A new London office for by tp bennett was designed with a uniquely caring attention to detail for Open Society Foundations’ employees
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Images by Hufton+Crow
Open Society Foundations
32,000 sq ft
As the pages of any design magazine will show, offices are increasingly designed around human-centric concepts: they try to boost employee well-being (and performance) through biophilic, ‘honest’ or natural elements; they consider neurodiversity and inclusivity, and look to comfort, inspire or engage staff emotionally – even for companies who may not otherwise seem vested in such values.
But in creating a new workspace for Open Society Foundations (OSF), founded by George Soros as ‘the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance and human rights’, tp bennett had the challenge of reflecting OSF’s strong values in its new London office.
The reception area of the office, located in a former printing factory
Even the design process took on these values. At the beginning of the project, the designers recount Barry Varcoe, OSF’s global director of real estate and facilities, saying, ‘It’s an open floor, you can say what you want.’ This resonated throughout, says Ros Poerwantoro, associate director for tp bennett, ‘We felt like there was no real hierarchy in the sense of the client and designer, and the consultants; we all came together and were able to be ourselves.’
The office has been bequeathed lush communal areas, such as a canteen and dining area, in tandem with the office
The client had wanted to move away from the corporate space OSF had been using in Millbank Tower, with the new office becoming a ‘home from home’, welcoming not just for OSF employees but also for the wider community of grantees who are able to use the space, from the ‘highest delegates’ to ‘graduate students working with a charity’, Poerwantoro explains.
It was immediately obvious that the spiritless environment of the old office wasn’t right for OSF’s employees, who had nonetheless tried to personalise the space where possible. Mark Davies, principal director at tp bennett, describes how the OSF staff had ‘festooned [the office] with artefacts’, including tapestries, pottery, ceramics, books and photos from their time working with grantees in different countries. Poerwantoro suggested this comes with the territory of working at OSF. ‘It’s not just a 9–5 job, it’s something that you bring your whole self to. You’re really passionate about human rights and seeking to promote democratic governance.’
tp bennett allowed for spaces of sleep and personal privacy, meditative reflection and sociability
In a former printing factory in Farringdon, the new office is spread across two floors and divided between more communal and more private areas: the entrance level functions as the former, with co-working areas and coffee facilities, as well as catering for larger events in The Forum, with a tiered social stair that allows for the whole office to congregate. The lower level provides conditions for focused, individual work with ‘touchdown nooks’ of unassigned rooms and ‘home office’ pods. A variety of meeting rooms allow for different types of activity, as well as suiting different personalities and neurodiverse staff: a deep dark green colour used in many of the meeting pods aids concentration for research, brightly coloured rooms are designed to encourage collaboration, while others are a ‘neutral’ design for those who might find colours overstimulating.
Due to the nature of their work, OSF employees might often receive news that a friend or colleague has been unfairly incarcerated, killed or injured. The design, therefore, paid careful attention to creating retreat spaces for difficult times – instead of leaving the employees to resort to the toilets. tp bennett created a well-being suite comprising a parenting room, no-tech sanctuary space, sleep pods, flexible contemplation rooms for private or group prayer, meditation and restful activities such as yoga.
tp bennett allowed for spaces of sleep and personal privacy, meditative reflection and sociability – key for an organisation that frequently deals with loss
Diversity and inclusivity were foregrounded by the client right from the beginning, and it invited the tp bennett team and project consultants to attend a day of lectures on the subject at the University of Cambridge. But beyond accepting generalised guidance, individual employees with differing accessibility needs were consulted to ensure that proposed designs did actually work for them. As Poerwantoro explains, ‘There are some instances where there might be some amazing stair ramp configuration, [but it] draws attention to that person with the disability. It was more about integrating it so they feel like everyone else.’
Bespoke furniture included tables with the leg recessed enough to accommodate wheelchair users, furniture proportioned to the female body, and toilet doors orientated to left-handed people – the latter being the sort of detail that, even as a left-handed designer, Davies had simply come to accept until this project prompted them to find a solution.
Communal seating and a library
tp bennett was also keen to support the way the OSF staff had personalised the previous office, providing a physical ‘framework’ in the form of shelving and a ‘community wall’. Where staff had also been sharing plants in the old office, tp bennett translated this idea to create a ‘propagation wall’, where colleagues would grow their own plants from cuttings, moving them to the main working areas once matured.
Throughout, natural materials, colours and biophilic elements were chosen to encourage well-being, but when it came to supplier choices, although they went through the LEED process and are going for Gold certification, what was most important for the client was the social and environmental impact. ‘We had to put together a presentation to actually really investigate into those supply chains,’ Poerwantoro explains. ‘So we didn’t just accept a piece of certification, we needed to really understand what that supply chain was for each of the companies… and in some cases they would rather go with a rug company that was hiring women that were from disadvantaged backgrounds, over a rug company that had LEED certification.’
The client has plans to share these stories behind these design choices with the staff to help them feel proud of their office space – perhaps with a system of plaques. The attention to detail throughout could be considered ‘trivial’, Poerwantoro comments, yet she believes the choices the client made were never about cost saving or efficiency, but ‘it was really about getting the most out of [the staff] as people’.
The presence of ‘home pods’ allows employees to escape from the larger open-plan office spaces
The resulting workplace delighted OSF staff as soon as they saw it, and has also impressed OSF teams across the globe – in Jordan, Nairobi, Berlin, New York and Rio de Janeiro – the offices of which tp bennett is also working on.
The project’s impact might also be measured by its effect on the design team. Mariachiara Dal Pozzo, senior interior designer for tp bennett says, ‘We’ve never had clients like them. We pushed each other… [us] with our design, yes, but they were pushing us with ideas of what they needed.’ Davies shared a similar sentiment, saying that this project really pushed the boundaries in how tp bennett designs for sustainability and mental health in the office – and foresees a significant impact on tp bennett’s work going forward.
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