Today I visited the offices of Melbourne Hosting in Manchester.  Essentially they offer one of the ‘coolest’ offices out there and I recommend you look on their website for the full story.

What got me interested was that this is such a great example of user-led design. Essentially the guys at Melbourne decided how and in what environment they wanted to work, and set about making it happen. What you see is their vision, not something dreamed up by an interior designer.

The result is surprisingly practical. The reception area has the sort of sofas you never want to get out of but also, they are just supportive enough that you could sit there comfortably with your laptop on your knee. Its separated by a glass wall from the main office so you are in peace and quiet without feeling truly isolated. The break area has grass and picnic benches and then, if you can decipher the geek joke on the ‘front door’ you are into the main office.

Melbourne Hosting, new office.

Having had the joke explained to me….into the office. This has traditional workstations at the perimeter but in the middle are a few more areas where you can head for a change of scene. The low walls around these areas are above seated head height so although you are in quite a public area, you have a sense of some privacy and of course the screening helps to prevent conversations in these areas from bothering those in other parts of the office. You can choose between beanbags and leather sofas according to your mood!

Need some actual privacy? The glass-walled ‘retro room’ and adjacent wardrobe provide cellular space. The latter is the only area which is visually truly separated from the rest of the office, entered through what appear to be cupboard doors. It’s like stepping into Narnia!

I have long been interested in making spaces which meet the users’ needs and desires, not just fulfilling numbers in a design spec. I’ve been in so many traditional offices and working environments and it has always surprised me that we don’t naturally provide a variety of environments for our employees to choose from. For me, though, this can be aural as well as visual – on some days the ‘buzz’ of the office keeps us motivated, sometimes you need to focus, sometimes you wish you were at home so listening to music in comfort might help. Privacy needs vary as well – a small soundproof booth for those confidential calls, quiet rooms to meet or concentrate in, more social and relaxed areas to promote discussion and creativity.

Breaks are so important too but how many of us have a cramped Formica kitchen with a rickety chair? A nice break area doesn’t encourage loafing, it makes people take a sensible break and come back refreshed. Above all a workplace which meets our psychological needs as well as our practical ones has to be better for us – and if we feel more energised and enthusiastic that has to pay back to employers.

narnia

Of course, I’m an acoustic geek and it was interesting to hear Melbourne’s take on their office. Acoustics wasn’t a consideration at the forefront of their minds and so the results are mixed. In fact some of the design features provide useful screening and the physical distance between the two main banks of desks is valuable too. Plush carpet in the meeting rooms and reception as well as plenty of soft furnishing provides absorption and some of their ‘clutter’ (everything from Lego to suitcases) provides diffusion.

What I really noticed was that the building services were very noisy – and unpleasantly tonal. It seemed like such a shame in this beautiful office that a little more acoustic input might have averted this issue, and it seems to happen so often!

We also talked about some of the other ‘typical’ fit out failings affecting office acoustics,  including privacy between spaces being compromised by poor detailing, services penetrations and flanking above the ceiling. And finally the lightweight roof, not helped at all by the egg crate ceiling, was reported to be so noisy in heavy rain that it’s difficult to talk.

What frustrates me as an acoustic consultant is that all of these things are relatively easy and cheap to sort out in design – and so much harder to remedy when the space is up and running.  The relative cost saving of not employing an acoustic consultant, or choosing to value engineer out their recommendations, seems less valuable when you understand the issues it could lead to.

Melbourne are considering expanding into the floor below and given their ‘lessons learnt’ on this project I expect the new fit out will be even more spectacular as well as acoustically excellent. I have of course volunteered to help – and if when it opens you hear there’s a helter skelter to get you downstairs? That was my idea!

Melbourne Hosting, new office.

Many thanks to Steven Allen for the tour – and for making my brain melt in the data centre. Photos are reproduced from Melbourne’s website with permission.