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Exploring 20 years of workplace design
21 March 2018
In 1998, 20 years ago this year the power went off in Auckland, we were listening to Bic Runga, celebrating New Zealand’s medal wins at the Commonwealth Games and exercising our right to indulge in some seriously questionable fashion. It was against this backdrop that STACK was founded.
STACK was established by our three founding directors: David Gunn, Rose Whitley and Joseph Walden. Coming from individual career paths spanning many facets of design and construction, they shared a common enjoyment of the specific challenges of workplace interiors and a like-minded approach to design and client service. Early on, they knew that they wanted a studio where they could enjoy themselves – a place where they’d work hard but value fun and family too.
Together they brought complementary skills, David in construction business and management, Rose as design lead, and Joseph in Quantity Surveying and Project Management, to form STACK.
Here we look back at workplace design from 1998 onwards – the trends the STACK team have seen come and go, and the different design influences – plus the clients we’ve repeatedly worked with over the years and the great results we’ve delivered for them.
Workplace design 20 years ago
20 years ago, businesses were looking for the same thing they’re looking for today: a better space for their team. A space that’s productive, practical and well-designed, that enhances their culture and reflects their brand.
But that’s where the similarities end. The types of spaces were a bit different with the extent of workplace options limited to basically offices or open plan. Things were a little more conservative:
- Businesses typically had a receptionist out front
- Office size linked to a hierarchical working model was more prevalent
- Meeting spaces were more likely to have four walls and a door rather than the more open, collaborative spaces we design today.
Technology, and its development, played a part in the workplaces of the 90s and early 2000s. Smart phones were emerging technology, and the use of desk-based computers rather than laptops meant that people were more desk-bound than they are these days. People often did a lot of paper filing, rather than electronic filing, meaning we had great relationships with structural engineers to ensure huge and heavy filing bays could be supported in high-rise buildings!
Design challenges and buzzwords
The late ‘90s were an interesting time for workplace design as new types of office spaces were evolving. Call centres were a new phenomenon and came with a raft of new challenges for the design industry. Because they sometimes operated 24/7, people shared desks, chairs and technology resulting in ‘hot desking’ becoming the new buzzword. The term wasn’t limited to call centres; it was also used across all types of business where people could be asked to share a desk.
Another buzzword was ‘Spatial Efficiency’. Giving up offices and moving to open plan, hotelling / hot desking was considered the silver bullet to save on corporate real estate costs, as it reduced the amount of space required by staff. For example, a traditional legal practice may have been operating at a ratio of 1 person per 20-25m2. A typical office environment may have had a ratio of 1 person per 15-20m2. The aim of this new game was to get that number down!
This game changed the face of workplace design. Workstations became smaller, offices were canned (without consideration of the lost productivity) and the holy grail of less than 10m2 per person could be reached, at a pinch. Yet staff were rarely provided with alternative places for work, such as the quiet rooms, or collaboration and break-out spaces that we see today. We always tried to advocate for these sorts of spaces for staff where we could and clients back then, like AMP Banking, worked hard to provide their teams with great facilities.
As business became more technology-based, server rooms grew ever larger. This brought fire-rated walls, gas fire suppression systems, raised floors, security systems and other design challenges.
AMP Banking 1998
The rise of technology
With the explosion of personal computers, workstation ergonomics were very high on the designer’s priority list. Furniture suppliers were working hard to innovate new systems that would keep up with the fast pace of change, from height-adjustable desks to ergonomic chairs. Workstation trends came and went, including ‘L’ shaped, 120° shaped, kidney-bean shaped, and many others.
If you think about workstations of the late 90s, you’ll probably picture the dominance of screening systems. Although they were there to provide mythical ‘privacy’ and acoustic division between people, they also carried the great bundles of data and power cables invisibly to the workstations. We may joke about ‘Dilbert cubicles’ today but back in the late 90s, they were real!
Changing workplace design trends from 1998 to 2018
20 years ago, the explosion of the ‘dot com’ and Silicon Valley industry spawned a host of gimmicky design. Professionals were suddenly expected to meet in adapted ski lift gondolas, slide between floors or relax in a children’s ball pit. Thankfully, those days are ending. While fun still exists in ideas, designing for professional adults who are working is more customary.
We’ve also seen the rise of ‘agile’ office spaces. Ironically, they’re being sold as being more space efficient, but we see that they still use about the same holy grail ratio of 10m2 per person that businesses were chasing 20 years ago!
As clients become more focused on creating a sense of openness and collaboration, less investment is required in building offices and rooms these days. Instead, there’s more investment in furniture or joinery – concentration pods, collaboration bars and lecture podiums, for example.
We’ve seen huge changes in how people work, and the nature of the spaces they require to be brilliant at work. Workplaces today are a lot more varied. Most people have been exposed to workplaces that allow flexibility of choice as to where to work from. The driving force behind this has obviously been technology and the rise of smart phones, laptops and wi-fi that allow work to be conducted anywhere; not just the workplace – café’s, rooftops, terraces and balconies.
The many technical aspects of workplace design still exist but they’ve evolved – there’s more choice and innovation in lighting, and thermal and fresh air control systems, providing more opportunities for cost savings and environmental benefits. The role of sustainable design is almost commonplace now, far more prevalent than it was when STACK started out, and it continues to improve. Sustainable options are readily available and more affordable. Sustainability is now intrinsic to the design value we apply at STACK.
However, as designers, our job remains reasonably constant: to create appropriate spaces that work and look great.
Clients then and now
Like today, our clients 20 years ago were a broad cross-section. We had some amazing opportunities for such a young firm - some of our earliest projects were AMP Banking, HSBC, ABN AMRO and Mighty River Power.
ABN AMRO 1998/1999
These days, we still work for a very diverse range of clients - local and international companies, small and large. Fundamentally, our clients these days want the same thing as they always have: flexible, functional spaces that enhance their culture and reflect their brand and are great places for people and visitors to be.
The foundations of a great project are the same as 20 years ago: strong and open relationships between us and our clients. Reinforcing our founding belief in being approachable, cooperative, innovative and professional.
Clients still want their project delivered on time and budget, no excuses – this remains constant.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve worked repeatedly with some of our clients – whether they’re expanding into new premises, opening a new office, or refreshing the original look. We’ve done multiple fitouts or projects for Allianz, AMP, OCG, Roche, Rayonier, and The Warehouse, as well as the clients below.
Among STACK’s very first clients were HSBC. Over the 20 years since, we’ve done many projects with them. Take a walk into No.1 Queen Street, Auckland and you’ll see the 2.5 floor fitout we’ve refurbished and changed for them several times over the years, including a new concept floor which brought New Zealand in line with HSBC global space planning standards. We’ve also delivered a Wellington office and branches in Auckland’s CBD, Botany Downs, Albany and Takapuna.
Maersk moved to the Vero building in 2001 – that was the first job we did for them. When Maersk purchased P&O, we were commissioned for a much larger project as they moved into 2 floors of the refurbished CPO building in 2006. We completed our third project in 2016 when Maersk moved to Graham Street.
In 2000 we designed Toyota Finance’s head office. 13 years later, we were delighted to be invited to create their new workplace at level 3, 602 Great South Road – this has become one of the projects of the last 20 years that we’re most delighted with.
Feedback from our clients helps us understand why they keep coming back to us. They tell us it’s because we did a great job on the first, or last, project; the experience of working with us was enjoyable and not stressful; and that we delivered on time and on budget, as promised. But most importantly, our design has held up over the years – staff still love to work there.
We’re delighted to have been reappointed to work with lawyers Hudson Gavin Martin on a new project after designing their current offices over 10 years ago. They asked us back because they enjoyed working with us, the fitout looks as good today as it did when it was completed, and that their people really love working there. This means everything to us.
Hudson Gavin Martin
The next 20 years
Looking ahead to the next 20 years (and beyond), we want to keep improving our services and always strive for design excellence. We always say we are only as good as our last project – we want every project to be the best.
We have an amazing Auckland studio, and we’re looking to extend our service reach to other cities across New Zealand.
As co-working spaces become a real option for many businesses, we hope to contribute design brilliance to people creating them.
We hope to speak more of New Zealand uniqueness by creating truly Kiwi workplaces that reflect our unique place in the world.
Our younger directors and team are talented and dedicated. The next 20 years we see a stronger and diversified STACK under their watch.
March 2018 Articles
- Exploring 20 years of workplace design
- Designing space for contact - the unique workplaces that are Contact Centres
- Delivering workplace design beyond Auckland
- Back to all news items
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