An illuminating discussion

What happens when you bring together workplace, hotel and lighting designers in the same room? Will they ever agree on what the future holds for contract specification in their different sectors? And what would they think about swapping jobs? Gareth Gardner sifts among the wreckage

Contract interiors is a catch-all term spanning so many disciplines it becomes almost meaningless. Yet there are signals that while specialists in different sectors are resolutely pigeonholed, the projects they work on are quite the opposite. Boundaries between hotels, offices, restaurants, schools and hospitals are becoming increasingly blurred.

This was a key messages at the wide-ranging FX Design Seminar hosted in association with Lutron held recently at the offices of PR company Publicasity. Indeed, a quick glance around the trendy reception and bar area chez Publicasity highlighted some of the trends in workplace design, influenced by the worlds of hotels, restaurants and bars.

It was this cross-fertilisation that piqued the many of the participants' interest. 'The distinction between sectors is diminishing by the minute,' said Ralph Courtenay, director at architect Aedas. 'Hotels and offices are coming together in a big way,' adding that the distinction is new. 'Now a fully serviced office should be like a hotel and provide the levels of service of a hotel.'

His view was echoed by Scott Brownrigg interior design director Ken Giannini. Along with fellow seminar participant Lee Penson, CEO of Penson Group, he has worked on cutting-edge workplace designs for internet search colossus Google. Giannini explained that the blurred new world means that the benchmark standards for a project's different elements might be found outside that sector: 'When designing a restaurant in an office for Google, it has to be a world-class restaurant, just like you would find in a hotel.' He added: 'The customer service aspect of hotels is coming into office environments. You need to ensure that customer service is really fantastic and amazing.'

This blurring was welcomed by Penson. Boundaries are becoming less distinct due to a change in the overarching priorities of projects, he said. Penson summarised: 'It's down to lifestyle.' The increased emphasis on lifestyle in our culture has profoundly affected many design sectors. 'All environments are becoming more relaxed, humanised and comfortable. I think it's nice that the boundaries have broken and keep getting dissolved,' said Penson, adding: 'The further that influence can go, the more interesting office environments will be.'

Some participants were sceptical about whether this blurring was happening at all levels of the market. 'Although I'm becoming convinced there are crossovers, perhaps this is only happening at a certain high level,' said Conran & Partners director Jane Lawrence. She questioned whether such parallels can be found within budget hotels and lower-end workplaces.

For ReardonSmith associate Sidharth Bhatia, offices lag behind hotels. He believes that companies such as Google want to deliver a 'different' office experience, yet they will always be left in the wake of hotels: 'Hotels deal with fantasy and will be always one step ahead. Offices have to maintain a degree of functionality.' This is partly because of the huge distinction between front and back-of-house in hotels, allowing fantasy to be serviced by a less-glamorous, behind-the-scenes operation. 'There is always the grubby kitchen in the background, while the front of house is evolving all the time,' said Bhatia.

Giannini countered that hotels have much to learn from workplaces, particularly with the latter's embrace of a variety of workplace settings, atmospheres and experiences. 'In life, people generally like to have variety,' he said. "Every hotel I see has a star rating. The entire hotel is two, three or four stars; why there can't be variety within the same hotel?'

But offices are not rated in the same way, for obvious reasons, as Lawrence points out that hotels sell to consumers while offices are workplaces and only very few 'sell' to their staff.

While variety might be the spice of (work) life, it seems to be a trend more readily embraced by today's youth. 'There's a real mindset difference between the generations and how they work,' opined Courtenay. He attributed this to evolving, more informal educational methods that young people then take into the workplace: 'They learn to work differently and when they arrive in the real world, and are faced with a standard-issue desk, it's a shock.'

Looking to the future, it's increasingly about working on the move. 'Ten years ago everyone had their computer tower, keyboard, screen and phone,' recalled Penson. 'That's why we have a desk.' This has changed dramatically with the advent of mobile phones and portable computing. 'The boldest move anyone can take is not to have any desks, just lots of interesting spaces instead.' This was a view reinforced by Giannini: 'The desk is becoming completely insignificant. It doesn't matter. It's about the spaces in between.'

Some participants thought that rumours of the desk's demise might be premature. 'I like working at a desk,' said careyjones project director Anna Breheny. 'If I'm going to be productive, I want to be able to sit at my desk, and I prefer my big screen to a laptop. If I was to lie on a bed to work, I'd do it for an hour and then go to sleep.'

Penson disagreed. As long as the ergonomics are suitable, people should be able to work anywhere: 'It's about comfortable spaces and variation.' Getting people away from their desk encourages communication, added Courtenay. 'You have to force people out from their desks to collaborate.'

But have these alternative work settings gone too far? As the panel's moderator Theresa Dowling pointed out, who over the age of 22 would relish sliding down a fireman's pole or heltersketer in the office to get from one floor to another? But for all the talk of beach huts, slides and indoor lawns, cutting-edge workplaces are not as extreme as they were five years ago, claimed Penson. 'Things have been detuned enormously, and it has reached a happy medium,' he said. Tomorrow's offices are more about comfort and relaxation than thrill rides.

Giannini explained that facilities such as massage, restaurants, gym and pilates studios are among the 'pretty incredible' support facilities used by Google to attract and retain the world's best talent.

But is Google a singular example? 'A BT call centre would never be like that,' claimed Courtenay. But Penson disagreed: 'Since we've been involved with Google, people from both small and large organisations, say they want something "Googley'.'

Less contentious was the assertion that lighting is crucial to all different types of project. 'If the lighting doesn't work then a project will fail,' claimed Breheny. 'If it's too bright or too dark, when you walk in the door you know immediately. It's so important.' Penson concurred: 'Lighting should be there from day one, and inherent to a project. It is one of the most important parts.' Yet he has been involved in projects where lighting hasn't been considered from the start and says it is 'carnage'.

Indeed, lighting often isn't given the attention it deserves. This is possibly because a project's lighting design element is often given to an external consultant, mused Lawrence. 'You always have to go to someone else to get it, when it should be integral,' she bemoaned.

And what sort of lighting should be installed in cutting-edge workplaces? Like the trend to deliver different types of spaces, variety is the answer. 'The worst thing you can do to a human being is put them in static illumination,' said Mark Hensman, director at EQ2 Light. 'We always put a kinetic aspect into the lighting.' He added that he is a strong believer in low ambient light levels in the office, supplemented by task lighting. 'We always do that. It allows people to personalise their light levels.'

Hensman astonished participants with his tale of the '4pm chocolate break' endemic in the workplace. He explained: 'It's all about getting sugar into your bloodstream to offset your sleep hormone that is starting to arrive. Yet light can be used to similar effect. 'Spike the light levels at that time and you achieve exactly the same result.'

With hotels, the attitude towards lighting is very different. 'We don't come from the ergonomic perspective at all,' stated Lawrence. 'It's not about whether someone will go blind due to the wrong light levels. It's about scene-setting and mood.' And this general lack of emphasis on ergonomics might be misplaced in the case of business hotels, and not just when it comes to lighting. Desks in hotel rooms came in for particular ridicule. 'When I go to a hotel it's more for business than holidays. And when I walk into a hotel room I look at the desk,' explained Lutron strategic account manager Carine Lebrun. 'They are always badly lit you end up working on your bed.'

Courtenay mused about whether there could be greater crossover between hotels and workplaces, particularly for business travellers. 'Is there a building which is a hotel for a certain period of the day and an office for the remainder?' he wondered. And while this blurring between offices and hotels was welcomed by all, it prompted much discussion about the impact it would have on the design professions.

'It makes things very interesting in terms of our staff and our teams,' Scott Brownrigg's Giannini explained. 'It is no longer good enough to say that you are an office or residential specialist.'

In terms of the job market - a particularly important issue during the current financial climate - this suggests that certain types of designer are more attractive than others. 'People with skills across more sectors are more valuable than those who specialise in just one,' claimed Giannini.

That said, many of the participants had specialist, if not exclusive, experience in one sector. When did the world become so specialised, at a time when those who span sectors are becoming more attractive, asked Conran's Lawrence. 'We all trained to do everything. Why have we become so sector driven? I don't like it at all.'

Courtenay reckoned that designers and architects who don't have specific experience of a certain sector find it very hard to find work there: 'If you don't have a track record then forget it.' It prompted Lawrence to issue a call to arms: 'We need to show an united front, to show that our skills are convertible and translatable. We are allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed.'

The chance to try out different disciplines excited all. 'To swap for a day would be really good,' Lawrence enthused. 'I'm finding it fascinating that we don't know enough about what each other does.' Penson added that the chance to swap at an FX-organised workshop would be 'the best day of the year. I think there's so much mileage in doing that'. Watch this space!

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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