What should the office look like when we go back to work?

4 May, 2021

The last year has been a chance to rethink the workplace into a vastly better version of what it was before Covid-19, says General Project’s development associate Ben Cross.

What are some of the challenges facing the office market in the wake of Covid?

Covid has accelerated a trend that was already there. The workplace is now, unquestionably, a consumer product rather than a commodity. You can’t expect people to spend an hour commuting to a place of work just because it’s there. So it’s become a day of reckoning for many office developers because the office as we knew it, is dead. This places far more demand on developers to prove that what they’re building is operationally, physically and experientially outstanding – because that’s what’s going to drive people back to the workplace.

The second  thing we must confront is the net-zero carbon agenda, which is a huge challenge society is having to face. It’s a well-known fact that 80 percent of the buildings that will be around in 2050 have already been built so it’s going to mean radically re-imagining our existing buildings to provide an environment that is ‘net zero ready.’

Why has the brief put such an emphasis on wellness? Is this a result of Covid?

Health and well-being has had a stratospheric rise in the last 12 months. For us it’s not a knee-jerk reaction as it’s always been one of our principles.

But as result of Covid, we’re able to talk more about things like air quality more freely because it’s starting to resonate with the market in a far more meaningful way. Pre-Covid you’d need to uncover specialist research to persuade occupiers of the benefits of healthy working environment but since Covid this is better understood.

Ben Cross at 242 Marylebone Road, where the Pitch will take place

What’s your view on hybrid working – how do you think it will impact office culture?   

There’s a consensus that hybrid working is great for productivity, for employee well-being and for achieving work-life balance. But it’s very challenging to deliver the same level of workplace culture and communication with colleagues  as we used to have. The ‘water cooler moment’ has been replaced by the ‘Zoom boom’ – video conferencing has connected us digitally but it’s isolated us physically.

So, while we don’t need more apps or smart buildings or more technology that means we are attached to our ‘phones all day,  we must come up with ways of seamlessly integrating technology into the workplace  – delivering real to users rather than being a barrier that drives us further apart..

What do you hope to get out of the Pitch?

We’re excited to be collaborating with Archiboo because we believe there are some incredible practices out there with fresh, bold, imaginative ideas. The Pitch is a vehicle to help us discover who they are. We then want to showcase some of the designs to forward-thinking occupiers and hope that some of them come to fruition.

We’re also looking forward to hosting what must be one of the first post-pandemic architectural events in the UK. It’s going to be awesome.

 What are the qualities that you’ll be looking for from the seven architects?

We’re looking for architects with vision, creativity and a degree of pragmatism because that’s what these projects need. The ultimate goal is to create something that somebody will fall in love with.

Citè du Grand-Parc, Bordeaux – Lacaton & Vassal’s transformation of a 1960s housing estate, photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault

Do you have a favourite architect?

I greatly admire the work of Lacaton & Vassal. The practice’s philosophy of building up not tearing down is one that General Projects recognise as being a story of our age. There are a vast number of existing buildings that we need to radically retrofit to achieve our sustainability goals. Lacaton & Vassal’s economic use of materials at the same time as creating beautiful architecture, is something we truly applaud. It’s very easy to knock a building down and start afresh but it’s much harder to reimagine it.

The Architect Pitch, The Office is Dead, Long Live the Office will be on June 21st. You can apply to pitch or to book tickets to watch here