Kuba Granicki, Alessio Lacovig and Mike Rassmann, the three partners behind Johannesburg-based Architects Of Justice, sat down to have a discussion on how workplaces are designed, and the architect’s role in finding out what a client wants (and needs).
How do you find out what a client is looking for when they approach you to design an office space?
Kuba Granicki: We try to understand their business, but firstly need to find out if the client themselves understands their own business as it stands now, and in the long term. When someone says to us, “My sales team has eight people,” that’s great, but will your sales team always have eight people?
Mike Rassmann: We ask them how they envision their business to look like in five years, and in ten years’ time.
Alessio Lacovig: How do your salespeople work? Do they come into the office every day or are they mainly out on the road? What are their needs when they get back to the office?
Rassmann: All these things play a part, not only in understanding the staff contingent, but in understanding the departments and how they interact. What their corporate culture is.
Granicki: We try to discover what has been failing in their current office space that we’re now being called in to address. That’s the primary need, but once we are on the job, we start to identify secondary needs that the building can tackle.
In your experience, do clients tend to know what they want or do you need to work with them to figure it out?
Rassmann: I think where we add the value is; the clients know how their businesses run, but we figure out how their offices will work within a spatial framework.
Granicki: A client has hired us as there are obviously aspects of their business which aren’t working. There are specifics of the project which have to be included; the non-negotiables, then there’s the stuff that a client would like to try and incorporate into the project, and finally there are the things that they dream about, but which they don’t think are achievable; we ask our clients to list all of these. We then try and include all of list one, most of list two and as much of list three as we can into a project. That’s our stance on all architecture, not just commercial projects.
A lot of clients just know that they are not happy and they need a change. From there you have to dig it all up – is it growth, do you just need a new look, or are you changing your business structure?
We had a client who worked with us before and he had an idea that his space needed to be changed. Mike ran with the spatial planning and we just had to meet his expectations. He was a relatively easy client. Recently we had a client whose corporate image was outdated and he told us to just ‘go for it’. That is great as you get to do whatever you want, but you know that you need to smash their expectations. So essentially that project is more difficult as you set the expectations on yourself as well – only we know when it’s good enough. But if we get hired to do a particular job, that’s where we look at how we can add value.
Lacovig: Some client’s don’t actually want anything other than what they have in their heads. And you need to try and convince them otherwise. We are taught at university that we know better than the client – we have the solutions – and sometimes listening instead of just giving the solution is better because then you get to the solution much quicker and work together. It’s a win-win situation for all.
What challenges do you find in understanding the needs of the users of a workplace?
Granicki: In the modern office you are no longer as tied to the office as you were in the past. There are systems that can give you information and let you do your work from anywhere in the world.
There are international companies with offices all over the world and they are delivering a service 24 hours a day, and whichever branch is awake at that time is doing the work. Those sort of global accelerations are the things that are affecting the workplace, but in my opinion, the workplace is the slowest to adapt to them, and once it does, it’s already evolving again.
What do you think will be a workspace design must-have in the near future?
Rassmann: I think there might be places where you go back to connect to physicality. Look at the library; you don’t have to go there to get a book these days, but people go there to study because it’s quiet, and maybe the office space is going to be something like that. Yes, you can work at home but maybe home can’t give you the fancy coffee machine and all those things you need. It’s not about your desk anymore, it’s more about the environment that you are in – maybe that’s the next big thing.
Lacovig: And the accidental exchange of ideas when you are talking to someone randomly while making coffee or getting some water. You start chatting about things and before you know it, your work ideas crossover and you get a hybrid of ideas which maybe solves a problem.
Rassmann: People are starting to crave that human connection again.
Does South Africa have different office and workspace needs to other countries?
Rassmann: Everywhere has different cultural quirks. Asian companies, especially for the skilled workers, require a good stretching before work starts to prevent cramps and pain during work. As a local example, the co-working spaces in Cape Town have taken off in a big way, but in Johannesburg they haven’t. In Cape Town, it’s at the point where the guys who own the co-working space check to see if they like your business before letting you in there. Johannesburg, on the other hand, is still empty enough that if you can pay, you can stay. So there are very different work cultures going on across South Africa.
In terms of materials and furniture, what has changed?
Lacovig: Some of the technology around building desks has changed, for example retractable desks where you can sit or stand, which all comes from a better understanding of ergonomics and what is healthy for the body. At some point there was even a craze of using yoga balls as chairs.
Rassmann: Some of the desk designs I have seen lately have been geared around making it look more like an individual office while still being in an open-plan environment. You are also starting to get a lot of different kinds of meeting spaces – not just the boardroom table – the idea of having a meeting in a coffee shop, but in your own building.
Lacovig: The modular aspect of furniture design is not something new – modulation is something that all designers, whether it’s industrial or architects, have pursued as the ultimate solution, but this solution doesn’t really exist yet.
Rassmann: Offices haven’t quite got to that multi-purpose space yet, such as a classroom, where desks can be arranged into a cluster for group work, or individually for exams. Offices aren’t there yet, the cables have kept us from getting to that point.
Granicki: Some people are happier to be in their own space, and work better that way.
Rassmann: People are becoming more about themselves, less about community, all me, me, me. It’s been happening for a while but offices haven’t adapted. You set out a workspace with 10 desks that are all identical and say, “go sit”. That’s what Google has got right; you can go climb into a pod with your laptop away from everyone else.
Lacovig: It’s about creating a multitude of different spaces where people can choose which environment suits them best.
Rassmann: But not everyone is always going to have bucket loads of space – you are going to need to have an adaptive space before long.
Lacovig: Plus the human element is so unpredictable. You could have a higher percentage of introverts to extroverts and all of a sudden your office space doesn’t cater for them. That’s why designing commercial office space is very different to residential work because you are dealing with multiple elements – you are making assumptions about the user, but with residential projects you have more specifics which you can get directly from the client.
Granicki: An architect in the 1970s designed cubicles; meeting cubicles, coffee cubicles, chill out cubicles along with the workstation cubicles. A developer came along and removed all the fun cubicles, the hanging out cubicle removed, the reading cubicle removed, only the work cubicle remained. I mention this now, because 50 years later, with this open plan, more transparent response which is common, you are actually looking at what the office cubicle typology could have brought to the office if the original idea had been implemented. Instead they only implemented the work cubicles, now it seems, heading to 2020, people are awakening to the fact that it would be nice to have a place to eat with co-workers, shared spaces during projects and chill-out spaces. Cubicles were actually an architectural invention.
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