by Meghna MehtaApr 27, 2020
The coronavirus lockdown period has forced us to consider, amongst many other things, what it is going to be like when we finally get the green flag to go back to the office. As an architect advocating the re-use of industrial buildings for places of work, I have been reflecting on why these buildings might be any better or worse than traditional purpose-built offices in a post-lockdown world.
Some of the themes explored by Hawkins\Brown and JLL in the research study Industrial Rehab: A New Space of Opportunity, in late 2018, resonate when we consider what the post-pandemic workplace will look and feel like. To give some context, the study looked at the refurbishment of large industrial buildings for workplace and analysed selected buildings from around the world under the themes of volume, value and versatility. The common theme across all these buildings, whether they be industrial sheds, concrete framed warehouses or hybrid structures, was 'scale', with the mode average net internal area of these buildings being 28,000 square metres and volume 300,000 cubic metres.
Airspace and volume
An increased amount of personal space will no doubt become a factor in our decisions about where and how to work in future. This personal desire for more space will not only be about physical contact and proximity but also about air space. Having seen the computer renderings of how far airborne germs travel when we breathe, talk, cough and sneeze, we are inevitably going to be more sensitive about the air we share.
To understand the density of in-use workspaces within industrial buildings, we obtained employee headcount numbers for five of our case studies from Industrial Rehab, in which the building was completed and occupied, with occupancy densities in these averaging at 20 sqm per employee. This is double a typical office density, so already a generous uplift in space, but it became more interesting when we compared volume; the converted industrial buildings offered six times the volume per employee than the standard office building.
Better use through adaptability
One of the most challenging aspects of this outbreak has been our lack of understanding and control over it; the uncertainty over when we are going to be able to get back to work and the fear that something similar may occur in the future. The balance between the desire of the workforce wanting more personal space and organisations wanting better utilisation of the space they pay for is going to be hugely important.
As it is said 'the only constant in life is change', so using space better will invariably mean allowing it to adapt over time. Larger buildings can accommodate a variety of uses, as demonstrated at Here East in London where academia and business sit alongside maker spaces, studios and creative arts. Industrial buildings have the robustness to withstand the physical impacts of changes of use over both the short and long term. The patina, rawness and authenticity of these buildings is a big part of their appeal and what attracts their tenants who tend to be young, creative and entrepreneurial.
A case in point is the RDM Campus in Rotterdam, which started life in 1902 as a ship building yard and has since been through two World Wars and four global recessions. It is now an innovation campus, bringing high-tech facilities together with education and research under one roof.
Change is easily withstood in these buildings. An ecosystem of businesses and different uses can exist under one roof, with enough space between them to still feel connected as a working community and to enable them to scale up or down as economics dictate.
Wellbeing and the connection to the outdoors
There is no doubt that our own health will be a priority to us when we come out of the lockdown, in a way we have never experienced before. A sense of space and room to breathe will be important but only as much as the quality of the air around us, and for that reason I am personally a little less concerned about the office than the commute into the city centre.
Industrial conversions most often retain their large window openings and replace windows in a similar style to the originals, complete with opening vents. They rarely give a sense of being hermetically sealed as many purpose-built office buildings do whilst still providing a level of filtered air ventilation.
Very few of our case studies were in city centres, with the majority being on city fringes, in the docklands or other low-density areas that are now being regenerated. The space around these buildings, once refurbished, is often landscaped in a way to give the impression that nature is still in its wild state. A connection to green space and nature has been proven to have a positive impact on our sense of well-being - this will only be emphasised more when we return to work and are in need of a tonic.
Until then, let us focus on our own health and well-being and that of our nearest and dearest - see you on the other side.
Click here to know more about and read the other articles in the Design After COVID-19 series presented by STIR in collaboration with ICA Pidilite.
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