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Feature One | January 2014

Modern Workstations

The transformation of modern workspaces in India is helping blur the differences between work culture abroad and here. To create contemporary offices that are in tune with local needs, designers have adapted their designs to suit indigenous cultural, corporate and financial conditions.

A modern workspace is smart, sleek and often created within the constraints of time and given budget. The modern workspace optimises space without compromising on productivity. The modern workspace meets the client´s expectations and challenges the designer´s creativity. Today, Google and Facebook are coveted employers, not just because they are market leaders, but also because they have offices that are the most innovative and employee-friendly places to work in. While most of us do not yet have the pleasure of sliding down from our meetings rooms to our workspaces like the employees of Google in Zurich do, we still have a lot to be thankful for as the face of offices across the country changes for the better.

We conducted a round table discussion with 10 respected panellists to find out what a modern workspace looks like today, and what is driving the change in design. The conversation touched upon design for better productivity, influence of international trends, the overcast of modular furniture and the constraints of designing for offices. There is little doubt that the contemporary workspace is highly influenced by the West in terms of design and culture. Modern workspaces bring in more transparency in operation, give more privacy, and are considerate of employees´ functional and emotional needs. Additionally, time and cost currently appear to be the predominant factors that govern the design of an office; they are the two factors driving the modular movement in the country.

As the floor plates get bigger and employee density rises, glass partitions and fatades are being preferred over traditional concepts. This allows natural light to flow into the entire space and also saves space as glass thinner. Since it is a finished product and needs no further treatment, glass installation saves time. Where required, privacy is created by frosting, etching and filming on glass. However, glass being a hard material, it becomes important to use acoustics smartly in order to keep the sound levels low. Thus, increasing use of glass has been accompanied by higher usage of carpet tiles and acoustic ceilings.

Ergonomics, too, is no more just a buzz word used by chair manufacturers it is now the backbone of office design, used to enhance productivity. And ergonomic principles are now applied to the entire furniture, the lighting and the overall design. Indirect lighting, shading devices to keep the sun and glare out, adjustable hardware, even background music in common spaces are being used to enhance productivity.

However, designers have experienced wide variations in how much priority is accorded to employee comfort by different organisations. Some employers may trade this off in favour of maximisation of space and cost. While the standard space required in an office is about 60-90 sq ft/person, some companies squeeze their requirements leaving only 20-25 sq ft/person. This not just challenges the designer´s skill, but raises the need for using newer materials and acoustic treatments.

Our panellists unanimously rue the fact that cafeterias and break out zones are currently the only spaces where designers can give free rein to their creativity, introduce colour and play with ceilings and other forms. An important development is the move towards LED lighting, which is prompted by a genuine understanding of its role in saving energy and improving productivity; the lure of green ratings also aids the LED wave.

A whole new set of factors comes into play when the need for speed in execution becomes the major determinant of office design. Thus, it is basically intention that determines the kind of office built. As architect Arjun Malik puts it, ´Designing takes 90 per cent of the time the rest 10 per cent happens easily once you have things in place. But if you have not got your parameters right to start with, you will be muddling around and are bound to arrive at a compromised drama.´

NINAD TIPNIS, Principal Architect, JTCPL Designs
People who think that offices like Google´s are simply fantasy offices must think again. I got a chance to study the Google Zurich Office and it was a very tough, stringent and structured brief. I believe the architects have managed their brief well and they have camouflaged the structure specified by presenting something with the outward look of a fantasy. What is not so obvious to the casual observer is that the Google office is definitely run with cost parameters, flows and circulations and it sticks to the time constraints.

Talking of offices, each sector has different traits. An IT-set up is totally different from a banking set up, which is again different from a knowledge process outsourcing unit. We must understand the function and aspiration of that office, understand what the occupants need and demand. Also, when we look at corporate offices, there are multiple clients whom we need to address simultaneously - there is the business, stakeholders, teams running the project etc. By focussing on the pillars of time and cost all these verticals can be satisfied.

Glass offers ample opportunities as a material in modern offices. The use of glass depends on the size and function of the office. Coming to costs, domestic corporates tend to be more conservative; multinational corporates allow some leeway in the budget.

KARTIK PUNJABI, Managing Director, Vijay Punjabi Consultants
Most solutions are driven by what clients require. Over last decade, clients have lost sensitivity to design and they have gained sensitivity towards time and money. With the design aspect becoming less prominent, modular furniture is the current mantra. The downside of modular furniture is that it is not flexible. If the building is not shaped for modular 90-degree angles then it is an inefficient solution.

With large floor plates, use of glass has almost become a compulsion. It is thinner than other partition materials and needs no finishing. Glass is also useful for making smaller spaces look larger and corridors look wider. Technology has allowed the toughening of glass so it is not as scary to use as before. However, it is a hard material and does not help control sound. To help sound insulation, we use glass in combination with other soft materials. The standard cost of designing offices ranges from Rs.1000-2500/ sq ft.

ARJUN MALIK, Principal Architect, Malik Architecture
What is important is the starting process of an office. You need to read between the lines of the brief, because clients prepare the brief on basis of their work and business processes. If you understand exactly how the client runs his firm, you will understand the impact of certain cultural phobias, hierarchy constraints, and the inside workings of the office. You must visualise what they are trying to achieve in the next 15 years.

A problem is best addressed through design. If I have a meeting room that needs to be insulated but I still want a certain level of openness when the meeting room is not being used, I can do it through design and technology. If I am using the right kind of materials for the doors and glass, I may use electronic frosting on it, or a film, or a drop-down blind. If it is one of those places that need total acoustic privacy, glass becomes a problem. You have to understand the height and where the sound bounces and where your hard surfaces are, where your carpeting is, what is the material on soft board, etc. Such issues can be addressed technically.

Naresh G Tahiliani, Associate Vice President - Marketing, Godrej Interio
In the 60s, people used to work on simple table tops. The office was open enough for people at the same hierarchical level to talk and work. Today´s open offices talk about bringing down the walls between senior and junior levels and bringing them together. This can be managed even while giving due respect to the senior persons this being our cultural requirement. Creating subtle differentials in an open office is the challenge that we work on in terms of trying to create systems which deliver that seamlessly. Another cultural peculiarity is that Indians, in general, tend to be loud the tone of an American or European would be 5 decibels lower. Given the high density of the office, you have to use technologies, materials and equipments to overcome this factor.

Dilip K Basu, Deputy General Manager, Hettich India
Hardware plays a very important role in furniture. For example, if costs are not a consideration, you can provide a height adjustable leg inside the table, accessible to the person sitting in the chair; she or he can press the button and adjust the chair and table into the desired position.

At present, people concentrate more on cost. But we need to look into the ergonomics of the furniture and its comfort for the user. Technology has the solutions and it must be introduced where possible. What goes as ´designer furniture´ today often spares very little thought for the utility of the hardware being used inside the furniture. The second important consideration for me is the noise factor, which must be checked. Good hardware is needed for that as well.

Vikas Rathod,Managing Director,Ensemble Furniture
A decade back, a lot of passion went into designing or building an office. Today IT is dominating the entire industry. All we are building is a factory for a service industry. The client is not interested in what happens to the architect´s design in the end. He is predominantly concerned about the cost.

It was, indeed, a discussion that offered many insights on the trends, challenges and constraints encountered by designers of offices today some encouraging, and some that reflect the hard realities of doing business in India.

NITIN SUDAME,Executive Director, Spacewood Furnishers
I think mass ergonomics and individual ergonomics are different. It may be difficult and very expensive to make everybody´s workstation adjustable. If mass level at least is taken care of, overall productivity can improve.

Manjunath Shenoy, Principal Architect, Manjunath Shenoy Associate Architects
The distinction between a designer and a contractor is blurring these days. In this process, the design gets diluted because now we are dictated by what happens in Chicago; they say these are the fire norms and safety norms and you have to follow it. Design has been stripped off. At the same time, modular is here to stay.

Feroze Katrak, Director, Vector Projects
I have made about 46 offices and we´ve worked with different companies. In most of these, 90 per cent of their space is used by staff and 10 per cent is left for lobby, reception etc. That leaves one with very little flexibility to be creative. In the office area, the maximum you can do is work on the ceiling. With high costs of property, everyone wants to maximise space utilisation and the standard area per employee is falling from 80 sq ft per person to 40-50 sq ft per person. In one BPO we made, they have gone down to 20 sq ft per person!

In such a situation, modular furniture is the best. Good carpenters are hard to come by, another reason why modular is preferred. Besides, modular makes a site non-messy. It is best to use modular furniture for workstations and storage and try and create something unique for lobbies and receptions. With this, the cost of BPO offices can be as low as Rs 1,000/sq ft.

Contacts
Ensemble Furniture
Tel: 022-3040 6777
Spacewood Furnishers
Tel: 07104-235 968
JTCPL Designs
Tel: 022-2436 6266
Vector Projects (I)
Tel: 022-6697 2893
Tel: 022-2660 2626
Malik Architecture
Tel: 022-2264 2170
Godrej Interio
Tel: 022- 6796 2455
Manjunath Shenoy Associate Architects
Tel: 022- 2641 1319
Hettich India
Tel: 022-2674 3289

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