Office occupiers are putting more emphasis on the inside of their buildings rather than striking landmark buildings - and the trend is likely to grow, according to commercial property experts. As well as the more unusual concepts, office staff can look forward to a variety of practical changes which will make our office spaces more communal, efficient and flexible in the future.
Jeff Downes, commercial director at architects SMC Corstorphine & Wright, explains why occupiers are becoming ever more focused on working practices and staff needs.
"There was a time in the 1980s when we were all focused on designing landmark buildings. We saw a whole host of buildings developed which became so recognisable that they were closely linked to their occupiers like the BT Tower in London and the Britannic in Birmingham," he says.
"More major occupiers are from the professional service sectors now and they know that clients closely scrutinise their expenditure because they are footing large bills.
"To have a very opulent office can be seen as decadence so new developments tend to be far less ostentatious.
"The focus instead is on the interior of the office, the practical space that people occupy on a day to day basis, the area that makes a real difference to business performance."
Tony Jemmett, managing director of BK in the Midlands, nods in agreement.
"Occupiers looking for space are far less concerned about the exterior of the building and are far more focused on the quality of working environment that an office provides," he says.
"More purchasers and tenants are looking for very large floor plates with wide open-plan space. It makes sense because many are consolidating different teams/businesses after relocation or merger activity.
"Open-plan working not only supports interaction and teamwork, but is also incredibly flexible, able to adapt as businesses evolve and reducing the need to relocate again.
"In 2004, the trend for open-plan working will be taken to the next level with even fewer divides of space and more wireless IT and better integral systems built into furniture like desks so that they can be moved around easily."
Mr Downes continues: "We already operate in a far less hierarchical era, even the most traditional businesses are gradually steering away from individual offices and cubicles to more open-plan working.
"We no longer use office space as a way of dictating seniority - it's too much of an indulgence and can hamper performance. In one recent development we have just finished in Birmingham, moving from individual offices in their old premises to an open plan environment in their new building delivered a 30 per cent reduction in e-mails in just two months.
"The growth in popularity and reduction in cost of wireless technology will have a big impact on office spaces in 2004.
"The main reason for risers, raised floors, is to accommodate threecompartment trunking for the key services- telephony, power and IT.
"As telephony and IT become wireless, they don't need the space and power lines can be run through individual desks so those cables too can be removed.
"Hot deskers can be accommodated in different ways at break-out/coffee spaces, not just at desks, if these facilities are wired up, and more and more design in 2004 is going to provide this kind of flexibility.
"This is something we have just done in the new Mitchells & Butler building in the Jewellery Quarter, and it works very well."
Mr Jemmett continues: "Equally, suspended ceilings are no longer in vogue, overhead lights are not vital as we have a variety of ways to light a space now and appreciate the value of diversity to reduce eye strain.
"As a result, more new buildings are likely to be developed without them, leaving space which can be absorbed back into the build or left to add to the perception of openness.
"Importantly, a sense of space also contributes to staff well-being which is now at the top of the list of concerns for occupiers.
"In cities like Birmingham, attracting and retaining good staff is an ongoing challenge, and companies are recognising the important role the office environment plays in recruiting and keeping the right people."
With occupiers very focused on the psychological impact design has on staff, new spaces in 2004 will be working hard to use the best tactics to make staff feel good. Interestingly, control will be top of the agenda, according to Mr Downes.
"Recent research showed a direct link between inability to control the local environment and employee churn levels - the less control, the higher the churn," he says.
"Simple things like being able to open a window near to us to bring in fresh air or cool the environment has a strong positive p s y c h o l o g i c a l impact."
Efficiency follows as a close second on occupiers' lists of needs and is likely to be high on the agenda for 2004. The Government has set clear policies for nationwide energy efficiency and sustainability and, as buildings consume 50 per cent of the UK's power, they are an obvious target for improvement, but there is still the perception that to dedicate your new building to an energy-efficient regime,you have to be prepared to pay a small fortune in additional costs as an investment in new systems and so on.
According to Mr Downes, this isn't always necessary. "There are many things that can be done with a new building to increase energy efficiency, which don't end up adding to the overall cost," he says.
"Common sense like orientating the building north to south instead of east to west, or putting blinds up between layers of double glazing instead of on the inside, dramatically reduce the impact of solar glare and heat gain by up to 80 per cent.
"This then reduces the need for air conditioning, and add to that the mixed-mode system of conditioning the environment using opening windows etc, and you significantly reduce power consumption.
"With the cost of gas rising by 20 per cent in the next two years, savings like this can really bring down the running costs of a building. With recent projects we have finished, they are delivering an annual saving of up to a 30 per cent."
Mr Jemmett says: "It is not just wastage in energy and operational performance that seems to be facing scrutiny, even fixtures and fittings are being pared down to their functional minimum.
"To take an accessible example, you only have to look at something like the type of bathroom fittings used in modern buildings to see design going back to the minimal and functional.
"Instead of vanity units, you have a continuous basin and an automatic water system which takes up less space and takes away the need for individual sinks and taps.
"More and more fit-out design in 2004 is likely to be centred on efficiency and streamlining, which also gives a cutting-edge feel."
The only potential spanner in the works for office evolution can be the institutions. Large traditional pension funds are perceived as quite closed in their thinking, preferring standard buildings with obvious features.
"Ultimately, developers and occupiers have to be realistic about the asset value of a building and the views of their likely investors," says Mr Jemmett.
"A lot of this evolution of design over the next few years is about making the building more efficient on every level and, crucially, more flexible.
"From an investor's perspective, this has got to be good news because reduced running costs will always attract tenants, energy efficiency also brings good PR and flexibility helps to future-proof a building."
Mr Downes concludes by saying: "Major funds and investors can be traditional in their views but I think that many are now more open-minded and are prepared to consider individual buildings on their merits.
"We recently finished the new BT building in Coventry, which encompasses many of the new design ideas we have talked about, and they have secured very good institutional investment from Clerical Medical. "This proves that cutting-edge design and institutional investment can go hand in hand."