Focus should shift from the skyline to the streetscape

The tops of buildings are often the architecture that captures the public’s imagination, with a silhouette on the skyline giving the building its identity.

However, I think we need to shift our attention to the streetscape. We should be more thoughtful and creative about how we use our ground-floor spaces and how they interact with the surrounding urban community.

I was recently in a Shoreditch hotel where the reception space was full of people with their laptops and tablets. According to the receptionist, these people were not guests catching up on emails but were mostly members of the public using the lobby as an alternative workspace; somewhere they could spend time without the obligation to keep buying coffees. This created a check-in experience abuzz with activity that was a far cry from the staid queueing you would perhaps expect.

The hotel reception I described had curated a scene that was energetic and relaxed, and spoke clearly of the culture of the organisation. Creating this atmosphere, with an appropriate shift to informality, is now increasingly preoccupying the business community.

Promoting collaboration

More specifically, how can buildings’ arrival spaces help communicate and promote sharing and collaboration? In an age of exposed servicing and flexible working, formal corporate culture is being questioned. It would make sense for our ground-floor spaces - the ‘shop windows’ of developments - to follow suit. But for offices this has to be more than just an ‘active frontage’ and a way of inviting people in to use functional spaces.

Where appropriate, designers are moving away from expansive, formal receptions that are solely occupied by waiting visitors and fixed to a single use. Instead, these spaces can be the ‘front doors’ to our workplace masterplans, able to adapt to a rich mix of uses, including hosting events, art exhibitions, staff areas and public amenities.

This not only creates an eclectic tapestry of activity and a vibrant arrival experience but also offers alternative, more informal work settings for staff and visitors.

In essence, ground-floor spaces are becoming more civic, blurring security lines and barriers to workplace developments. In creating these more complex, flexible social spaces you are also making them more robust and agile so they can adapt to the unanticipated changes that the digital economy is sure to bring.

There are challenges to this approach. Opening up your space to the public might make for a bustling reception, but how do you manage the security concerns that come with it? How do you create a security line that is flexible and can mediate between private and public?

How do you make the more open, civic space feel like it still belongs to the office? There are no quick fixes or miraculous furniture packages that can provide answers to all these questions. Instead, the solutions are found through in-depth workplace consultancy; a probing into the culture of the organisation that finds the answers to the issues.

In creating these more complex, flexible social spaces, you are also making them more robust and agile

Being civic and open is not without its challenges but it is becoming increasingly important in building workplace communities. The variety of ground-floor places recognises the ongoing blurring of boundaries between life, work and play, catering for a new brand of workplace culture that young people are expecting as they leave university and enter full-time employment.

There are a number of parallels to be drawn with the hospitality and education sectors on how to engage people while providing a range of work settings. This doesn’t mean just popping in a café space and hoping for the best, but rather finding an appropriate balance between public and private that is beneficial for your organisation. This involves looking at how ground-floor spaces can work harder to communicate the company’s culture as well as attract and retain its most valuable asset - its people.

Helen Berresford is head of ID:SR - Sheppard Robson

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