So this is what Google's offices look like. Image: courtesy Siren Design

Timber construction, natural ventilation, the creation of a homely ambience, and smarter use of materials and space are just some of the innovations changing the office space in Australia.

Ray Brown
Ray Brown

Ray Brown, managing director of Architectus – designers of Sydney’s award-winning sustainable office tower 1 Bligh Street – says new office innovations are going to be around materials.

“I think the work that is happening with various companies around [cross-laminated timber] is significant and will have a major impact, particularly in the low-rise campus space, which I think is really good to see,” he says.

Lendlease’s CLT office building in Sydney’s Barangaroo is a great example. The six-storey structure constructed with cross-laminated timber and glue-laminated timber will provide 6850 square metres of office space.

Mia Feasey
Mia Feasey

Mia Feasey, chief executive officer of Siren Design, says her group is doing a lot of work with sustainability at its core. The firm is working on another leading organisation’s WELL Building Standard accreditation – one of a handful of WELL-certified projects in Australia.

“This is more than the usual cradle-to-cradle and low toxicity paint,” Feasey says. “It’s also air quality, health and wellbeing – even beauty.”

Feasey says the reuse of materials and better use of materials is a high priority.

“Lonely Planet in Melbourne is as sustainable as you can get,” she says.

When the travel guide company moved from Footscray to The Malt Store in Carlton, Siren incorporated all the existing furniture and fixtures, just replacing table tops and reupholstering here and there.

Lonely Planet offices. Image: Siren Design
Lonely Planet offices. Image: Siren Design

“We used as little as possible when we could and the bare minimum when we had to,” Feasey says.

Likewise, a large consumer goods company is moving into the old Vodafone space and reusing everything.

“People are coming around,” Feasey says. “‘Brand new’ takes less effort but reusing is a lot more rewarding.”

Siren’s designers are encouraged to be mindful of the environment when advising clients. For example, benches of a specific length to fit with standard material sheet sizes to reduce wastage, or halving the number of printer points to encourage workers to take a walk or not print at all.

“Historically we wouldn’t say, ‘Are you sure?’” she says. “Now we push back and educate as we go. Basic things that we can do that won’t affect the brief.”

Influences on the office space

Designing a lot of co-working environments and innovation hubs, Brown has noticed many influences that are changing the way we work.

“There is a lot of convergence going on in within design, within architecture, where each sector seems to have a greater influence on all sectors,” he says. “For instance, your hospitality has had a big influence on office design; universities’ informal teaching learning spaces have had a big impact on office design; and office design has had a big impact on universities in terms of how we are dealing now with postgraduates and PhDs – everybody is no longer in an office exclusively – so it’s quite interesting how different markets inform each other.

“You could almost say the domestic market, to an extent, has affected the office market as well.”

Each sector has different demands for their office space, according to Feasey, who works with many companies in the tech sector including Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Domain. Image: Siren Design
Domain. Image: Siren Design

“The trend for a lot of the banking and property companies is for agile or towards [activity based working],” she says.

However, in a bid to attract talent, the tech industry seeks to provide each worker with their own desk and their own space.

“We rarely do agile in tech companies,” Feasey says. Rather, the focus is on creating a homely feel.

“When we first started, companies wanted professional premises,” she says. “Now it’s homely and welcoming.”

Siren is working with Domain, the property group, to create a premises where workers can “feel comfortable in warm surrounds”.

“They’re not called offices, they’re a ‘home away from home’.”

Google's meditation wall. Image: Siren Design
Google’s meditation wall. Image: Siren Design

Siren has created a meditation wall for Google’s offices complete with lots of little terrariums, tea lights and inspirational quotes. Staircases are in demand, with companies such as Roche, BPAY and Uber making them a feature of the new workplace.

Fully stocked kitchens are also becoming popular.

“A lot of places are feeding their staff now,” Feasey says. “We are doing a lot of kitchens.”

Natural cooling the next big thing

According to Brown, the next big move will be how we reduce the energy used to cool buildings – passive cooling systems, operable facades and so on.

An atrium provides light and natural ventilation at 1 Bligh Street. Image: Architectus
An atrium provides light and natural ventilation at 1 Bligh Street. Image: Architectus

He says the focus on wellness, particularly air quality, is taking environmental performance to the next level with the appearance of more naturally ventilated spaces. Office workers are now stepping into workplaces with fresher, naturally ventilated air that doesn’t have the dryness and pressure of an airconditioned environment.

“From an energy point of view that is really good too because it’s stretching us to think of ways of passively cooling and heating without actually using traditional energy to the building system,” Brown says.

“Operable facades – at least for part of a building – and also individual spaces that are between inside and outside spaces that you might push a bit of spill air into, which doesn’t cost you any energy but just might temper the spaces a little bit.

“We do a lot of open spaces in buildings where we look at opening to the outside but also pushing in some of the spill air from the office floor that would normally be lost.”

Architectus employed this technique for the Qantas headquarters redevelopment in Mascot, Sydney. A new atrium structure creates an internal street to unite three existing office buildings. This four-storey volume under a glazed roof and façade provides a new public space and connections between the buildings while incorporating communal facilities. It’s achieved significant improvements in energy efficiency, increasing the NABERS rating from 1.5 to five stars.

“Some people spend their whole day in the space working and don’t go into their proper office buildings at all,” Brown says. “I think those sorts of spaces are important because they keep stretching the value we are getting back from the energy we are using, but are also testing the commercial market in terms of how they value spaces when it’s not fully airconditioned.”

Soaring ceilings

According to Brown there is also a move towards a much higher floor to ceiling height in new offices. This is achieved through not installing ceilings so the sense of space can be maximised or, in standard buildings with tiled ceilings, just increasing floor to floor height.

Floor-to-ceiling volume. Image: Architectus
Floor-to-ceiling volume. Image: Architectus

“We are designing with a 2850 or three-metre floor to ceiling to just improve the environment within the office – particularly important in large floor plates,” Brown says. “So the bigger the floor plate, the higher the ceiling you need.”

Architectus’ project at 100 Mount Street in North Sydney will have a floor to ceiling that ranges from 2850 to 3200 centimetres. At 151 Clarence Street (under construction) they are having under-floor air and no ceilings in the podium to maximise the volume of space.

People have to want to work there

With competition for talent in Australia becoming fierce, place making is crucial, according to Brown. Office developments are becoming more multi-use than the monocultures they were in the past.

“There is a lot more focus now on the amenity of the precinct and what your office developments bring to a precinct,” he says. “The recently obvious realisation is that if your office is not in an interesting, active precinct, people don’t want to lease space there.

“So a lot of work we’ve been doing around new developments or refurbishing projects is really creating places that people want to be. It’s really curating a development that gets energies going between the different uses.”

Future-proofing is about being clever

Planning office space for the future used to involve strategic briefings where companies would provide an illustration of anticipated growth for three, five or 10 years. However, this has radically changed.

“Now they say, ‘We don’t know; we want what we want now,’” Feasey says.

The key is clever property play – ensuring there are options on other floors and remaining flexible.

One Siren Design client has taken on an extra floor of office space – despite minimum staff – as they hope to grow 10 times in size in the next two years.

“It’s about thinking outside the square,” she says. “He’s using the space for co-working, charging clients to use the workshop and he can take it back later.”

Brown says the Australian market is pretty innovative in the workplace space – “probably world leading along with the Danes and a couple of other places”. The banks and large corporates have driven the agenda in their competition for talent and that filters down through the industry.

Flexibility, he believes, is key to future proofing.

“I can’t think of a client’s office that I walk into or a project that doesn’t start with those kinds of aspirations about flexibility, connectivity, transparency.”

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  1. It is pleasing to see that there is more talk of better indoor air quality and not only from the ventilation point of view.
    Many “green” buildings being built only incorporate certain sustainable features allowing the building to be classified into a category required by certain building codes or forms of accreditation. Much thought and consideration is placed on the design and building materials to construct however often due to the long process of building, depletion of funds, conflicting information to name a few, little thought is made to the final finishes used. These final finishing products, such as furnishings, paints and floor coatings can have the largest impact on the occupier’s health.