Even before the Covid-19 virus took many of us away from our offices and forced us to find new channels of communication, the Property Development team at BNP Paribas Real Estate had set up a research department designed to look at existing and future trends related to the office building. We were very aware that the office building was changing, with the rise of nomadic ways of working and an increasing penchant for flexible space, the relationship and how we interact inside buildings was shifting. The pandemic has in many ways accelerated a lot of what was already in the pipeline, but it has also put a stop to certain other trends and meant some have had to be reimagined. One thing that has certainly been emphasised however is that we have to promote more responsive and mixed-used buildings.
Accelerating trends in Property Development
The subject of air quality in our buildings was one that was already being discussed before the Covid-19 crisis. New emphasis was being put on indoor and outdoor pollution and safeguarding the well-being of those inside. As the World Green Building Council outlines, “sustainable buildings and cities are a key part of the solution to reducing both the health and environmental impacts of global air pollution.” By improving air quality in our buildings, we are protecting the health of not only those inside the buildings but the buildings themselves, along with our cities. This drive towards cleaner air has become even more pivotal in light of the current health care crisis. With the dominant theory being that the virus travels through the air, a number of leading scientists have signed a petition urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to take “swift and decisive action” to encourage the quality of air in buildings. This has meant that prioritising air quality has become essential and will likely be a key component in building projects going forward.
Likewise, outdoor space before the crisis was becoming more and more prominent in the design of buildings. Now however, having spent months inside, for some with little or no outdoor space the desire to have this offering in office buildings has become more called for.
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Creating truly sustainable buildings
For me, what this health care crisis has taught us, now more than ever, is the need for sustainable and durable buildings. I can no longer see the relevance of demolishing buildings and building new ones from scratch. Instead, what we must learn to master is the ability to construct buildings that are built to last and weather the storms that may strike them.
To do this, buildings must now be able to adapt, doing so easily and affordably. The use of partitions and cables with the capacity to meet whatever digital tools may come our way, are some of the ways this will be possible. This will allow a building to change depending on the services it might offer. Flexible design can be envisioned now, with buildings that house offices, hotels and retail but must also be considered for their long-term appeal. It is no longer enough to give a building a definitive lifespan, reconversion has now become essential.
This also means that spaces can be mixed-use and cater to different, transient needs. As we transition out of the remote working conditions many of us have known over the last few months, we are going to find that there is a desire for third places that straddle the gap between the home and office. Offering people the chance to work away from the home and office, but with advantages afforded by both of these options, including less travel time and the opportunity to socialise with others, is going to become more and more important. Our buildings must be ready for these new challenges and it is through being flexible and adaptable that they will be able to do so.
Digital tools will work alongside the sustainable building. Much has been said lately of our increasing use of technology during the pandemic but we must remember this is to go hand-in-hand with human interaction and not be the favoured method of communication. By hoarding huge amounts of data, we are negatively affecting the environment. Instead, we must consider what amount of data must be collected from each building, allowing it to be better prepared for future changes. In fact, the WiredScore of a building is going to become increasingly called upon as a way to understand the digital infrastructure of a building, its capabilities and how this can be improved. The building must almost be thought of as a smart phone, which with new applications and software, can be constantly updated. It is through partnerships between private players and PropTech organisations that this technological installation can be applied to a building, in a better attempt at future proofing it for new digital advances which we are yet to know about.
In this way, contactless entry and movement around the building is something we could see more and more of and in some cases, facial recognition is already in place. For each building however, we must only incorporate technology that is appropriate and that can be built upon for future needs. We could undoubtedly fill buildings with countless digital solutions, but that would not get us very far.
Inclusion is key
Inclusion is a huge part of our work life, coming to the office has a lot of meaning behind it: socialising, human connection and the feeling of togetherness, which are all aspects that are lost when we work from home and carry out our interactions remotely. Many people have complained of “video fatigue” during the many weeks of remote working and it is unsurprising. Having to face a video conference with numerous participants requires having to decrypt social cues, when only seeing the head and torso of others within a tiny square. This forces us to work harder at our interactions and small talk is much more of a struggle. Spontaneous interactions are much less likely and because of this, we lose a lot of the professional creativity that is sparked by being with our colleagues. I do not believe we could ever transition to a place where business was carried out 100% away from the office. Humans are naturally social creatures, and the office building is an expression of this.
It is impossible to base all our predictions for the future office on the last few months. Yes, we have proved that we have been able to work effectively and with different digital tools but this will not be how we continue to function. The importance of our daily interactions, and even the five-minute conversation whilst making a coffee, are intrinsic to us creatively and professionally, and cannot be replicated by a phone or video call. We will surely come out of this crisis with many positive changes; better ventilation of our offices, more outdoor areas and the careful integration of digital tools, but these aspects will be a support to us rather than a complete reinvention of what we knew before.