A lot is changing in office development but then much remains the same as it always was

Simon Allford

An invitation to address an audience at Ecobuild in answer to the question ‘Is back to basics the office of the future’ was too good an opportunity to decline.

As Mark Twain observed, “the future ain’t what it used to be”, and in the case of office design it never has been. Especially as the much-discussed office of the future is very much like the coffee house and club of the past. It is a building that Pepys would recognise.

Of course there is change. The successful office building is now likely to include a shop, a bar, a restaurant some retail; people might even be living close by or in floors in between. Indeed in that sense it is just a building inhabited by people, some of whom work. If it is good it is now deemed so because it is an enjoyable space to be where chance encounters and escape from intrusion are facilitated. In that sense it is a microcosm of the city in that its social and cultural importance is increasingly recognised. It is as much about place as space. And the space that it does offer will have personality and volume: ‘vanilla’ spec space is done for even when embellished with a ripple! The best offices are a product measured in terms of value not cost.

I do not believe the trend to lose your personal base and its vital social connections will aid anyone’s efficiency

We work too long generally: at home, in the cab, on the plane and of course in the office. Which is why the spaces in between are as important as your desk. I use the word ‘your’ decisively as I do not believe the trend to lose your personal base and its vital social connections will aid anyone’s efficiency. And it is all about efficiency. The office of the future is now and it is called working everywhere you are and on the journeys in between. As a result, it is both hard and too demanding. And no we don’t and won’t all work from an attic or a barn. We come to work to meet people and resolve challenges face to face not by email or twittering or utilising the other useless paraphernalia of social media.

Just as in the 19th century paternalistic employers created ideal worlds (think Port Sunlight, Bournville, Saltaire) now they curate ideal workspace with places that we want to inhabit with recreation, crèches and storage for your Amazon/Ocado delivery as well as the essential bars. The long London tradition of curated private space (think of the great estate squares) is alive and is now a place called work.

Technology is working hard but is ever less evident. In that sense I believe building services will, depending on location and value, head in two different but equally important and appropriate directions. In one highly tailored option light, air, water and that other element data, will be supplied only when and where needed. In the other ready made option there will be acceptance of a more average condition, a robust model. Both are highly flexible and are distinguished by both cost and, importantly, an attitude to technology. So beware over specification; beware trends.

What will really distinguish the office of the future is the curator’s attitude to their clients (currently known as landlords and tenants respectively). Soon leases will become flexible, more easily tradable and occupier needs to shrink, grow or adjust will be more appropriately catered for. For this to happen new models of investment are required, which is much more difficult. Sadly the most difficult of all is the necessary abolition of the absurd regulation of space by use: the planning Use Class Orders!

So the office of the future is universal, flexible, memorable, housed with a mix of other programmes. It is a city within a city defined by the quality of its volume, light, serviceability and attitude to technology. It is here now and has been for a while, in fact since the Renaissance. The office of the future is the Uffizzi: a memorable space, place, building and piece of city.

Simon Allford is a founding partner of AHMM