room.
Part contained spaces provide some intimacy

“The new building was immediately popular with students following its launch in mid-2014,” says Alexi, “and is full of their energy and enthusiasm.” Commons was a runner-up in the Buildings that Inspire category of the Guardian’s University Awards this year

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Flexible space goes corporate

Alexi Marmot has contributed to a Guardian article on co-working spaces. She says: “They are the latest incarnation of serviced offices or office hotelling, selling fully fitted out and equipped space including receptionists, coffee and access to meeting rooms only for the duration over which they are needed. Expensive, inflexible and long leases for corporate offices are no longer essential and indeed seem increasingly questionable, particularly if the occupants in any case don’t like working there”

The article looks at the rise of flexible and shared space, coinciding with the millennial generation entering the workforce. The impact on the traditional property world is also covered as “the concept of flexible space has become firmly entrenched in the corporate world, both for the short-term - when sales reps need meeting spaces for presentations and for longer projects.”

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Do universities need ‘iconic’ buildings?

In an article for the Guardian Higher Education Network, Alexi Marmot questions the benefits of buildings commissioned to make an impact.

Bath Spa University Commons - fit-out by AMA 
Spaces encouraging collaborative working
Ambitious university leaders bring together “starchitects” and wealthy sponsors eager to provide funds for flagship buildings. Starchitects play with the ideas of crumbling buildings, irregular shapes and angular geometries, rather than conventional vertical planes and rectilinear structures. Their designs hint that universities are organisations whose mission is to question traditional ways of thinking, to break down conventions.

Do such ambitious buildings really work for the staff and students for whom they are designed? What aspects of the new buildings stimulate better teaching, learning and research? Might more restrained and elegantly designed buildings meet university requirements just as well? Can unpretentious, cheap buildings erected rapidly by design and build contractors, satisfy users?

We need much more solid evidence to answer these questions with conviction. Research on “post-occupancy evaluation” – how buildings are perceived by those who use them – is still rather unusual, although it is always recommended. University estate directors have collaborated on a methodology for conducting post-occupancy evaluation through the Higher Education Design Quality Forum (HEDQF) – but few apply it.

National Student Survey results for 2015 show that 86% of undergraduates are satisfied with their learning resources (library, IT and access to specialised equipment, facilities and rooms.) Good news, but it does not illuminate whether particular buildings or features are positive.

Other research shows that the staff are generally less satisfied with their facilities than students are, which could mean they negatively impact on their research and teaching. But this year’s sector efficiency report led by Sir Ian Diamond rates 85% of HE space as good to excellent.

Radical shifts in the way students earn and digital technologies for teaching and learning - virtual learning environments, lecturecasts, online quizzes, webinars, skype tutorials, flipped classrooms, Moocs - make new demands on buildings, data connectivity and infrastructure. They also raise the prospect that education can be delivered without going to a place called a university.

When asked their views, students commonly complain about poor internal air quality and temperature, and express the need for more spaces for group work with their peers, more computers and computer rooms. They want “make spaces” for creative experimentation, and more social learning spaces, and they want these spaces to be open 24/7.

All university buildings – the new and the old – need to respond to evolving requirements. Flexibility and adaptability through time is one of the most precious attributes of all HE buildings.

European universities and their architecture have already endured for more than a millennium, and more than 800 years in the UK. All have grown dramatically in the last century and continue to grow, even as online learning accelerates. Their future success and survival will be aided by better and more adaptable buildings, based on a well-researched evidence base.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Offices on the airwaves

Tooley Street, Southwark Council Offices where AMA introduced
modern ways of working
Images © 2012 Gareth Gardner

Offices are in the news again, prompted in the UK by new advice on the health benefits of standing at work and in Finland by the decision by Juha Sipilä, the recently-elected Prime Minister of Finland, that his Cabinet will work alongside officials in an open plan office*.

Following the news from Helsinki, the BBC World Service asked Alexi Marmot to comment on open plan offices. Alexi pointed out that, whilst organisations tend to cite better communication, collaboration and supervision, open plan offices offer great economic gains - are generally cheaper to construct - requiring fewer walls, less servicing, and simpler environmental controls. And they also enable organisations to accommodate more people more efficiently.

Open plan space can be fine for routine work but can become more controversial where work is confidential or privacy for conversation is needed. The most frequent criticism from those working in open plan offices is that they are noisy and disturbing but, says Alexi, noise is partly a function of how you interpret sound: “It’s possible for people to get into a zone of concentration in extremely noisy environments. Working in complete quiet can also be a problem.”

Last week BBC Radio 4 re-broadcast The Search for The Perfect Office a half-hour programme presented by Claudia Hammond with contributions from researchers, including Professor Dylan Jones and Dr Bill Macken (Cardiff University School of Psychology;  Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University and Professor Alexi Marmot (UCL and AMA).

There certainly seems to be a gap between our dreams of the “perfect office” and the reality, with those interviewed hankering for a cafĂ© table in an Italian square or a garden room with a view.

As expected, architects come in for some criticism, particularly over their choice of materials. Favoured finishes such as stone, glass, metal and concrete are all hard, reflective surfaces that contribute to the most common complaints about modern office life – noise and lack of privacy.

There seems to be something of a paradox here as people (both managers and staff) often say they like the “vibrant”, “buzzy” atmosphere of their office whilst complaining that they can’t concentrate there and retreating to the coffee shop or home.

The notion that lively, quirky offices are particularly conducive to creativity was questioned by contributors. Quiet and noisy people, introverts and extroverts are all creative, so we need to think about individual traits rather than stereotypes.

The researchers pointed out the subtleties of acoustic design. Volume is not necessarily important in terms of interference, change is the key. A relatively loud background hubbub may also be preferable to perfect silence which can be intimidating. Research shows that people do not get “used to” intrusive noise  - a point picked up at the recent Healthy Workplace event, see

Addressing the issue of research, Alexi Marmot said that most architectural research is geared to the physical aspects of buildings, rather than to the organisations and individuals that occupy them and their perceptions. She explained that most office buildings are designed not for occupiers but for the market, so cannot necessarily be attuned to specific users’ needs. The margins on most architectural work make it difficult to do new research or even to spend time reading the research that exists.

“The building industry and clients generally don’t want to hear bad news but when we do post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) we nearly always identify quite small, simple things that can be fixed there and then, often quite cheaply.”

Alexi pointed to the trend towards “activity-based working”, which means people can move to places appropriate to the work that they’re doing.

“Our research suggests that the ‘perfect office’ often starts with where it is and how you reach it. Daylight and a view, especially of nature, are important, along with environmental comfort and good IT support. However, the best workplaces, as voted for by users, consistently demonstrate more abstract values such as trust, respect and fairness. These are a function of organisational culture but the physical space can also express these values.”

*Listen to a report on the Finnish government’s plans and comparisons with other administrations (from 24:10)

Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Healthy Workplace

The attendance and depth of engagement at the Workplace Trends Spring Summit (26th March) on the Healthy Workplace showed the high level of interest in the subject. As is common now, debate spilled out across social media, with 141 contributors posting over 1,000 tweets.

 AMA’s Alexi Marmot set the scene in her opening presentation by reminding the audience not to think about workplace health in the narrow sense of the absence of discomfort or pain but in the broader sense of wellbeing. Indeed, the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as far back as 1948 was "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

It’s important to remember that the “office” is not the typical workplace for many people and many occupations, she said. In some parts of the world the workplace is hazardous and can severely limit life expectancy. Over 1,000 workers died when a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed in 2013.

Alexi described how wellbeing has been adopted as a goal by many companies, agencies and governments and is now the subject of academic study, including attempts to link it with productivity. She suggested keeping in mind the three dimensions of wellbeing – individual, organisation and planet.

From an individual perspective, the New Economics Foundation has proposed five ways to achieve wellbeing: Connect; Be Active; Take Notice; Keep Learning and Give. At an organisational level, many of the schemes to promote or recognise good workplaces put much more emphasis on factors such as stress, autonomy, pride and trust than on the physical environment.

However, said Marmot, when trying to improve wellbeing you should think about the physical workplace as well as individual behaviour, job design and the organisation.

Addressing the current interest in standing at work, Marmot says: ““Too many offices make it clear that the norm is sitting. They don’t provide places to stand, walk or just to work differently. Prioritising short term efficiency over productivity is part of the problem. Clients, designers and managers should think about the longer-term implications for both individuals and organisations. As well as being healthier, activity and movement in the workplace can stimulate innovation, creativity and communication.” 

There may be a lot of interest in workplace wellbeing, said Bridget Juniper (occupational psychologist and founder of employee health and performance advisers Work and Well-Being Ltd.) but there’s a very small evidence base.

She is very critical of employee surveys - the popular Gallup Q12 employee engagement  survey, for example,  does not reference the workplace. Employee well-being is subjective and dynamic, said Juniper: “It’s employees’ interpretation of an event rather than the event itself.” Therefore, it’s essential to rank what is important to each employee, rather than dealing in averages and generalities.

Picking up on a common FM theme, she said: “We rarely see HR and workplace come together at the outset of a project. Why is workplace so neglected in discussions on leveraging staff costs and performance?”

Call centres typically have high sickness and attrition rates.  Juniper presented a case study that used impact analysis to identify how employees’ work affected their well-being. The assessment used 33 questions across eight “domains” including facilities. Five of the top ten issues were workplace related.

Picking up Juniper’s point about the paucity of evidence, Tom Helliwell of architects and designers Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, said that few companies measure the results of changes to the workplace, leading to a vicious circle of lack of data on which to base future decisions.

Helliwell explained how “big data” could help. He ran through the multiple sources of information on individual behaviours and building performance that could be combined to create a picture of what’s happening in the workplace. These include network log-ins, access control data, restaurant use, and online diaries. Some metrics, such as tracking what food people buy and how frequently, have Big Brother connotations . Would people accept such "surveillance" even in their own interests?

Sound in the workplace receives less attention than aesthetics, ergonomics or technology. Paige Hodsman, a “concept developer” with acoustic ceiling supplier Ecophon, said that there’s a 20 year history of dissatisfaction with acoustics. It was somewhat ironic that she was speaking in a space where the acoustic treatment has been stripped out to create an industrial aesthetic!

Research shows that noise affects performance. The Leesman Index found that noise levels are a top ten factor in the “effective workplace” and over a quarter of respondents were dissatisfied with them. Lack of control and privacy are key acoustics issues for workers, said Hodsman: “Overheard conversation is a particular problem as we don't habituate to people talking as we might to other background sounds.”

Hodsman offered some practical advice on workplace design to improve acoustics. Locate collaboration spaces away from other workspaces rather than placing them centrally. Provide visual cues to guide behaviour. For example spaces may be labelled or designed as “cafes” or “libraries”. Map noisy and quiet individuals and teams and control workplace density. Promote “acoustic etiquette” to manage loud talking, interruptions and ring tones and to provide do not disturb signals.

Australian private health insurer Medibank set out to embed the values implied by its ‘For Better Health’ slogan in the new 46,000 sq m headquarters it was building in Melbourne’s docklands. Anthony Dickens of architects Hassell described how the design of the new workplace was part of a major cultural change plan for Medibank, transforming it from a traditional health insurance business to a healthcare provider focused on preventative health and wellbeing.

The result is an evolution of activity based working that places the mental and physical health of people at its heart. According to Dickens, the aim was “a living and green building inside and out; that encourages movement, supports social connection and provides spaces that allow for rejuvenation of the mind.”

The astonishing atrium at the heart of the building, with its sinuous staircases, encourages movement and communication. Across the building, staff can choose from 22 different types of work setting to match their task and perhaps their mood. On the non-dedicated “plaza” floor, Hassell collaborated with four other designers to bring variety to zones designated: Healthy, Collaboration, Innovation and Inspiration.

The results? 79% of staff surveyed say they feel more collaborative; 71% say they feel more connected to Medibank’s “for better health” mission; 70% say they are healthier; 66% of staff feel more productive; and there’s been a 5% reduction in absenteeism in the call centre.

It’s encouraging that we’re seeing renewed interest in the way work affects health, not just from the narrow perspective of absence and productivity but with a broader view of wellbeing. What’s needed now is more solid research to build the evidence base and a commitment from workplace professionals to incorporate findings in design and management.

More information on this event and the next in the series at

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Workplace Health and Wellbeing: What designers and managers need to know

On Thursday 26th March 2015 Alexi Marmot will be speaking at the Workplace Trends Spring Summit, which will feature informative case studies, best practice recommendations and recent research findings on the very current subject of healthy workplaces. A host of factors can play a role in staff health and well-being, which not only impacts the individual, but also affects service delivery and costs. Alexi Marmot will be speaking on Workplace Health and Wellbeing: What designers and managers need to know.

Venue: The Impact Hub Westminster, located on the 1st floor of New Zealand House, on the corner of Pall Mall and Haymarket, just off Trafalgar Square. Nearest tube stations are Piccadilly and Charing Cross. The exact address is: 1st Floor New Zealand House, 80 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TE

Friday 30 January 2015

Post-war office buildings stand test of time

This week’s news that 14 post-war offices, built between 1964 and 1984, will be protected as listed buildings prompts reflections on what makes an office building special, maybe even worth “preserving”.

The newly listed buildings, says English Heritage, “show how architecture has adapted to recent radical changes in how we work: they show how the open-plan working space for computer-led work came about, and how architects responded to the need for lettable, attractive spaces with ingenuity and a deep understanding of human needs..”

Architectural considerations aside, two aspects seem particularly important. How well does the building contribute to a sense of place? Does it enhance its locality or sit in it like a cuckoo. The recently listed buildings divide public and professional opinion, now as then.

The second question is how well do they serve the needs of today? Have they proved flexible and adaptable and have the interventions made over the decades enhanced or detracted from the qualities of the original design?

A notable feature of some of the buildings on the list (particularly the Central Electricity Generating Board Building in Bristol and Gateway House in Basingstoke) is that they had strong planning ideas behind them, where the building form helped the organisations structure their groups, provide local identity, share amenities and communicate much more with each other than in the traditional forms of the day.

How many of today’s new workplace buildings achieve as much as that?

David Jenkin is design director at workplace consultants AMA Alexi Marmot Associates.