LEAF London 2007: Sustainable Working Environments
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LEAF London 2007: Sustainable Working Environments

05 Feb 2007

The first panel discussion of LEAF London's seminar programme was a colourful debate on today's office spaces. Steven Smith, Director of Urban Design at design consultancy DEGW, and Paul Morrell, Partner at Davis Langdon, discussed how a sustainable agenda is reconciled with the need to develop new working environments.

LEAF London 2007: Sustainable Working Environments

Opening the debate, Steven Smith said: “We are going to see different patterns of urbanity as a result of sustainability.” He explained how the collapse of old economies has led to new ways of living mixing up residential and office space.

Smith firmly believes that work drives change. However he fells that it is ignore in the design and building process. “Work is often left out,” said Smith. “Even now discussions on new developments, such as The Thames Gateway, leave out the issue of work.” Smith believes this is an irresponsible exclusion. “Work drives who we are and is the most meaningful way we interact today.”

The revolution in how, and where, we define office space has largely been driven by the internet. “The internet changes everything, as now you have virtual places and actual places,” said Smith. The result is that better connectivity has driven down the need for physical space. “Now the question is how we shift from physical space to virtual reality,” said Smith, adding that we can reduce physical space yet still drive the economy.


For architects an interesting situation has occurred. As a result of the decline in need for big spaces, the demand for better face-to-face meeting spaces has increased. High-quality, well-designed, interactive spaces are setting the standard for the future citing DEGW’s work on the Roath Basin project – a ‘new location for the new economy’.

At present, space is used badly and inefficiently. In many places, such as schools and large public buildings, there is an absurd amount of heated space that is not used.

“We are going to see different patterns of urbanity as a result of sustainability.”

Space accommodation for workers is driven by key factors of whether workers are low or high mobility or dislocated. Smith called for a low-mobility, high-activity economy saying that such a model would reduce negative environmental impact. At present we live in an inefficient late industrial environment.

Smith also said that important decisions needed to be made about the relationship between density and infrastructure. In the current circumstance we are aiming towards a tipping point. As a city adds density, it needs more and more infrastructure. Smith suggested that we look to Asia for inspiration. Hong Kong is a hyper-dense city area yet uses one-fifth less infrastructure than London.

As the world is choosing to live in cities – in the next 25 years, more than 80% of the world will live in one – designers should be looking to create a low-carbon, hyper-dense environment. However, according to Smith, there is a question of priorities.

“Our first goal needs to be sorting out the issue of space first before dealing with realising a zero-carbon economy.” Smith concludes that a sustainable future needs to be built on efficient foundations of space. “When this is addressed then we can look forward to a lively, humane future,” he said.


Paul Morrell opened up a different avenue by examining sustainable urban design. He began his talk with a warning. “Everyone has issues of work,” he says. “It has been the fancy of every age to think it lives in a period of change.”

Morrell identified several factors that are driving change in the work place today: Deregulation, regulation, consumerism, new technologies, globalisation, outsourcing and competition.

Change is not as powerful as we think, according to Morrell. “We are constrained by our own imagination,” said Morrell. “We still want to keep our ideas of tenure and urban design.” Morrell then looked at how office spaces have not changed so much as
people popularly imagine citing Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark 1904 Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York as still recognisable today.

Morrell celebrated offices as being a good way of gathering people together. “What has changed is technology,” he said. “Nobody is more than a second away from someone else.” However Morrell said more work needed to be done to produce better office
spaces that motivate people and increase productivity.

As far as sustainability is concerned, you cannot make decisions about office design without taking into account travel. Morrell said that many business parks show off their green credentials without taking into account the damage caused by travel. “There is no point having a green building in a car park,” said Morrell bluntly.

“The internet changes everything, as now you have virtual places and actual places.”

Travel needs to be taken out of the equation as much as possible. “Keeping people together in economic clusters is a good thing from a sustainable point of view,” said Morrell. However Morrell stressed that you need to get the equation right. “There is no point in having horrible buildings where people are burning energy and not being productive,” he said. Morrell went to celebrate the new informality of buildings and the phasing out of hierarchical offices.

Morrell brought his talk to an end by saying that architects must create work settings that suit the task. “If the environment is not right then the service will not be right,” he said but pointed out that it is primarily a question of knowledge and ended with a plea. “We know little about what makes people effective,” said Morrell. “This is what underpins sustainability.”

LEAF London ran from 30 January – 1 February. The event brought together top architects and suppliers from across the globe looking to strengthen their knowledge of the UK market. Running alongside prearranged one-to-one meetings and network opportunities was a seminar programme that concentrated almost exclusively on the sustainability issue.