WSP was in the unusual position of being both client and consultant, as future occupants and providers of engineering design and wellbeing consultancy services for the fit-out of one of the largest floorplates in the Midlands.
The office occupies the 7th floor of The Mailbox, an upmarket shopping and office development in the city centre of Birmingham. Completed in October 2018, the high quality, flexible, refurbished 50,000ft2 (4645m2) open plan office consolidates WSP’s presence in the Midlands, bringing together more than 700 staff from smaller offices across the region.
With a focus on our staff’s health and wellbeing, the project embodies our commitment to the highest quality design. It complies with the global healthy workplace certification, Fitwel, and has achieved a BREEAM Very Good rating, as well as being designed and delivered in accordance to WSP’s own environmental and sustainability targets, which include our entire UK business becoming carbon neutral by 2025.
Our choice of The Mailbox as the location for our office was influenced by its excellent accessibility by public transport – essential for staff commuting from across the wider Midlands region. It is close to Birmingham’s main station, New Street, in a dense, mixed-use area with plenty of shops and restaurants and cafes serving healthy food options, enhanced by pleasant park and canal-side walks. “This environment gave us a head start with a high Fitwel credit score of 91/100 on the ‘Walkscore’ ranking even before starting on the fit-out,” consultant, Harry Knibb.
To optimise the benefits of our location and encourage people to cycle, walk or run to work, we have provided our employees with 60 cycle racks, 780 personal lockers, 192 cyclist lockers and 11 showers.
Understanding employees’ requirements
The design brief was to consider wellbeing and productivity, achieve light, airy, open plan areas, meeting and training rooms, with good acoustic privacy, collaboration facilities, and impressive open welcome areas and a wellbeing design to help staff de-stress and relax at work.
Before embarking on the fit-out, we surveyed staff in our various Midlands offices to better understand the factors impacting their wellbeing, using the BUS methodology (Building Use Surveys). This informed us that people wanted offices with plenty of daylight, breakout areas for informal meetings and socialising, and the flexibility to accommodate different tasks and uses. “The results of these surveys provided a framework for the design and operation of our new office, and we worked closely with the architect, design team and corporate real estate team throughout the project, advising them on what was required to attain the Fitwel standards,” Harry continues. “A further survey, completed post-occupancy, has shown a 14% perceived increase in productivity.” For more information about pre-and-post-occupancy surveys, see this article written by Harry and Canadian colleague, Mark Bessoudo.
Benefits of a blank canvas
Office tenants frequently have to work with, or amend, existing features and systems in the base build. However, in this case we were fortunate to take on the space at the same time as the Landlord, developer Brockton Capital, was starting work on the base build. This allowed us to influence the procurement of the design and construction of the refurbishment and fit-out of the office, resulting in excellent design co-ordination, reduced timescale for delivery and savings in money and materials by optimising systems and avoiding any potential wasteful installations. “We built a very close relationship with Overbury, the contractor, which allowed us to reduce the overall construction period by up to 12 weeks,” says WSP director, Paul Thomas. “The success of anything depends on good communication and our contractors rose to the many challenges we created. Thanks to them, we now have a great space to work in.”
Before our occupation, the office space had lain empty for two years. “It’s a large, open plan space, which lends itself to the level of flexibility required,” says Paul. “As it was an empty shell, we had a blank canvas to design the building services from scratch, ensuring that our scheme had the flexibility to meet the different requirements of the space.”
The double-height space, up to 5.5m high in places, creates a light and airy feel for the office. It also allowed for the installation of a mezzanine level to be used as a breakout or small conference area supplementing the main conference room, the ‘Town Hall’.
Flexible design around a Central ‘Street’
Stretching away from the reception area, a central avenue of trees, 63m in length, provides a natural gathering point for staff around a coffee bar and break-out areas.
The design nature of our business requires multi-disciplinary team working, collaboration and meetings. The desks are laid out to create a series of ‘neighbourhoods’, designed to allow our different engineering disciplines to collaborate in a variety of breakout spaces. To incorporate all the breakout space we need for these activities, the desk arrangement is based on a desk to person ratio of 1:1.35., with a high proportion of space dedicated to hot-desks for ‘agile’ workers. Chris Everell, one of the lead MEP designers on the project, is now experiencing this arrangement as a WSP employee based at The Mailbox. “Every day you sit next to someone different, which is great for getting to know your colleagues and your team better,” he says. “It really does promote strong collaboration and networking.” Lockers are provided for each member of staff, rather than pedestals, creating flexibility for future changes to our desk arrangements. The configuration of desks, breakout spaces and meeting rooms allow for future expansion, and we also have an option to take over adjacent tenant space on the floor to accommodate future growth.
“There was concern that the desk ratio would be too challenging,” adds Paul Thomas. “In reality, there are rarely days when our team can’t find desks in our own business area. As designers, occupiers and users of the space we are finding it really works.”
For seminars, events, lunchtime yoga, training and meetings a dedicated, 140m2 space, the ‘Town Hall’, provides a flexible space with glazed folding walls to allow natural light to pass through. In addition, areas such as a business lounge, coffee bar, bistro, phone booths, booth seating, training and meeting facilities provide a range of settings for teams to work together, individual working and one-to-one meetings, socialising, formal presentations and large gatherings.
Lighting design and energy efficiency
The office benefits from large amounts of natural light from floor to ceiling windows with views over Birmingham’s skyline and the adjacent canal basin. The majority of desks are positioned near these windows, while internal areas of the deep-plan floor space receive natural light from internal lightwells. A range of different light quality and fittings contribute to the ambiance and mood of the office and provide differentiation, for example, between the reception, breakout and desk areas. Sensors detect natural light and dim or turn off artificial lighting as required to save energy while maintaining appropriate working light levels. However, as Andrew Rowley, also an MEP lead on the project, explains, special measures were required for the trees lining the ‘Street’. “To allow the trees to thrive in the indoor environment we needed to ensure sufficient artificial light was available to encourage photosynthesis.”
We gained further efficiencies through presence detection throughout the space, and touch screen devices in meeting rooms provide integrated lighting and HVAC controls to enable users to personalise the rooms as required. “The devices are identical in each room, which makes them simpler for the user and therefore more likely to be used,” Andrew explains. “Eventually the data from each room will be integrated with the booking system and centralised on the IT system, and an app which knows people’s individual preferences will prepare the room for them with their personalised temperature and light preferences can be used to make our office space smarter.”
Other energy-saving measures include an integral system to recover waste heat for heating and cooling. This air source heat pump VRF installation (Variant Refrigerant Flow) has the added advantage of fitting into the relatively small plant areas available in the office.
Showcasing our skills
A striking design element of the offices are the exposed services across the space. “This was a great opportunity for us to showcase our capabilities as building services designers,” says Paul Thomas. “It did mean that the installation had to be very well coordinated, which we did using 3D, and we worked closely with the contractor prior to purchasing to select equipment that looked good. The fact that it is all exposed is a great advert for the quality and level of the design we can achieve. It also gives us the opportunity to demonstrate what we do to new graduates and apprentices.”
Health and well-being at the heart of everything
The Mailbox will be WSP’s first UK project to be certified by Fitwel – at the time of writing, we are awaiting confirmation of our certification - and our commitment to designing in accordance with the Fitwel standards underpinned our whole approach. In addition to delivering a light, airy space with excellent, well-managed indoor air quality, we also prioritised health and wellbeing in the interior design of our office. The planting along the street, carbon-neutral carpets in many shades of grey, wood finishes to provide natural warmth, accent colours and feature lighting all combine to positively influence human energy, mood, vitality and work performance.
WSP Director, Malcolm Davidson, concluded: “We are truly proud of our new Birmingham headquarters. It’s an inspiring space that lifts the spirits, and we’re thrilled to see how much staff enjoy it, and how it encourages creativity and innovation. It also embodies the WSP brand, solidifying our position as a go-to engineering consultancy delivering flagship projects across a range of disciplines, and helping us to attract the very best talent.”
Award – first of many?
At the end of March, WSP won the Refurbished/Recycled Workplace Award for the design of our office fit-out at The Mailbox, presented at the BCO (British Council for Offices) Midlands and Central England annual lunch. Our office will now go forward to the National Awards later in the year.