Expansion, consolidation and mergers are all part of the corporate system; companies grow, shrink and diversify – it’s an intrinsic part of the ebb and flow of the business world. But part and parcel of these organic changes to companies, is the need to sensitively and harmoniously integrate the distinct cultures that define companies who merge together.
This was the challenge faced by AECOM in Brisbane, when they decided to bring their staff from eight offices across Brisbane, including four legacy brands, into a single office at the new Leighton Properties HQ development in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. And it raises the question of how you go about handling that kind of integration.
“AECOM was in a interesting stage of development,” explains BVN Architecture’s Project Principal, David Kelly, “they’re a global firm, but in Australia they have grown through merger and acquisition, including Bassett, ENSR, EDAW and Maunsell – all of whom had their own strong cultures – so this was a fitout which brought all of those different aspects together, bringing 850 staff from 8 locations around the city to create one united building, with 13,600m2 of space spread over 5 levels”.
Kelly says that goal was to use the fitout as an agent of change, a process of cultural change to help unify the various legacy brands and office cultures under the one AECOM banner, increasing communication between the various teams.
“They understood that there was huge potential in bringing together all of these specialities, so the brief was to create a workplace that would enable that potential to be unlocked by creating collaborative workspaces. They wanted to enable different, more efficient ways of working” he explains.
“Essentially, we wanted to create a modern, safe, sustainable, energy efficient space which would encourage and enable collaboration across our business” adds Frank Carlow, AECOM’s Project Director, who championed the project from within.
FILLING THE VOID
BVN’s design for the new offices essentially cut large voids through the existing building, in order to create a unifying space over the five levels of the tenancy. “An interconnecting stair links all five levels through these voids to create a dynamic common space and provide a sense of connectivity and transparency” explains Angie McKay, BVN’s Project Leader on the offices. “It was about having a communal rather than territorial approach to the arrangement of purpose-specific spaces to ensure that each group within the offices had an appropriate environment to support them”.
“What we’ve done in this workplace is to provide a variety of spaces, so you have the general open-plan workspaces themselves, but then you provide a variety of different rooms, quiet rooms that are close to work areas, so that when staff need a quieter space for meetings or phone calls they can quickly and easily access them” Kelly explains. “There are also café and meeting areas that are designed to draw people away from the general work spaces that are used for noisier activities. Which means that instead of being chained to your desk all day, you move about quite a bit”.
McKay says that the key was providing an intelligent environment that could bridge the boundaries between ‘design’ and AECOM’s strategic objectives for the new offices. The execution of the meeting spaces, consolidated support facilities, social gathering and creative spaces and open plan work environments had to provide opportunities and choices for how staff in the newly integrated offices could work, interact and communicate.
“It was about transforming their existing work culture” she says. And it seems to have worked because AECOM have already noticed an increase in collaborative activity and productivity, improved staff retention and attraction and reduced operational costs.
Carlow says that the biggest challenge to that was “Winning the hearts and minds of our staff so that they were able to look forward to change, as many of them are long term valued staff members who have been with our various legacy companies for some considerable time”.
“We asked questions and listened, and from that level of understanding we were able to engage with groups and individuals within the company to develop a vision for what our new offices should offer” he says.
This process led to ideas like the ‘slot’, which refers to the recycled, timber-clad stairs, walkways and associated ‘bump spaces’ at the Wickham Street end of the building. Which as Carlow explains, “provide opportunities for staff both to move around the office without using the lifts, and also help enable the sorts of conversations between co-workers that result in improved collaboration and co-operation”.
The project wasn’t without hurdles though. “One considerable challenge we faced came about through the introduction of numerous base building interventions, including voids cut in the slabs and the introduction of an internal stair” explains Angie McKay. “These elements provided a sense of connectedness and transparency in the finished fitout, but also provided challenges in creating the compartmentalisation needed for fire separation”.
“As concealed fire curtains were not an acceptable solution to the Fire Brigade, we had to engineer an alternative solution” she continues, “Without Brigade sign off the space couldn’t be occupied, and that made it the greatest area of risk in the project. So we dedicated a considerable amount of time and energy to brainstorming and testing ideas, and eventually – thanks to some serious lateral thought – arrived at a solution which saw a series of floating meeting platforms that provided the separation we needed in fire mode, without jeopardising the visual connectivity between floors”.
A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION
‘Holistic’ is a word that gets bandied about quite a lot these days, but it’s hard to think of a term that better describes the top-to-bottom approach that has been used in the new offices.
“Energy efficiency and sustainability were big factors for AECOM” David Kelly explains, “Though more from a point of view of their work culture than anything else. We did a lot of consultation with staff, as they have quite a young workforce who are very committed to sustainability, so it was a combination of the environmental work they do, and also a generational thing”.
Whilst the offices were a Green Star project (targeting a 5-star rating), McKays says that the point scoring was more of an outcome of the project’s sustainability objectives, than it was a driver for the design.
“Timber features heavily in the fitout,” she says, “all of which was 100% post-consumer recycled Australian Blackbutt sourced from railway sleepers and demolished bridges. Add to this the fact that the ventilation system provides 50% more fresh air than the average commercial building, the workstations are fully recyclable, the task chairs are ‘cradle to cradle’ accredited, worm farms in the kitchens harvest organic waste and green power switches replace “stand-by mode’ at every work point, the green agenda was embedded to a degree that, I think, pretty clearly show’s the company’s sense of environmental responsibility”.
“The low power consumption we achieved in the offices was largely a happy coincidence” Kelly adds. “Our focus was largely on natural light, so we kept any built spaces away from the windows – which greatly reduces the demand on artificial lighting”.
This same approach led to things like the careful placement of utilities rooms, in order to reduce the number of printers/copiers etc. required. “Making utilities centrally located makes them convenient for everyone to reach and can substantially reduce your carbon footprint” Kelly says, “So it’s about a lot of small measures that add up to significant savings in power in the end”.
Other big savings came from a highly-efficient HVAC system, and building measures that reduced solar loads (and by extension the HVAC loads needed to maintain a constant temperature).
“It was critical that AECOM’s commitment to sustainability was demonstrated in the fitout” says McKay. “So the design team focussed holistically on supporting the initiatives of their green office policy as well as using sustainable building methods and materials in an effort to avoid a tick box approach with Green Star”.
This included a full furniture audit being carried out across the eight former offices. “What could be reused was, and what was purchased new met all of Green Star’s material requirements” McKay says. “We also used indoor plants extensively throughout the fitout which culminated with ‘Village Greens’ on three of the five floors, and these serve as tea-points and breakout areas. The planting solution for the fitout was developed in conjunction with AECOM’s Landscape Architects.
Their Green Office group also produced a rolling screen saver which educates staff as to the various green initiatives and strategies throughout the office as well as the principles adopted in the fitout which are displayed in reception and on general office PCs”.
A WORKPLACE THAT WORKS
“Whenever I visit the new offices, the thing I get the most pleasure out of is the sense of energy it has, the buzz and vibrancy you get when you walk in” Kelly says. “We were very keen to connect all five levels of the offices, because we wanted to get that sense of activity throughout the building. As you walk into the reception you can see up and down all five floors, and see all the activity within it – so you get a tremendous sense of energy in the space”.
“We’re very pleased with the new offices,” Carlow concludes, “our staff have embraced the space and the concept of collaboration, and we now have project teams around the office which include non-AECOM staff as well as representatives from our clients’ teams – which is a quite different dynamic to the way the business is usually structured. And we are now able to translate this greater sense of collaboration to our clients, the market and our projects”.
The new offices were all about ‘change’, cultural change in integrating the previously distinct groups of the company, and operational change in improving the way in which staff work together. And they seem to have met those objectives with flying colours, so much so that the offices recently won the State Award for Interior Architecture at the Queensland AIA Awards. Though the real reward of course, is a workplace that works.
Images courtesy of Christopher Frederick Jones