What are we building for?

According to Ben O’Connor at GVA, in a recent article, we are very short of premium grade office space in Bristol. Class A space is categorised as premium quality space with high spec systems, high quality finishes and demanding above average rent.

This is a widely held view in the industry and it is no surprise that Ben is urging developers to exploit government incentives and create speculative projects as current demand will quite possibly be exhausted by the end of this year.

As an innovative, thriving and forward thinking city, of course it is important that Bristol can attract the right business in order to enhance the community and our local economy. And part of that is to ensure we can physically accommodate businesses in suitable space.

However, I wonder if we should be asking a different question. Like, what is a city for or how will changes in work habits change the demands made on our city?


What we want for our city

I imagine for most, there would be a consensus around such issues as traffic control, better public transport, green spaces, infrastructure improvements, business support, less drunken behaviour and wanting the water fountains to work on a regular basis.

We want to make our city a great place to live, work and visit and although you will get differing opinions from those who live in the city, those who work here, the many that do both and the visitors, what cannot be denied is that finally, after many misguided predictions, the way we work is changing.


How we want to work

We still don’t have the paperless office and technology has not left half the population without a job, but we do have different criteria, methods and desires for our working lives.

I have written before about the future of work, but in essence, people are looking for more flexibility, a better balance between work and family and to be measured on agreed performance criteria rather than hours spent at a desk.

For enlightened businesses adopting these practices, the benefits include increased productivity, better staff attraction and retention, greater adaptability to environmental changes and reduced property and related costs.

A large office building uses a lot of energy, so the need for less space has environmental and sustainability benefits also.


What should we build?

So where does this leave our office space needs for the future? Are we going to need these new buildings? Should we rather refurbish the existing, languishing stock?

And how should they be designed? Many new buildings are being designed around these new work practices, with fluid space containing facilities for itinerant staff, shared space, meeting areas and more permanent workstations.

These are being designed for large companies, but can the same principles be used for multi-tenanted buildings and the serviced office model?

Firstly, I believe we should put the existing stock to good use. Then, if we are going to use up valuable land and skyline with new buildings, I want to be sure that those buildings are future proof and won’t be left idle and empty at some future date, as so many Bristol office buildings are today.

There is a great attraction to ‘new’ because it is so easy to throw away the old and start again. This does not always mean better though. Another attraction is design for its’ own sake. Again it is easy to design something that just looks good and where there are no parameters.

How much harder it is to design for a variety of uses, not just now, but in the future? Let’s hope there are some developers out there with vision and planning departments that will encourage and promote that vision.

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