We should be more flexible and creative both in making the most of existing buildings and compromising over what we require from them, writes Anna Beckett
Since the pandemic it has become clear that our relationship with “the office” has changed. More people are enjoying the flexibility offered by working from home and, when we do come to the office, we now want a little more from it.
In recent months the property magazines have been full of stories about companies leaving the large office spaces they had previously occupied, with the most high-profile being HSBC preparing to abandon their global headquarters in Canary Wharf by 2027.
With more and more 1980s and 1990s office buildings being considered unsuitable for modern office use (8 Canada Square, aka HSBC Tower, was designed in 1997) and companies requiring less office space, it is clear that we need to find new ways to deal with these properties. When it comes to retrofit, these unloved office buildings present a challenge; they often have low floor-to-ceiling heights, limited natural light and are poorly ventilated.
If a space is not being let because it is considered unsuitable, then we are still not making use of the resources that we have
None of these are things that affect safety or prevent the building from functioning but, of course, there is a commercial aspect to this as well; if a space is not being let because it is considered unsuitable, then we are still not making use of the resources that we have.
As a structural engineer, this is a difficult problem to stomach. For many of these buildings, the structure is in good condition and usable for many years to come. But we are considering knocking the building down because our opinion of what makes a good office has changed.
If we work through the design, then we can often justify the carbon involved in demolishing an existing building. We all know that we could build a new building that would be better insulated, making better use of daylight and natural ventilation and as a result the savings in terms of carbon while the building is in use would outweigh the carbon that you would need to build it.
The problem is that most estimates put the carbon payback period at around 30 years. So not only do we need to ensure that the building will remain in use for that amount of time but we are also designing for a situation that we cannot possibly predict.
None of us could have predicted the pandemic and the changes in working habits that it brought about, so who knows what we will be designing for over the next 30 years.
And, when we take a step back and think about that, a lot of the “unsuitable” buildings that we are considering demolishing now are those unloved office blocks, built in the 80s and 90s – just 30 years ago. Clearly we are not doing very well at designing buildings that last.
So maybe it is time to think a little bit more creatively about these buildings. If we are designing new office space, does it really need to meet all of the requirements of a new-build office, or are there more innovative ways we could use the building that would outweigh the issues?
Can we modify the structure to include an atrium or double-height spaces? Could we develop ventilation and lighting strategies that do work with lower floor-to-ceiling heights, rather than demolishing buildings because they don’t work with the systems we have?
It is time for us to accept that we can re-use what we already have if we are only willing to embrace a different kind of design challenge
And, if it really does not work as an office anymore, and the demand for office spaces is reducing, can we consider other uses for it?
The building I live in is a converted office building. Previously used as council offices, it stood empty for years before being redeveloped into flats. And yes, there are compromises in the building as a result.
My flat is single aspect, so there is no cross ventilation, but it is also so well insulated that I have never needed to put the heating on. And there was nothing wrong with the structure, so why not reuse it?
It is time for us to accept that we can re-use what we already have if we are only willing to embrace a different kind of design challenge, and isn’t there something kind of exciting about that?
Sure, we’re going to need to think differently – it’s a different way of approaching the problem. But we are all here because we know the value of good design, and if we are willing to apply that to existing buildings, maybe we can create something beautiful out of our unloved offices?
Anna Beckett is an associate at Buro Happold