When Birmingham City Council needed to update and consolidate its offices Squaredot came up with an affordable yet pleasing design to bring office workers closer together
Project: Lifford House
Client: Birmingham City Council
Interior Design: Squaredot
Size: 4,230 sq m
Cost: £301 per sq m
Completion time: Seven months
Big, shiny, high-end office projects are all very well but budgets in the public sector rarely measure up, and with the new Government announcing drastic cuts to public services, things are only getting harder. But money isn’t everything, as War wicks hire based architectural interior designer Squaredot has shown with an award-winning project for Birmingham City Council.
Lifford House in the city’s south side is the first of nine council buildings whose interior scheme Squaredot has designed as part of Birmingham City Council’s ‘Working for the Future’ programme, and the office has won a British Council for Offices (BCO) regional award for best workplace fit-out.
‘What’s nice from our perspective is that the award doesn’t have to go to a building where the client has spent shed-loads of money,’ says Squaredot’s Kris Krokosz. ‘You can still get something special without a huge budget, and in the current economic climate there needs to be much more of that. It’s about ingenuity and what you can do with the money you have.’
The existing offices were in desperate need of modernisation – so much so that when Krokosz visited one of them, he remarked that the experience was like ‘walking onto the set of Life OnMars’, the BBC police drama set in the Seventies.
Before the modernisation programme, the council had 55 offices in Birmingham and it wanted to reduce that number to nine main buildings across the city. This move would effectively mean a 50 per cent reduction in space requirement with no change in overall employee or occupant capacity levels.
One of the major cost-saving exercises was reducing the amount of permanent desks from 9,000 to 7,000 to promote flexible working practices, such as allowing employees to work from home and across the various offices. It’s a common enough practice in office design these days but, as Krokosz explains, employees are not always so keen: ‘It has been a very ambitious target and a big change for the people the staff, especially because they are being expected to adopt new ways of working. But they have the IT facilities to help them with that flexibility, and the ones who are in new buildings now are saying, “This is so much better.”’
According to designer Katy Francioso, the brief was pretty open, but because of budget constraints every choice the designers made was subject to rigorous analysis and costing by the client. ‘As well as fitting the budget, everything had to be environmentally sustainable,’ says Francioso.
Lifford House has been divided into four work areas known as neighbourhoods, each of which has its own ‘village green’, an area containing print stations, tea points and breakout furniture. ‘The idea is that everything you need – from printing and photocopying to a cup of tea or coffee – is in these central areas, says Francioso.
‘It’s also a space where you can go and meet with your colleagues to take a break from work.’ The village greens have been carefully designed so that they feel neat and spacious, with printers and paper cupboards placed behind low-level walls so that they can’t be seen from the office floor, and planters to introduce some natural colour to the mostly neutral space.
Each neighbourhood is colour-coded and referred to by a number rather than the name of the department that works there, so that departments can be easily moved around. The client chose which colours it wanted for each neighbourhood from a palette designed by Squaredot (in the case of Lifford House, these were green, blue, orange and purple), and blocks of each of these colours have been painted on to structural columns along with the numbers to demarcate each neighbourhood.
Task chairs by Senator have also been upholstered in these four colours, but rather than keeping each colour to its corresponding neighbourhood, the designers at Squaredot decided to mix them up to emphasise the collaborative working that goes on between the different departments.
After making sure that the office functioned well from an environmental perspective, and saved the client money, Squaredot was left with little budget to make a big visual impact. But it hit upon an idea that works brilliantly. ‘We noticed that the offices had no sense of identity,’ says Francioso. ‘They could have been anywhere, so we decorated the office with large images of Birmingham – the city and its people – to try to bring back some pride and remind the council workers where they work and who they are working for.’
The pictures came from the council’s own image bank, which Francioso and Krokosz had great fun raiding. ‘I think that was one of the best parts of the project,’ says Krokosz, adding the image bank ‘was just in this little room in one of the buildings, and not many people actually knew it was there’.
To break up the large space in the main open-plan office areas, Squaredot used decorative room dividers made of polycarbonate mesh. The product, which is called Fusion and comes from German company Koziol, comes in square panels which hook together to form screens of any size. ‘It’s probably one of the most successful and cost-effective parts of the project,’ says Krokosz.
• Koziol - www.koziol.de
• InterfaceFlor - www.interfaceflor.com
• Colorset - www.colorset.co.uk
• BeaconWoodcraft - www.beaconwoodcraft.co.uk
This article was first published in FX Magazine.