Jack Pringle takes a trip to the Windy City and finds that the next generation of workers want something very different from the buildings where they do business

Jack Pringle

To Chicago - that’s where my US firm Perkins + Will began, working in the playground of Louis Sullivan, SOM, and two masters of the modern movement: Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. It’s an architect’s town, so it’s my kind of town. I love it. The Chicago River cuts through the city, creating great spaces and vistas, and the lake is as blue as an inland sea.

Our office is on the 35th and 36th floor of a van der Rohe tower with views across the city and the lake where sailing boats bob in the sun. As I walk through the travertine clad lobby (van der Rohe’s signature stone), enter the bronze lifts and ascend his perfect tower, like the monolith from 2001 a Space Odyssey, I wonder if the spirit of van der Rohe rubs off on my colleagues who work here every day. The power of the building has not diminished one jot since its birth over 40 years ago.

I’m here for our ExCom, our executive committee which represents the global group, from the Americas, north and south, through Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) - which is the bit I run - to China. We’ve got a packed agenda of what’s working and what’s not.

It’s an architect’s town so it’s my kind of town. The chicago river cuts through the city, creating great spaces and vistas, and the lake is as blue as an inland sea

What does our experience say about the health of the industry, and what are the trends that emerge? The good news is that the figures tell us that North America and Europe are at last coming out of recession, South America and Asia are still booming and even Africa seems to be stirring. What’s amazing is how common a lot of the stories are from around the globe.

California tech companies are moving back into town from their leafy campuses. The Y-generation of young techies don’t want to drive to work, don’t want to own cars (they don’t seem to want to own anything for that matter, all their possessions are virtual and exist in the cloud), and don’t want to hang out on campuses.

They want to go to work on public transport so that they can stay glued to their smartphones, and then hang out downtown with their pals. And who can blame them?

Buses seemed to be a common theme as we heard of Brazil all but being thrown into political crisis over the price of a bus ticket. This symbol of the poor not benefitting from the burgeoning wealth of the country has spiralled politics out of control like chaos theory’s beat of a butterfly wing that causes a hurricane. But all this will cause but a pause in Brazil’s relentless economic development as the B in BRIC continues to boom.

It seems that advanced workplace thinking and values are now permeating other building types. For example, clients building laboratories, healthcare and universities all want to benefit from the revolution in thinking that took place in the workplace over the past 20 years.

This has broken down silos, dispensed with private offices, encouraged transparency and communication - both physically and managerially - broken the 1:1 tie of person to desk space and provided informal alternative workspace and amenity areas. We are told that nobody wants to work in a white coat all day on a bench with gas taps, or cramped in a windowless office behind the ward or isolated in a researcher cell.

The Y-generation of young techies don’t want to drive to work and don’t want to own cars. They want to go to work on public transport so they can stay glued to their smartphones

Everyone wants a better quality of working life, even if some of it has “technical requirements” and that means the modern social office which encourages communication and overlaps work and play. In the war for talent, that’s what smart firms want to provide.

Despite controversy in the UK, PFI, or Public Private Partnerships (PPP), just won’t go away. From hospitals in Africa to the United States, PPP is seen increasingly as the way to deliver badly needed public amenities, infrastructure and utilities.

It’s sweeping the US just like it swept the UK in the late nineties. But, unlike in the UK, there is not a common model handed down by central government’s Treasury, so Design and Build (D&B), Design, Build and Finance (DB&F) and Design, Build, Finance and Operate (DBFO) are all on the cards with various procurement route possibilities to deliver each of them.

It’s a great opportunity for the US to use its diverse state system to explore multiple options, and to find a version of PFI that really works - unlike the UK’s first attempts at it which have left us with a lot of problems.

One can’t help hope that the highly pragmatic Americans will find a system that does not take too long to procure, does not waste vast amounts of professionals’ time, is flexible, promotes good design and delivers whole life value sustainably.

And then we can copy it.

Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will