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Rapid technological advances are revolutionising the way we work but how do London’s heritage assets remain relevant in the future working environment? The following study explores our working activities and how London’s heritage assets can accommodate them.

“Being tied to your desk is so ten years ago; the modern workplace is a no-clutter zone. So the information technology in the office now needs to be stripped back to free up space and movement.”

“If you create a space that is all about humans and life in general, then you’ve already future-proofed your workplace, no matter how long the build takes.” - Lee Penson, Designer

To understand what the office of the future will look like we must first understand what “work” is in the first instance.

What is work?

  • “An activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result:”
  • “A place or premises in which industrial or manufacturing processes are carried out:”
  • “A task or tasks to be undertaken:”

What is a workplace?

“A place where people work, such as an office or factory.”

What is an office?

“A room, set of rooms, or building used as a place of business for non-manual work:”

But what is an office? The best way to think about it is that it’s wherever the admin gets done.

This effectively means that the modern day office is a range of spaces and environments including trains, buses, cars, the sofa in our homes, the kitchen table, hotel lobbies, cafes, libraries, restaurants, airports, beaches, mountains and forests. Anywhere with an internet connection and a device to access work information.

The workplace traditionally is a place where people would clock in and clock out, a place to be seen by their superiors or an institution. 

For the modern day architect there is the workplace (where there are two computer screens, an in-house library, printing facilities, a desk, a phone and some break out spaces), but there is also a place of work; where daily activities that constitute work take place. This may include a building site, a site office, a train to a meeting, the meeting itself, a function space for networking or a sports field.

With modern day technology and connectivity, a range of places and spaces make up an environment that we work within. To establish a single site as “the place where we work” would therefore be incorrect.

An architect’s work typically manifests itself as a building. Possibly an office in the first place or an art gallery, a home, a music hall, a library or a sports pavilion.

However, where the work is on an existing heritage building these historical assets are not easily changed. Minimal adaptation and careful conservation typically renews the building fabric and detail to create a flexible space for many years to come. The inherent quality of the architecture itself already provides the flexibility of space to support a range of activities, particularly for work, already future-proofing the space for the next generation. 

By re-appropriating the existing building stock we can utilise the already under occupied spaces.

The historic fabric of London is rich and diverse with buildings protected by onerous planning and heritage legislation. In the future these historic assets across London will remain (with periodic refurbishment) whilst the technological world moves forward rapidly around and within them. Traditional craft and techniques will still exist; horse hair will still be used in lime plaster, natural stone will still be “hand worked,” and thatching will still be a valid trade. 

The inherent qualities of our heritage assets lend themselves to being flexible and inspiring work spaces whether physically or virtually. Our daily work activities can therefore be accommodated in a range of spaces and locations across a city or country.

For example;
The Prince of Wales Yard lies within the grounds of Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea. Formerly a laundry the buildings have been refurbished into new offices for administration, workshops and welfare facilities. Not the original intended use but the buildings and interiors are easily adaptable for the many work activities that the modern day worker requires. 

95 Piccadilly (the Old In and Out Club) currently sited off Green Park is a Grade 1 listed building. Currently uninhabitable, but imagine during the process of design to refurbish this building the internal spaces are used as a virtual environment to develop the design, to explore ideas and discuss decisions. Augmented reality will allow clients, designers and contractors to experience the virtual qualities remotely and enhance this activity. This is therefore not currently a physical workspace but a virtual workspace.

The Saatchi Gallery is an art gallery by day and a networking space at night. Networking and developing relationships is a key activity of the working day and the flexible qualities of this building lend itself to facilitating these activities.

By re-thinking what our work activities are and understanding what kind of space allows the activity to function we can start to see the historic building environment more as series individual workspaces rather than isolated buildings with a singular function.

With our ever increasing need to reduce our environmental footprint we must seek new ways to maximise the potential to re-use our heritage assets. Maintaining flexibility of occupation as well as “light-touch” physical refurbishment techniques are key to meeting these needs.

People’s habits change but the buildings remain the same…

(Image courtesy of BAR Productions for London at MIPIM)