The missing link

Monday 26 Sep 2011

New research shows that our buildings are not reaching their full potential but the Danish are already one step ahead

Effectiveness is the buzzword of the moment in the architecture industry, with each new design and past case study scrutinised for the impact its basic elements will have on existing and future users. Architects are the first to be slammed when a building falls short, but new evidence suggests that the fault may in fact lie with the users’ approach to internal space as the square meters are not being used to their full potential.

Danish architectural consultants SIGNAL have amassed substantial experience in this field, researching the way in which the users of a completed facility react to their given environment and how this can be altered to maximise the building’s potential. Associate Partner at SIGNAL and practicing architect, Esben Neander Kristensen, clarifies: “The common perception of work practices in a given organisation are often skewed toward the single-user, ‘private’ work desk. Most of our observations and surveys indicate that this setting accounts for 90% of the workspace, but is only used 30-40% of the time.”

Neander Kristensen continues: “There is vast potential in freeing up these resources (e.g. area, furniture) and applying them to creating spaces that are more suitable for the work processes, strategy and culture of modern organisations (i.e. more communal, shared facilities, project-focused spaces, temporary and flexible spaces).” In transforming these vast areas of underutilised space in education and commercial properties into flexible working environments, SIGNAL are able to boost efficiency of space, motivation, flexibility, user satisfaction, and ultimately building effectiveness.

Copenhagen, the industrial and creative hub of Denmark, is already a step ahead of its industry peers. While their grades may not be the highest in Europe, the Danes have approached educational facility design without the assumed parameters, enabling creative thinking and limitless possibilities.

A handful of schools in the capital operate under a barefoot programme which promises to teach children to respect their working environments from a young age, relax students’ minds and bring all users of the school to the same level (teachers also respect the no-shoes rule). Many educational institutions have implemented flexible workspaces, with classrooms formed either by moveable walls (3XN’s Orestad College), projecting into vast atriums (Henning Larsen Architects’ IT College) or operating in green spaces (KHR Architects’ Ørestad School). Behaviour is exceptional, concentration levels high, noise minimal and the retained standard of the buildings impeccable with very little - if any - graffiti.

The key to Copenhagen’s well-documented success may lie in the city’s willingness to accept change and admit fault, and Arkitema Architects’ Hellerup School is a prime example. Completed nine years ago the facility appears simplistic from the exterior - clean, simple, Scandinavian lines with metal facade panels interspersed with rows of windows. Inside however is where the unbounded creativity of Arkitema Architects becomes apparent, as there are no physical classrooms but rings of communal workspace fashioned around a central atrium furnished with a multi-use staircase.

Hellerup School has altered considerably within its nine years of operation. Charlotte Schlichtkrull has taught at the school since its inception and has seen the internal layout and functional usage alter over time. She exemplifies: “One of the children’s favourite spots was [a large curvature in the wall beneath the main staircase] and we thought it would be one of the greatest places for reading books so when the school opened we had a lot of pillows here, but the kids told us otherwise. This was the greatest place to run! Kids are the greatest testers to show what does and doesn’t work.”

This process of listening to the viewpoints of 6 and 7 year old children and making an active change in the physical learning environment is unorthodox in many cultures (and was a source of great surprise to some of my fellow international journalists!) and yet at the Hellerup School the approach has been a great success. Schlichtkrull continues: “It would not be possible to have a traditional kind of teaching in this setting, so I think that is one of the greatest things at the school: that the surroundings make us teach in the way that we think is right.”

That architectural and interior design has a serious impact on the final user’s approach to work (be that as a teacher, office worker, doctor, etc.) is no longer news, but how many people are taking advantage of this opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes? Gitte Andersen, practicing architect and CEO of SIGNAL, enforces: “Space is never neutral. It will always provide or hinder activities between people, and when accepting that you can use it to create development, to create value for customers, and to create new thinking.”

The firm has only just begun to receive recognition for its groundbreaking research, last year winning a prize for its innovative business approach. At the heart of this award win was SIGNAL’s Mental Rebuilding Concept. Andersen details: “We were keen to look into how far you can develop an organisation without doing any kind of rebuild or moving walls in the physical surroundings but only by challenging habits or the way people are relating to each other. And what we can see is that we are actually able to optimise existing building physics with up to 35% extra resources in the existing parameters just by challenging habits and challenging people and the way they are working together or learning together.”

A key factor in Danish architects’ success is their perception of space, as Andersen summarises: “Space is a tool, like human resources or economics.” Rather than simply fitting the brief set by demanding clients, these architects are challenging preconceptions of what space is and maximising the usage of each square meter, in turn maximising the economic efficiency of a given volume. It is only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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