Bringing the vision for IIED’s new working space to life

IIED has officially moved into its new home on Gray’s Inn Road. The move to the newly refurbished office went off without any major hitches and barely slowed the pace of IIED’s work – a sign that the project board team prepared well for the move. And while there are still wrinkles to be ironed out in the new space, feedback from staff I've talked to has been positive. Almost 100 days after the move, there is still a buzz about the place.

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1 February 2012

This was the hope of those planning the move, and the long-term aim in creating this new space is that it will serve to enhance IIED's ability to carry out its mission of building a fairer, more sustainable world. 

The vision for the Gray’s Inn Road (GIR) office is:

to develop new and creative ways of working with each other and with our partners and other stakeholders. We aim to use a variety of spaces – open plan floor spaces, formal and informal spaces, quiet spaces – and work flexibly across the whole building, sharing knowledge and creating a more dynamic, exciting place to work. We will seize the opportunities to host events, and provide better facilities for partners and other visitors. In all of this, we seek to significantly improve the environmental credentials of a 1950’s office building.

Space as a limiting factor

As with any office space, the square footage at GIR is finite. There are currently as many desks as people, but if the office is to be IIED’s home for 40 years – the length of time that IIED was located  at the Endsleigh Street premises – then, just as global growth and development is limited by the size of the planet, IIED will have to grow and change within the boundaries of the space available to it.

For guidance on how to go about this, IIED could refer to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s principles of smart growth, which advocate, loosely:

  • Mixed use;
  • Compact design;
  • Creating a range of opportunities and choices;
  • Walkable ‘neighbourhoods’;
  • Fostering a sense of place;
  • Strengthening existing communities;
  • Predictable, fair and cost-effective development decisions; and
  • Encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration in decision-making.

Indeed, I believe that GIR’s design already employs a number of these principles. The variety of workspaces available, the inclusion of partners’ needs in design considerations such as spare laptops with available docking stations and state of the art video-conferencing,  and the new information technology system, which literally allows staff to work while walking around, are a few examples.

Optimising the use of space for the social well-being of many

Judith Heerwagen lists three elements to consider when designing space to promote psychological and social well-being to benefit people living and working in a space:

  • look beyond survival to well-being;
  • build on connections to nature; and
  • design for the senses as well as the body.

Interestingly, these are lessons learned from studying the design of zoos. Nevertheless, I personally like the second element and think it chimes well with what IIED is about: using nature as an intuitive guide to improving the quality of living and working spaces.

I believe this is evident in the types of building materials used in the interior design of the building. Shelving and other bespoke built-in furniture is made of unvarnished natural coloured plywood, giving the interior a rustic, outdoorsy effect. This is balanced by a colour scheme with green flooring, woody hued carpets and conference room chairs and an aubergine-coloured events room which mirrors colours found in nature and used by the many of the local communities where IIED works. The round-shaped canvas-coloured ventilator socks hanging from the ceiling facilitate natural air flow, absorb noise and soften the building’s hard lines lending an organic feel to the office space. And the two-story photograph of an African village that covers the walls adjacent to the two conference rooms brings the outside in and helps to centre thinking on the true nature of IIED’s work.

Getting the open plan office right

Peter Lloyd, Professor of Design Studies at The Open University, considers the power of architecture to enclose, or create spaces which motivate, stimulate, and empower us to feel special and productive. Getting the open plan office ‘right’ can be a difficult balance. Open plan offices that work result in better communication, peer learning and enhanced creativity in the workforce. However, he points out that open plan offices work if additional social spaces are built on site, like canteens or sports facilities and points out that, while early open plan buildings in the 50s built in these additional spaces, over time, many open plan offices have lost them.

Happily, they haven’t been lost at IIED – the new office has meeting rooms, couches on each floor and the Café Club, a large kitchen and meeting room with trestle tables where staff can eat together.  

Lloyd also encourages us to make our own work spaces more stimulating by regularly changing our environment and interacting with others in it.

The new office is designed around a set of formal and informal spaces. Its nooks, cubbies, meeting rooms of different shapes and sizes and the auditorium provide scope for IIED staff and their guests to change their environment to fit the nature of the work being done. There is a finite amount of desk space available with the objective that as and when IIED grows, the wireless communication system and variety of work spaces will facilitate hot desking. No doubt it will take some experimentation before individuals find the best combination of spaces that best suit their working styles, but the potential is there.

Interestingly, a recent survey asking staff for the top-five things people liked about GIR reflected many of these points. They liked the:

  • greater interaction with staff,
  • Café Club,
  • light and airy environment,
  • location and
  • variety of meeting places.

Creating space for fairer and more equitable futures

Bob Fowles, whose vision is a built environment that respects both human and ecological rights, maintains that buildings should be designed around the concept of ‘holism,’ the view that a system’s functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of its individual parts and that the interests of the community using the building are paramount.

Common or communal spaces are a fundamental part of IIED’s new office design;  the building is full of them. Each floor has a nook and a cubby-hole space and, while the group or groups residing on a given floor have some autonomy over the design of these common spaces, they are open to everyone in the building on a first-come, first-served basis.

The new office is designed around the notion that spaces in the building aren’t ‘owned’ by anyone.  There are no fixed PCs. Instead, desks have docking stations and staff are issued with a portable laptop that can be docked anywhere in the building. And while individuals may have selected work spots, these spaces can be used by others when they are empty. Some teams have even taken to identifying free desks with yellow bathtub rubber duckies!

I like to think of the Gray's Inn Road office as a commons and that all of its inhabitants have an obligation to manage it cooperatively. This is one of the fundamental notions underlying sustainable development, and that’s what IIED is all about.

Linda Siegele, is a lawyer specialising in environmental issues. She is  now a PhD student at University College London, preparing a legal analysis of the regulatory framework governing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment.


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