Kuba Granicki, Alessio Lacovig and Mike Rassmann, the three partners behind Johannesburg-based Architects Of Justice, sat down to have a discussion on the workplaces of the future, determining a client’s needs, and adding value in office design.

How do you find out what a client is looking for when they approach you to design an office space?

Kuba Granicki: We try to understand their business, but firstly need to find out if the client themselves understands their own business as it stands now, and in the long term. When someone says to us, “My sales team has eight people,” that’s great, but will your sales team always have eight people?

Mike Rassmann: We ask them how they envision their business to look like in five years, and in ten years’ time.

Alessio Lacovig: How do your salespeople work? Do they come into the office every day or are they mainly out on the road? What are their needs when they get back to the office?

Rassmann: All these things play a part, not only in understanding the staff contingent, but in understanding the departments and how they interact. What their corporate culture is.

Granicki: We try to discover what has been failing in their current office space that we’re now being called in to address. That’s the primary need, but once we are on the job, we start to identify secondary needs that the building can tackle.

In your experience, do clients tend to know what they want or do you need to work with them to figure it out?

Rassmann: I think where we add the value is that the clients know how their businesses run, but we figure out how they will work best within a spatial framework.

Granicki: A client has hired us as there are obviously aspects of their business which aren’t working. There are specifics of the project which have to be included; the non-negotiables, then there’s the stuff that a client would like to try and incorporate into the project, and finally there are the things that they dream about, but which they don’t think are achievable; we ask our clients to list all of these. We then try and include all of list one, most of list two and as much of list three as we can into a project. That’s our stance on all architecture, not just commercial projects.

A lot of clients just know that they are not happy and they need a change. From there you have to dig it all up – is it growth, do you just need a new look, or are you changing your business structure?

We had a client who worked with us before and he had an idea that his space needed to be changed. Mike ran with the spatial planning and we just had to meet his expectations. He was a relatively easy client. Recently we had a client whose corporate image was outdated and he told us to just ‘go for it’. That is great as you get to do whatever you want, but you know that you need to smash their expectations. So essentially that project is more difficult as you set the expectations on yourself as well – only we know when it’s good enough. But if we get hired to do a particular job, that’s where we look at how we can add value.

Lacovig:  Some client’s don’t actually want anything other than what they have in their heads. And you need to try and convince them otherwise. We are taught at university that we know better than the client – we have the solutions – and sometimes listening instead of just giving the solution is better because then you get to the solution much quicker and work together. It’s a win-win situation for all.

What challenges do you find in understanding the needs of the users of a workplace?

Granicki: In the modern office you are no longer as tied to the office as you were in the past. There are systems that can give you information and let you do your work from anywhere in the world.

There are international companies with offices all over the world and they are delivering a service 24 hours a day, and whichever branch is awake at that time is doing the work. Those sort of global accelerations are the things that are affecting the workplace, but in my opinion, the workplace is the slowest to adapt to them, and once it does, it’s already evolving again.

What do you think will be a workspace design must-have in the near future?

Rassmann: I think there might be places where you go back to connect to physicality. Look at the library; you don’t have to go there to get a book these days, but people go there to study because it’s quiet, and maybe the office space is going to be something like that. Yes, you can work at home but maybe home can’t give you the fancy coffee machine and all those things you need. It’s not about your desk anymore, it’s more about the environment that you are in – maybe that’s the next big thing.

Lacovig: And the accidental exchange of ideas when you are talking to someone randomly while making coffee or getting some water. You start chatting about things and before you know it, your work ideas crossover and you get a hybrid of ideas which maybe solves a problem.

Rassmann: People are starting to crave that human connection again.

Does South Africa have different office and workspace needs to other countries?

Rassmann: Everywhere has different cultural quirks. Asian companies, especially for the skilled workers, require a good stretching before work starts to prevent cramps and pain during work. As a local example, the co-working spaces in Cape Town have taken off in a big way, but in Johannesburg they haven’t. In Cape Town, it’s at the point where the guys who own the co-working space check to see if they like your business before letting you in there. Johannesburg, on the other hand, is still empty enough that if you can pay, you can stay. So there are very different work cultures going on across South Africa.

In terms of materials and furniture, what has changed?

Lacovig: Some of the technology around building desks has changed, for example retractable desks where you can sit or stand, which all comes from a better understanding of ergonomics and what is healthy for the body. At some point there was even a craze of using yoga balls as chairs.

Rassmann: Some of the desk designs I have seen lately have been geared around making it look more like an individual office while still being in an open-plan environment. You are also starting to get a lot of different kinds of meeting spaces – not just the boardroom table – the idea of having a meeting in a coffee shop, but in your own building.

Lacovig: The modular aspect of furniture design is not something new – modulation is something that all designers, whether it’s industrial or architects, have pursued as the ultimate solution, but this solution doesn’t really exist yet.

Rassmann: Offices haven’t quite got to that multi-purpose space yet, such as a classroom, where desks can be arranged into a cluster for group work, or individually for exams. Offices aren’t there yet, the cables have kept us from getting to that point.

Granicki: Some people are happier to be in their own space, and work better that way.

Rassmann: People are becoming more about themselves, less about community, all me, me, me. It’s been happening for a while but offices haven’t adapted. You set out a workspace with 10 desks that are all identical and say, “go sit”. That’s what Google has got right; you can go climb into a pod with your laptop away from everyone else.

Lacovig: It’s about creating a multitude of different spaces where people can choose which environment suits them best.

Rassmann: But not everyone is always going to have bucket loads of space – you are going to need to have an adaptive space before long.

Lacovig: Plus the human element is so unpredictable. You could have a higher percentage of introverts to extroverts and all of a sudden your office space doesn’t cater for them. That’s why designing commercial office space is very different to residential work because you are dealing with multiple elements – you are making assumptions about the user, but with residential projects you have more specifics which you can get directly from the client.

Granicki: An architect in the 1970s designed cubicles; meeting cubicles, coffee cubicles, chill out cubicles along with the workstation cubicles. A developer came along and removed all the fun cubicles, the hanging out cubicle removed, the reading cubicle removed, only the work cubicle remained. I mention this now, because 50 years later, with this open plan, more transparent response which is common, you are actually looking at what the office cubicle typology could have brought to the office if the original idea had been implemented. Instead they only implemented the work cubicles, now it seems, heading to 2020, people are awakening to the fact that it would be nice to have a place to eat with co-workers, shared spaces during projects and chill-out spaces. Cubicles were actually an architectural invention.

The evolution of the workspace

How do you see office spaces having changed over the years?

Rassmann: From our experience, the office space has changed dramatically, and it is continuing to evolve. Just as an example, with the trend of people working from home, spaces like the study are disappearing. Your office is becoming the dining room table, your bed or a coffee shop – your office is a bag and a laptop and you can literally fold it open and fold it shut. Yet we are seeing this played out in offices spaces as well. We are currently proposing offices for a medical company and they want us to include a number of hot desks; they don’t want designated spaces for people because the staff will come and go as they please. Due to the nature of work of staff in many businesses today, they do not have to sit at the same place all the time, so they don’t even need their own stuff there. Just somewhere to sit, plug-in, and work. Obviously some people still like to have pictures of their kids floating around, but for a lot of people, that’s not the way they work anymore.

Granicki: Twenty years ago you had a pool of secretaries and you had office space for them and you would send stuff via fax, but now you have industry disruptors throughout. Something was sold one way before, but somebody is going to come along and remove the need for that sales office, because it’s all being done digitally now, so the entire office structure and system that used to work, has disappeared, and that’s one reason why commercial space is changing so much. Companies need to be fluid to be able to move up and down with the market, and so does the office space.

In the past, the sales department was typically open plan, sitting at a desk with a landline and a computer – it was all about pushing emails and talking to people on the phone. But technology has interrupted the traditional commercial space. There are issues with open plan offices; you have different departments who hear things that they don’t need to hear; you have open plan offices where CEO’s and managers have to have phone booths because occasionally they need to make sensitive phone calls which other staff should not overhear.

So not all the change is for the better, as almost overnight an entire department can become irrelevant. A process which used to take eight staff members can now be done by one and I think that’s the biggest disruptor in commercial space.

So workspaces have changed due to technology, has the design of them followed suit?

Rassmann: I think in some ways.

Granicki: But not quick enough maybe.

Lacovig: At the end of the day, people still need a space to work in. Ergonomically speaking, a person is a person; you need somewhere to sit, somewhere to stand, somewhere to put your things, so those smaller elements of an office space don’t change. The change is how that office space is defined. Is it an amalgamation of lots of little desks or is it a flexible environment to allow you to have a meeting here, a conference call there, a boardroom table in that space? The furniture is a big part of that as well.

Granicki: We recently saw an example of a small office where a table came down from chains so that the staff can eat their lunch, and then it goes back up into the ceiling and it’s a light fitting on the other side.

If you look at what Google has done compared to the rest of the corporate world, they have changed the game. They feed you, they take care of your washing, they have people to take care of your every need. When you are at Google they get the best out of you because they make you comfortable in your work environment. I think that a lot of other companies want to claim that they are like Google, but they haven’t restructured their entire company to work that way. A third of the staff that come to us these days ask us if they can work flexitime or remotely.

Do you find that South African companies are trying to get closer to Google’s level?

Rassmann: I think that a lot of them are trying. Especially the big corporates who try get you to remain in your office space for as long as possible by offering you gyms and somewhere to eat at the office.

Granicki: If you have a big company, you have to take care of your staff.

Lacovig: It’s a strategy. What is going to benefit the staff? Because at the end of the day, if they are working well and working hard, it’s going to benefit the company. If you look at something like the new Discovery Place in Sandton, you go into that building and it has different canteens on ground level which are accessible for the public so that you can meet people there who are not from the building. They have retail in the building, so as an employee of Discovery, it’s convenient for you not to leave your office environment. Companies like Discovery can do this, but smaller entities can’t because they don’t have the resources.

So what can the smaller businesses do at their own scale?

Rassmann: They can located themselves close to these amenities, or share their space with other smaller entities. What we have been seeing a lot lately are co-working spaces. So if you are a smaller company of four or five people, one of those becomes very viable for you. You get all your meeting rooms, all your desks – often as part of a fully furnished packages – a canteen, maybe a barista making coffee for you and your clients, and you are sharing it with a bunch of other small companies who you have an opportunity to network with. I think these are the next big thing, but what we think is missing is that once you get slightly bigger than that, to say 10 people, that segment of the market is being left out of the entire equation. It’s too expensive to be in the co-working space and too expensive to have your own office space which offers the same amenities to your staff.

Granicki: Google have set a precedent for staff members to happy. People look around at how cool other work environment are and measure theirs against them. Many companies have identified in the last five years that their brand and look have stagnated, and that the old office no longer meets the requirements of the new staff. Even a company that set up ten years ago is different now – the laptops, the phones, scanners – there’s so much tech that has changed commerce and industry in the last decade, and architecture for the spaces in which they operate hasn’t. The millennial workforce expects more.

Lacovig:  The millennial ‘thing’ is huge – it’s something which is starting to affect companies and I think the effects of this will only be seen in the next decade.

Granicki: You see offices these days with slides to get you downstairs!

Yet how much of it is gimmicky and doesn’t really add value?

Granicki: When would you ever get tired of going down a slide? (Laughs)

Rassmann: There are gimmicks we have seen which backfire in buildings. Morphosis did a building in San Francisco and they thought it would be great to have the elevator only stop at every second floor to encourage people to use the stairs – you’d almost always have to walk a flight of stairs. All of a sudden the service lift started to become oversubscribed because that went to every floor and nobody wanted to walk the extra flight of stairs!

Lacovig: Or your productivity drops because everybody just wants to go down the slide! There are things you just cannot predict, but that’s part of design. Sometimes you want to throw some gimmicky things in there – you want to have an edge and you want to attract the right kind of people to your office. I think the advertising agencies get it right; they call it ‘the nest’. They want you to be comfortable at work and want you to be happy working late into the night – why should you go home, it’s more comfortable there?

Granicki: I have seen local law firms which have pods fitted with gel packs, so you go in and the gel packs cover you to make sure that your suit doesn’t get creased while you have a 10 minute nap. “Don’t go home because you are tired, go have a power nap in the pod then come back and work.” That particular tech was adopted from airports for the business class travellers.

These days in open plan offices you’ll see meeting pods which create acoustic separations. Open plan is cool, but people are now a lot more aware about acoustics and partitions. In our own offices, on the directive of transparency, we have removed the many offices and created zones, almost like you’d see in open plan offices. Glass partitions have been used which help to deal with the acoustics, theft and lighting, yet the transparency remains and different departments each have their own place. Transparency is key, but that doesn’t mean that open plan will work for every office environment. In terms of the evolution of the office, it went from everybody having their own office, to cubicles, then open plan, and now I think you are going to see a bit of ‘this and that’, a mix of all of the above. You need separation for certain staff and departments.

Lacovig: A lot of it is driven by cost and economy, because you go from everybody getting their own office, which is obviously more demanding in terms of space, to the cubicle scenario where you are trying to cram more people into your building, but with everyone in the mind-set of having their own space. It then moves away from that and the partitions are removed and you jam more people in there, but then you start to realise that open plan doesn’t work so well because you have these acoustic problems, staff have no privacy and they don’t feel like they have their own space anymore. So office environments need to be flexible to accommodate a number of scenarios.

Adding value to a client’s workspace

What is changing in current workplaces?

Rassmann: I think in particular in South Africa, there is a lot of awareness around costs with electricity getting more expensive, along with the environment which has been pretty much ignored up until now. Ten or twenty years ago it was acceptable to let the lights burn all day in the office, but now people want natural light. They also don’t necessarily want to be in an air conditioned space because they don’t want to get sick from the guy sitting next to them, so workers want more quality out of their workspace and offices need to provide that.

How are you currently tackling office design?

Rassmann: One of our recent projects, Rubela Park, was geared around tailoring the building to appear in a certain way. It was a very engineering-based look, so we had industrial, exposed services, but we designed some flexibility into it so that if someone wants to change it in the future, they can still put in a drop-in ceilings and make it look like a regular office space internally without having to gut the place. We took the approach to add that flexibility from the start, as the lifetime of a building easily exceeds tenants and trends. For this project, another big influence was natural lighting in the spaces so that you don’t have offices full of lights burning electricity all day.

Is adding flexibility into a new office build a common thing?

Rassmann: Last year we did a tenant fit-out in an existing building designed by somebody else and it was quite difficult to divide the space because of the way the original architects had designed the windows on the façade. For the office buildings we are working on at the moment, Alessio has gone to a lot of effort to try and get an optimal window arrangement on the façade so that when you start chopping up the offices you don’t have to have drywall partitions going halfway through the window. They can rather end up in a more logical position.

Lacovig: Which I will add is actually very difficult to do! The point is that we are conscious about it and we are thinking about it and that’s the value-add that you put into a building. It’s not just about how much light do we need and what’s the budget, it’s what is the best division, what height? It’s finding that balance between all those elements.

How would you generally add value to a client’s workspace to ensure that it remains flexible for a number of years?

Rassmann: On an office project on which we are currently working, the client has asked for full height drywall partitioning with glass at the top; in terms of future flexibility, we are being very mindful of the need for power supply and cabling, and are working this into the project from the start. In terms of finishing, we have selected certain spaces in the office which need to have a bit more of a ‘wow’ factor, such as the reception and meetings rooms, and have spruced these areas up a little more. Although these areas are designed specifically to impress visitors, the staff lounge and staff kitchen area have also received more money in the budget to ensure that the staff areas are not bland.

For both flexibility and longevity, the choice of materials is also of great importance. Areas of high and low traffic need to be identified and specified for correctly.

Do you believe that this is done enough in the architecture of today?

Rassmann: I would hope that other architects have these considerations as well. With many buildings today, a developer designs them with an architect, and then they are handed over to a tenant who does their own interiors. What we are trying to do, is offer a turnkey solution, so that when we are designing the façade, we are also cognisant of the interiors at the same time. Office buildings are not a one-size-fits-all scenario, and we like to be involved in both the architecture and the interiors to ensure an optimally performing workspace.

How do you balance following the current trends in design with incorporating a tenant’s future needs?

Rassmann: The obvious question to ask is, what is the expected growth of the company, along with the expected lease period? From there we can discern the client’s needs and desires, and then design the spaces according to the information we have received. Trends come and go, as do tenants, so architects need to ensure that a workspace is flexible enough to evolve, not only in terms of trends, but also as the company inhabiting the building changes.

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When Bongani Rainmaker Logistics had outgrown its premises, the company consulted with Architects Of Justice.