Forget trad office blocks and out-of-town shopping centres. E-commerce is revolutionising the way we live and work. In five years’ time, you may be building or working in one of these multipurpose structures – it’s a high-rise combining offices, homes, a hotel, leisure facilities and shops.
It is a friday afternoon in november 2005 and architect Sarah Smith is bored. She is putting the finishing touches to plans for yet another distribution shed. It is the third she has worked on this year. In fact, 90% of her commissions these days are for medium-sized, crinkly-roofed sheds. Everyone is shopping on-line for books, CDs, car parts and loo rolls, and retailers need somewhere to store them. “Good business, but dull,” she sighs. Contractors are happy enough: it is a cut-throat business, but those still in it are doing well. The sheds go up in four months max from planning to opening …

This may be crystal gazing, but it gives some idea of how the telecommunications/IT revolution will affect construction. The Internet is changing the nature of the retail sector as on-line shopping takes off. The call-centre market will decline as cyber activities reduce the need for sheds to hold 1000 people taking calls. As more and more people can work anywhere, the office sector will shrink and demand will shift to less but more flexible space. But there will be new markets. Complexes of server farms and gateway buildings supporting web site firms are set to become big business. So, what can you expect to design or build in 2005?

The future is flexible

Adaptable buildings will be the key. The one-off office block full of desk-bound labourers will disappear and the multifunctional headquarters will take its place. Stuart McLarty, architectural director at Aukett Associates, believes the lines between building functions will blur. Instead of a building devoted to one use, adaptable buildings containing short-lease office space, hotels, serviced apartments and private apartments, fitness centres, and so on will abound, creating the vertical city.

The flexible office idea can already be seen in the rapidly developing market for serviced office space. Vincent Wang, a former director of Stanhope, spotted the need for high-quality short-lease office space six months ago and formed property development firm Nexus. Wang says people can work anywhere most of the time because of mobile communications, but there are times when they need to talk face to face – which requires a congenial environment, and that is what his firm offers. ”What they want is an office that is more than a factory for bureaucracy; a place to meet, act and connect,” he says.

Leather armchairs and modems

Wang has just launched his first development at 1 Cornhill in the City of London. The listed building’s former banking hall has been transformed into a gentlemen’s club-style meeting space. But do not be deceived by the traditional leather armchairs, sofas and marble pillars; the hall is fully wired up to accommodate laptops and mobile phones. The rest is office space with leases ranging from one month to three years.

As office space becomes more of a meeting place, so shops will become more entertaining to compete with the convenience of on-line shopping. Retail outlets will use extra amenities to lure consumers. So, supermarkets will create arcades boasting doctors’ surgeries and gourmet cookery classes, as well as traditional goods. In other retail sectors, a trip to the shops will become a glamourous experience, not a chore. Fittings and layout will change regularly to keep consumers interested. Shops will have cafés and bars, sophisticated computer games and maybe a virtual catwalk.

Construction consultant Gleeds has already tapped into the need for flexible retail design. Stuart Senior is a partner in the Nottingham office and is already working with Nottingham-based software outfit Visual Technology to offer retailers a chance to model the shop floor in virtual reality. They can use this to visualise the finished product and assess its impact on the consumer.

Internet shopping will have the biggest impact on construction by boosting demand for sheds. These will be medium-sized distribution warehouses based on the outskirts of towns and cities where items bought over the Internet can be dropped off by the retailer somewhere more local than the main distribution warehouse. The local shed will be shared with other retailers, and local deliveries will be carried out by contracted delivery firms such as UPS.

Call-centre jobs drop as financial services go on-line

Adaptable buildings will be the key. The one-off office block full of deskbound labourers will disappear and the multifunctional building will take its place

The boom in warehouses is set to counteract the fall-off in call-centre work. People will communicate with banks on-line, buy holidays on-line and deal with insurance and other financial services on-line. At the moment, banking is handled largely through call centres, but Internet banking will reduce the need for so much space. Ken Giannini, a director of architect DEGW, is a call-centre guru who sees the market shrinking: “For the next five years, we will still see the out-of-town wiggly tin sheds, but then they will start to become smaller.” Giannini sees call-centre activity moving to former high-street bank branches – the very ones that were abandoned in favour of the sheds. “Maybe on the ground floor you will have a place for people to come off the street, go on-line and deal with banking in a café atmosphere.

The upper level will be ideal for small teams of call centre-type activity,” he says.

But new construction markets will emerge. There is a burgeoning one in Internet gateway facilities and server farms as web sites become a must-have for tomorrow’s businesses. These mysterious-sounding complexes support the computer servers that hold the information that is offered on a web site. The firms that control web sites need their own highly technical light-industrial-type structures to house the computer equipment that forms a gateway to the web. Again, it is the shed that fits the bill – only this time it must be heavily air-conditioned so that the computer equipment stays cool.

Architect Aukett Associates entered the market only one year ago, but 10% of its business is in server farms and gateway facilities. Its most recent commission is a farm for Level3 Communications in London. And it has no intention of stopping at 10%. Project director Robert Thorogood, who looks after this new sector, would not reveal what percentage the firm is aiming for, but says: “The targets are always to be doing more than we are at the moment.”

This market is now taking off. But the web services sector is so competitive that clients are loath to release even the most innocuous details about locations and number. Computer hardware manufacturers such as Intel are talking about building massive web-hosting complexes across Europe. Intel is rumoured to be planning one such development in the Thames Valley area. Bill Southwood, a director at Ove Arup & Partners, has seen similar projects on site in the USA.

“On the site is something that looks like NASA Mission Control,” says Southwood. The complex also includes high-quality office areas that house a help desk for the web hosts’ clients. The largest schemes can reach 10 000 m2 but they start at about 2500 m2. The smaller variety are sometimes housed in derelict buildings that are unsuitable for other uses.

A house is not a home unless it has a computer room

The housebuilding sector is also evolving to incorporate new technologies. An information room with computer equipment and Internet access will be readily available for the homeworker and on-line shopper. The lounge will be an entertainment room geared up with Internet access through the television. The information room will be much bigger than the current office/study area. Westbury Homes is trialling flexible room configuration to suit these changing needs. Customers can decide to have a smaller kitchen and larger second downstairs room suitable as an information room if they want.

The Internet is growing so fast that a Net year is more like three years in human terms. Many of the features that will become commonplace in the next five years are already cropping up. Consultant WSP is practising futuristic working practices by transforming one floor of its Holborn office into a paperless, hot-desking haven. There are 90 workstations for 140 staff, project meeting areas and a cybercafé for informal meetings. Less space is compensated for by a more luxurious environment. What is certain is that the pace of change will dictate the type of building requirements needed industrially and socially.

The retail market in the next century

Distribution sheds These are small to medium-sized warehouses for depositing on-line purchases from retailers’ main distribution centres before delivery to the customer. They will need:
  • Adaptable design
  • Fast-track modular construction
Shops To compete with on-line shopping, retailers will need to make space adaptable, place the emphasis on the shopping experience and update the outlet’s look regularly. Supermarkets will need:
  • Arcade-style boutiques
  • Doctors’ surgery
  • Cafés/bars
  • Place for gourmet cookery classes
Other retail outlets will need:
  • A strong brand image
  • Interactive areas, for example, a virtual catwalk experience

Internet business

Server farms and gateway complexes These are massive high-tech computer complexes for Internet service providers. They will need:
  • An engine room for web site servers and an area for Internet gateway facilities, both kept very cold
  • A call centre
  • Luxurious office space

Home and work

Houses Homes will need:
  • Information room
  • Entertainment room
  • Room in roof for extra space
Call centres These will be smaller because the Internet will be used for banking, buying holidays, theatre tickets and so on. They may appear on the outskirts of towns. Alternatively, converted high-street banks may become multifunctional call centres and cybercafés for on-line banking.