When people design their own offices, they create a very different product from that typically offered by spec developers. And thereby hangs a tale
Question: Do well-designed offices aid productivity? Answer: Yes. How much? We don't know. Should we know? We should. An industry that doesn't know the value of its own product has a problem, and it might as well howl at the moon as blame its customers for not understanding it.

The British Council for Offices gave out its annual awards a couple of weeks ago. Choosing the winners from more than 60 entries each year provides a unique insight into the state of the art and science of office design. It is also an opportunity to consider the extent to which the promoters of office developments are meeting the needs of their customers – as the disconnect between those who commission office premises and those who occupy them remains a major force in shaping the places we work. It is also noticeable that, when occupiers build for themselves, they routinely depart from the norms that are typically assumed for them by commercial developers and investors. The differences are instructive, and may point the way ahead for those still held hostage by conventional wisdom. It is therefore worth looking at a few of them.

The first – which, it has to be said, also differentiates between the occupiers themselves – is the move towards open plan. This is not a new idea. I worked on my first open-plan office building more than 30 years ago. It was rather impressively called Burolandschaft, possibly in the hope that German efficiency might follow use of the German language. Then, however, it was an experiment detached from organisational culture. Now, businesses increasingly recognise the value that attaches to interaction and creative thought. Privacy has been traded for interaction, and the walls have come down.

It is also starting to be appreciated that if open-plan is about communication and shared purpose, then it has to start from the top – rather than being good enough for everybody apart from the bosses.

Many organisations visited for the BCO Awards this year were totally open plan, up to the most senior level; and although it must still depend on the nature of the work, the call for a private office increasingly looks like a desperate attempt to hang on to territorial status. We encountered bad arguments for retaining them (of which the most desperate was the suggestion that "our clients expect it of us"), and only one good one – the plea that the company doctor needed a private office to see patients; and I can certainly recall one or two moments at the doctors that I would prefer the whole office not to witness.

We encountered bad arguments for retaining private offices (of which the most desperate was the suggestion ‘our clients expect it of us’), and only one good one – that the company doctor needed one to see patients in

This trend to openness is one in which economy and effectiveness work hand in hand – and yet the institutional norm remains the demand for "flexibility", that is, laying everything out to a strict grid based on the presumption of cellurisation.

This is just one way in which occupiers are prepared to take more risks than the commercial sector. Others relate to the space itself, or to its specification. As far as shape is concerned, owner occupiers more readily depart from orthogonal plans, and experiment with the section – breaking the tyranny of the constant floor-to-ceiling height that dominates so many office spaces. They are also prepared to fudge the line between the normal definitions of rentable area and floor space that they are actually prepared to pay to occupy – such as casual pace that extends into the atrium, creating additional places for encounter and interaction.

As for specification, I would cite just one principle – sustainability. This is a word that is almost collapsing under the weight of meaning that is heaped onto it, but it remains the case that many occupiers set environmental protection firmly into the brief, whereas few speculative developers do so. Of course, if the predictions recently reported in Building magazine to the effect that offices without air-conditioning will be unusable within 20 years are well-founded, then those who ignore the sustainability agenda may, in a grotesque irony, claim that they are protecting themselves against global warming in the future by warming it now. Something has to give, however – and it would be best for all of us if it were not the planet.

Of course none of this is a game of two sides. Occupiers who build for themselves will still seek to achieve institutional standards, in order to make sure they have a tradeable asset; but even if they subsequently sell, the buyer will be comforted by the covenant of an existing tenant. And developers who do take risks can fairly quote the number of cases in which incoming tenants undervalue or ignore the fruits of their imagination – by reinstalling air-conditioning, for example.