Local authorities are complex organisations serving a huge range of community needs, so the buildings they use have to be ultra adaptable

Steve McIntyre

Councils have many compelling and competing priorities, so it’s understandable perhaps that architecture and design don’t always feature as high up on the list as one would like. Having said that I’ve had the privilege of working with one local authority - Rochdale Borough Council - that took bold decisions in a time of austerity that have now resulted in its latest building, Number One Riverside. Obviously, I have a personal interest here because Faulkner Browns Architects designed the project, but I think there are some wider lessons for councils and designers trying to create successful civic buildings.

When we began working with Rochdale council several years ago it occupied 33 buildings of varying condition all within two miles of the town centre. A property asset consolidation programme was implemented which concluded that all 1,700 staff and partner organisations located under a single roof - Number One Riverside was born.

So, what makes a workplace work and what design features should a council building have? There is no doubt that a civic building has a greater and more diverse responsibility than a corporate headquarters. How the building responds to a group of business people arriving at a building’s entrance compared with a person entering the building who needs help paying their bills are two very different scenarios that require very different design solutions.

Beyond this, there are many similar workplace requirements that are as relevant for the public sector as for any private sector organisation. Creating an effective workplace setting that combines versatile places for communication, co-operation, concentration and recreation, which also have the capacity to inspire creativity and innovation, is essential.

The office has to become a living space, divided into a variety of zones and areas, similar to an urban landscape — tuned in to the specific work processes and day-to-day requirements of modern workers. At Number One Riverside, we adopted the following terminology to help create an appropriate working environment for different types of workers:

  • The anchor - administrators, desk top researchers and call centre workers who all spend 90% of their time processing information need a static environment where comfort and good ergonomics are imperative.
  • The connector - managers, planners and researchers who are all highly mobile in the office and occupy shared spaces ensuring the flow of information. Their settings are focused towards meeting spaces, shared team spaces and focused solo work.
  • The gatherer - community teams, social workers and managers who are all highly mobile in and out of the office. They mainly process information when in the office and need a place to concentrate, as well as areas for communication and interaction. They occupy both formal and informal meeting spaces.
  • The navigator - estate teams, community workers and support staff who are constantly out and about, and rarely in the office. They work in other offices, outdoors or at home. However, when they return to the office, they need to feel welcome. The navigator considers flexible space utilisation and the open choice of work environments, both important and inspiring.

I believe a design solution offering an environment that reflects the diversity in usage outlined above is crucial in helping a council provide the best possible service to its community.

A final, and for me perhaps the most important, feature of a good council or civic building is the transparency between the public areas and the council’s staff working areas. At Number One Riverside, this transparency allows residents to enter the building and immediately see their council staff working for them and, likewise, it allows council staff to see the people they serve.

Steve McIntyre, partner and architect at Faulkner Browns Architects