September 3, 2020
A paradigm shift is said to occur when something happens that triggers a change in approach and challenges our underlying assumptions about the world we live and work in.
To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in more ways than one.
Of particular interest here is the extent to which the virus has ushered in a fundamental change in how and where we work, and what this means for the built environment.
Flexible working has been around for much of the 21st century, the hallmark of progressive companies looking to attract and retain talent. But it’s taken a global public health emergency for the pendulum to swing meaningfully in the agile direction.
This shift in working practices raises numerous questions for the built environment sector, not least in terms of what demand for office space will be like in the future, but also for how workspaces are designed, where they are located and when people visit them.
There are also the implications of the Government’s ‘build, build, build’ agenda to think about – a planning revolution aimed at streamlining development and reducing barriers to new construction projects and regeneration schemes.
With so much change in the offing, it could well be that 2020 gives birth to a new kind of built environment where our cities and the homes and offices located in them are functionally and structurally different to how they are now.
For this reason, I gauged the opinions of three built environment professionals who are invested in what these changes mean for them and the companies they work for.
Mark Clasper is an architect and partner at Ryder, responsible for a client portfolio across a wide range of sectors, while Matt Verlander is a director at commercial real estate firm, Avison Young, responsible for leading the planning and regeneration team.
Paul Webster is the chief operating officer at the construction company and housebuilder, Tolent.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen since COVID-19 started spreading back in March is the increase in home working.
Employers have trusted their staff to work autonomously and unsupervised and have largely been rewarded with productivity gains and a degree of business continuity, which few could have envisaged at the beginning of lockdown.
Employees have set up makeshift offices in their homes and rushed to get up to speed with the latest communications technology and have been rewarded with a better work/life balance, the ability to choose their own hours and more control over their lives and well-being.
These positive outcomes point towards a future where working is more flexible.
“People will be looking for more flexibility in the future because they’ve realised the benefits for what they can get done during the working day,” says Matt.
The ‘working-from-home’ experiment has also changed the function and purpose of the office itself. It is no longer just a place of work; it’s also a meeting place, a social place and these functions will perhaps be more important than the former in the future.
The traditional relationship where the home is viewed as being the escape from the office has been inverted.
Mark explains: “In this modern world where all sorts of things invade your home now including your work life, it might be the case that the office is now the sanctuary – somewhere to collaborate, socialise and engage with other people.”
If Mark is right, this has big implications for how workplaces are designed as well.
If the office becomes more of a “touchdown hub” in Mark’s words, rather than somewhere you go every day and sit in the same place for a statutory length of time, then offices of the future may bear a closer resemblance to something like an airport business lounge.
“People’s perception of the office will be less about physical workstations or individual desks and more about spacious collaboration areas with new furniture to suit a variety of needs and functions,” Mark posits.
Gone are the days of the standard office set up where you have x number of desks for x number of employees.
“We all expect things to be a little bit different to the traditional office,” adds Matt.
Some of this is speculative and both Matt and Mark are clear that homeworking not be viewed as a panacea.
Mark explains: “The problem with homeworking is always going to be how you maintain the DNA of the business.
“Social interaction, passing comments, camaraderie – these are things that result in positive change and collaboration on lots of different levels.”
Remote working also makes it more difficult to integrate and develop new members of the team and younger professionals who benefit from peer-to-peer learning where they can easily ask questions, look over each other’s work and discuss common problems.
Despite these shortfalls, it seems almost inevitable that the demand for office space is not going to be as high as it was prior to the pandemic.
What does this mean for the commercial real estate market and for our city centres, which are packed full of office space that is being extended and supplemented all the time?
In the North East, we have invested heavily in Grade A office developments such as Milburngate in Durham, Tyne Bridge House in Gateshead and Newcastle Helix.
Are these kinds of schemes going to be successful in a context where most office workers spend at least part of their week at home? Or do we now have an oversupply of office space that businesses aren’t going to be able to fill?
It’s too early to say is the answer given by the experts, who recognise that working from home will become more commonplace but that most businesses will continue to need premises to operate from.
Mark believes that office demand will continue to be strong for high-quality spaces.
He says: “There’s been a lot in the press about this being the nail in the coffin for the commercial office market and that everyone’s going to be working from home.
“I personally don’t share that view. We’re seeing a number of clients moving forward with speculative office builds because there’s an expectation that demand will still be there.
“However, there are clients out there who are actively downsizing.”
What is more likely is that businesses, which don’t have a requirement for their staff to be office based, will be looking at their square footage and re-evaluating both how they’re using the space and how much they need.
Matt says: “Businesses will probably accept that they don’t need as much office space, but I think the main change is that employers will be a little bit more flexible about where you do your work.”
As our offices change to accommodate new ways of working, so too will our city centres to accommodate new ways of living.
Mark thinks this is where an emphasis on placemaking will be key.
“This is about looking at how people use outdoor space, how they engage with the public realm and how they get from A to B,” he explains.
Investing in green infrastructure and more open spaces will help cities adapt to the changes thrown up by the pandemic and the rise of mass homeworking.
And if there is one thing cities are good at; it’s adapting to change.
Mark says: “Cities adapt to terrorist attacks and floods, huge fires and plagues. One thing that’s certain is that the city will adapt, and it will always have people at the heart of it.”
The Government’s ‘build, build, build’ agenda is another big change that will have serious implications for the built environment.
Its goal is to speed up and modernise the planning system to deliver construction projects faster, with a particular focus on housebuilding.
Matt, who has been working within the UK planning system for more than 20 years, shares the frustrations held by landowners, developers and now Government ministers, that planning applications take too long to reach approval.
The Government estimates that delays in the planning system have reduced the number of small businesses involved in homebuilding from 40 per cent 30 years ago to just 12 per cent today.
However, Matt is not convinced it will be easy to speed up the process.
“We have a planning system for a reason and that’s to protect everybody’s interests,” he says.
“I think there are ways that you could improve it, but I think that varies from site-to-site and place-to-place.
“The headline timescales might be improved upon in terms of how long it takes for a plan to be adopted but you’re still required to provide the detail on things like contamination of the ground, flood risk and environmental protection at some point.
“You might be quicker at the beginning and give developers confidence that a site can progress in principle, but that information will still need to be provided.”
For Matt, the key to speeding up the planning process lies in better resourcing planning departments at local authorities.
“If local authorities were better funded, whether that’s on the planning policy side or planning application side, then I’m sure things could move quicker.
“Fundamentally, planning departments are much less well-resourced than they were ten or 15 years ago. It’s only too apparent on the projects we’re working on.”
While not without its problems, the emphasis on streamlining development and getting more applications approved faster is one that is being welcomed by Paul at housebuilder, Tolent.
He says: “The focus to speed up development for private and social housing on brownfield sites is a good idea and will kickstart other areas of development.”
Tolent is currently building 1763 new homes across 21 sites with a strong pipeline of development projects going into 2021 and beyond.
“The residential market, in general, remains one of our strongest sectors of work,” Paul adds.
Mark hopes that the planning changes will also encourage developers to take a more design-led approach and build homes that are better suited to homeworking.
“If developers feel like they can invest in what matters rather than having to invest in fighting something through the planning system, it might encourage a more design-led approach,” he says.
“Under the current system, the house itself can often be secondary. It becomes about investing in the process rather than the product.”
With major changes afoot in our working practices, in the office market, in our city centres, in our planning system and in the way homes are built, 2020 is looking more and more like an inflexion point from which a new kind of built environment will emerge.
What’s clear is that things are not going to go back to the way they were.