White Collar Factory

15 September 2011

The Architects Journal

A new architectural typology is gaining currency in London's workplaces, spearheaded by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, writes Rory Olcayto

At first the notion does not have much appeal: that most workers today toil in 'white collar factories', manufacturing services instead of goods. Can this possibly be called progress?

Yet developer Derwent London and architect Allford Hall Monaghan Morris have been using the term to describe many of their recent workplace projects, whether new build, such as the Yellow Building on the city's western fringes, or retrofit, typified by the Tea Building overhaul in creative hotspot Shoreditch. 'No one's interested in standard floorplates anymore,' says Simon Allford. 'The white collar factory is a suite of ideas. We're trying to move the office market on.'

There is reason to be sceptical. The white collar factory was first mooted in the late nineties, when, after a decade of IT infiltration and computerised automation, the ways in which office space was being used began to mutate. Referring to the nascent term, Hamish McRae writing in the Independent in 1997 observed: 'The idea is to cram people into a shed and surround them with lots of technology. The dealing room is the most sophisticated version but others, such as the call centre, are growing even faster.'

In 2002, the BBC reported that staff in hi-tech offices work in the 'white-collar equivalent of a 19th-century factory' and 'suffer from isolation, job insecurity and long hours,' according to research carried out by a sociology professor at the University of California. Over the past decade however, the term has been substantially reclaimed. This is partly because the current crop of graduate workers, who have grown up with digital technologies and who probably filed essays from a laptop in Starbucks, expect a loose-fit work environment. Clearly, too, build costs and the growth of the UK's creative industries have played a significant role.

But what does the term actually mean architecturally? Put simply, it's a combination of tall ceilings, smart servicing, a simple, passive facade, a deep plan, and if new build, a concrete structure, left exposed to draw on the benefits of thermal mass and night-time cooling. This last element picks up on the growing consensus around embodied energy, in that it becomes more important to a building's carbon footprint as buildings become more energy efficient.

All these moves engage with another new idea, inspired by changing patterns of work which see us spending more time in the office. Says Allford, 'The white collar factory is more than just a practical solution. It's about engaging with your building as a cultural idea too.' Nevertheless, Allford is careful to point out that the white collar factory is 'an idea, not a product'.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of this new approach is the flexible floorplate which – because the service overlay is so light, increasingly so as digital tech goes wireless – can be easily reconfigured to accommodate different business types. Over the next pages is a basic guide to this emerging typology, and the various plan configurations of AHMM's proposal for City Road, again for Derwent, the latest iteration of the white collar factory.

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