New London Architecture

Lifting the Lid: how ceilings have become the new battleground in the War for Talent

Monday 23 August 2021

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To many, 2020 was the year the world turned upside down. However, to a relatively small number of workspace enthusiasts this event dawned some time ago, once they realised the ceiling had a not insignificant role to play in attracting and inspiring the most creative and talented people. These evangelists have been spreading the word that the humble ‘lid’ should no longer be regarded as a boring dividing line to a person’s workspace, but rather – with people spending 80-100,000 hours of their lives under one – a key way for an employer to deliver a simple message: we’re thinking of you.
We’ve gathered a number of very different perspectives from the ‘pioneers’ (a leading Marketeer, Architect, Ceiling Manufacturer, Main Contractor, Installation Sub-Contractor and Developer) who have devoted an inordinate amount of their careers thinking about ceilings to help us understand why inspirational lids are big business, and the effort and energy required to create something truly compelling.

The Marketeer’s View

When Paul Ward, the analytical Chief Operating Officer of Havas, went on record to state their new HQ in Kings Cross had increased the quality of their peoples’ conversations by 20% it confirmed a long-held belief: workspaces enable change. Of course, there are many variables to the successful execution of Havas’s strategy – visionary leadership throughout the business, re-homing 26 separate offices together under one roof, a vibrant reception, open and honest engagement of employees throughout the process, their strong culture of transparency reinforced by spaces such as one of the best auditoriums in London – however, if you let your eyes drift upward there’s one common denominator throughout their demise: a myriad of different ceilings, each one providing a different interior landscape as you move around their 10 storey building.

Havas’s story has influenced a number of customers, from all sectors, to use the workplace to drive change, not least one of our recent customers who spent a lot of time considering how their business could evolve from traditional City law firm to legal enterprise, particularly around the demand for a wider range of business skills relating to project management, business analytics and data intelligence.

Investing in a new London HQ – in the somewhat radical location of Spitalfields - provided an opportunity to convey a differentiated culture and purpose, which, in turn, would help them better anticipate and understand ever-changing client needs.

By strategically addressing innovation, looking at People, Technology, Processes and Workspaces in the round, our customer developed a calculus for transforming the shape and style of their workplace. The result, a ‘magic portal’ for connecting and creating, has paid dividends. The part Workspace-induced improvement in their Collaborative Behaviours, measured across a range of criteria, such as the ability to listen and share information, has played a significant contribution to their response to the pandemic, including the embracing of new technology.

Amongst the plethora of changes 43 different ceilings were designed, manufactured and installed into their new HQ, playing a not insignificant part in creating a space which is uniquely theirs. Each ceiling effectively represents a change of pace – a new zone – whereby the person enters a new portal every time they cross the ‘threshold’ above their heads. Like with Havas, the eye is engaged by the volumes and the diversity of spaces and the material choices – such as fabric, timber, mineral fibre, slats, mesh etc. - but the main purpose of the architecture is not to make people look at it. Instead, it is an instrument in the background which enables experiences to occur. The purpose of each of the zones is to create a relationship between groups of increasingly diverse professionals: Partners and Associates, customers and problem solvers, technologists and lawyers - five generations of people.

Previously, lawyers derived a sense of identity and stimulation from the personal space which they had a degree of autonomy over. However, by shifting the allocation of space from cellularised partner offices to more collaborative spaces, identity is now increasingly derived from the relationships that are being forged. In short, it’s a much more attractive place to work for people who value creating with other people.

By making spaces and processes to encourage more open, candid conversations, the law firm reinforced their commitment to transparency. Their 66% improvement in Governance, and other Collaborative Competencies, hasn’t melted away during the pandemic – their service remains visible to provide confidence to customers and co-workers that value is still being delivered – it is just being delivered more from home, at the moment.

The improvements to their Collaborative Competencies - delivered by talented people buying into a more regenerative approach to work - will have put them in good shape entering Lockdown and the ‘muscle memory’ developed around Change Management, Risk Management and Cultural Awareness will serve them, and their community, well in the months and years ahead. In the minds of the evangelists – a growing group in which I include myself - the Talent, and their buy-in, is in part a function of providing spaces people want to work together in, and ceilings they want to create under.

Iain Casagranda, Marketing Director, Structure Tone.

The Architect’s View

As humans, we have evolved in harmony with our natural environment over millennia, and it’s no accident that when we think about places that awe and inspire, we tend to think of big open skies, bountiful vistas and cavernous shelters. Our fundamental desire to seek out places with height and an open aspect have been key to our success as a species – enabling us to see threats approaching, to identify water and food sources, to plan our next destination and provide communities with shelter for collaboration and bonding.  It’s no wonder then, that in an office tower which may have a good aspect if you are lucky, but little else that provides a remnant of evolutionary comfort, many of us have a faint sense that something is missing.
Most of us experience the world through information in the environment that our senses collect and our brain interprets. Our perception of architecture and the built environment is primarily through what we see – opthalmoception – as sight is the most dominant sense.  In traditional corporate workplace environments, because our eyes are at the top of our heads, unfortunately this often means we see more of the white, mineral fibre, suspended grid and tile ceilings than anything else from our viewpoint – be it standing or seated.  
As a workplace designer I believe that workplaces should not be purely functional, joyless containers, which is what they tend to be when we only design with (well-meaning) functional and performance criteria when selecting materials and systems. Grid and tile ceilings are reasonable at attenuating and absorbing noise, pretty good for mounting rigid arrays of LED (or worse, fluorescent) troffer lights and are great for allowing access to services and equipment above, but offer little in the way of joy or delight and nothing in the way of that evolutionary memory which drives us to prefer diversity in light, contrast, depth, texture and colour. The sheer relentless repetition of it tends to reinforce a kind of sad anonymity that many workers feel in poorly designed, uninspiring offices.
Bringing diversity to the ceiling plane is an endless struggle. Balancing engineering, coordinating competing services and meeting landlord and tenant requirements can be extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible to create beautiful ceilings, even within a commercial tower. An approach we have found to be very successful is to use displacement air from under an access floor which often means the ceilings can be totally eliminated, and much more human up/down suspended lighting or even wall/desk based lighting which has the dual benefit of illuminating all that additional height that is usually hidden above the grid, and minimising single source down lighting which for many people is an irritant and contributes to eyestrain and headaches. 
CLT Timber framed buildings are brilliant at bringing the beauty and warmth of timber into a workplace, and are often left ‘bare’ in the ceilings with fully exposed services. Removing ceilings in older buildings can often reveal surprising additional height and wonderful character in the formwork left behind under floor slabs, and just the simple undulation and rhythm of seeing exposed beams and slabs – the bones of a building – is enough to make the heart leap in excitement for ceiling tragics like me.  Replacing grids with other treatments like timber battens, acoustic linings, or floating panels provides variety, contrast, texture and interest and often these solutions can be easier to coordinate and construct than rigid grids and unforgiving plasterboard (and don’t get me started on my pet hate “ceiling acne” … when services and access panels look more Jackson Pollock than Mondrian…)
I passionately believe in the extraordinary power a well-designed workplace has to support and enable creativity, innovation, collaboration and to help people to be their best; I believe, too, that if we were to harmoniously weave and engage all the senses, pay attention to our evolutionary memory, and try much harder to create beautiful ceilings, we could create workplaces that people really love.
Domino Risch, Principal, Hassell

The Manufacturer’s View

If you visit the website for Lipton Rogers and AXA IM’s new development at 22 Bishopsgate, you’ll be greeted with these words:

“Imagine the building you would want to work in”.  

Perhaps we all have different ideas about what our “dream workplace” would look like, but the fact that the tallest office in the City of London is being marketed in this manner indicates the important position that the future tenant now holds in the decisions that property developers and their professional teams make. The marketing literature for 22 Bishopsgate declares that this is a “place that puts people first” and these are not isolated claims.  LandSec is promoting the new development at Lucent W1 in a similar manner - “putting people first”.  Partners Group and Yardnine have recently completed 240,000sqft of new office space at EightyFen (80 Fenchurch Street) and promise on their website that it has been “designed with you in mind”.  

So what does an office look like which has been designed with future tenants in mind?  And does the humble suspended ceiling have a place in these considerations? The results of Savills’ “What Workers Want” survey from 2019 showed that the fundamental requirement that employees have of their office-space is that it is clean, comfortable and secure. 88% of workers rated cleanliness in the office to be of “high importance” and we can only imagine how much this desire will have intensified in the post-Covid workplace. Aside from these basic requirements, the main factors that workers look for in an office could be summarised as 3 “C’s” - Commute, Communication (IT Infrastructure) and Choice.  Tenants are looking to reduce their commute, to have a good IT / mobile signal and to have access to a variety of workspace options with the ability to choose those which they consider best for their productivity and happiness.  

If an office environment can influence the productivity and happiness of employees, it’s no wonder that occupiers are looking carefully at how best they can harness their office stock.  And with the frustrations of WFH, the purpose of such office space is likely to change.  A recent Knight Frank report looking at trends for 2021 states that “the office won’t be what it’s always been … the office will be a destination that provides experience, connection and choice.

Perhaps the key elements of a people-centric office would therefore incorporate the basic needs of workers (focused on Cleanliness, Comfort, Commute, Communication and Choice) whilst also enabling Connection, Community and Collaboration.  This would be the type of place most of us would like to work, and therefore a building like this should prove attractive to occupiers who are focused on attracting and retaining employees.  As Bradley Baker of Co-RE said in a recent conversation with MCM’s Ken Giannini, “Occupiers are using their buildings as marketing weapons in the war for talent”. 

And to keep winning the war for talent the office environment needs to be adaptable. Ken Shuttleworth of Make recently said - “Buildings on the drawing board now will have employees working in them that aren’t even born yet, so developers need to think smarter … We need to provide the means to easily upgrade and adapt the building to make it flexible for the future.”

So with all these things in mind, let’s move on to that second question – what part does a suspended ceiling play in these considerations?

It’s probably fair to say that the exact choice of ceiling type is unlikely to feature high on any future “What Workers Want” survey!  Typically speaking, the ceiling is likely to be considered somewhat secondary to other building features and amenities in the minds of most occupiers and their employees.  

And yet a well-designed (or indeed a badly-designed!) ceiling can have a significant impact on many of the points we’ve considered already about what occupiers and their workers require in an office space.

Think for example of the requirement for Cleanliness. Many suspended ceiling solutions can be supplied with smooth, cleanable and anti-microbial surfaces. In comparison, cleanliness can become more of a challenge for design teams working on projects where suspended ceilings are omitted from the Cat A design. 

Or what about the need for Comfort? A frustration for many office workers will be the distraction that comes from inappropriate noise levels, poor lighting, undesirable temperature or poor air quality.  A careful and co-ordinated design approach will often lead to the selection of a fully-integrated suspended ceiling which can tackle all of these issues and help provide a much more comfortable workplace experience.  

Another aspect to consider is Choice. As mentioned already, a suspended ceiling will meet the basic requirements that workers have, but should also act as a wonderful “blank canvas” for future tenant fit-outs.  As an example, Legal & General and Mitsubishi Estate chose a mix of ceiling planks with some semi-exposed elements throughout their recent development at 245 Hammersmith Road.  The space was marketed as a “blank canvas” with the ceiling able to be adapted easily, perhaps with different lighting suspended from it, or indeed with different materials suspended from the same grid.  Another example would be the recent project for Schroders at London Wall Place.  On that scheme TP Bennett specified the same service profile to be used in various areas but with different ceiling materials suspended between them, whether that be metal, timber or fabric.  At 22 Bishopsgate, 100,000sqm of plank ceilings were specified by PLP Architecture for the Cat A works with the ability to be upgraded with a retrofit acoustic plate to help with privacy between meeting spaces. Since the original project much of this ceiling has been retained when tenants have taken space and SAS has provided other complementary ceiling solutions such as timber, hammered mirrored, slats and mesh that are incorporated into Cat B designs.  

And this leads on to the requirement many occupiers will have for an Adaptable solution which will lead to a future-proof and flexible environment.  If we take Ken Shuttleworth’s comments seriously about our buildings being occupied in the future by those not yet born, it puts a responsibility on specifiers to select materials now that are highly flexible and highly durable. An appropriate suspended ceiling can meet these demands by having the ability to be re-used, re-modelled or re-adapted even after 25 years of installation. 

As we “lift the lid” then, it should become clear that a well planned ceiling plays a key role in enhancing the workplace experience for employees, whilst also providing a future-proof, sustainable, durable, adaptable and cost-effective solution.     

Phil Taylor, Corporate Business Development Manager, SAS International

The Main Contractor’s View

In the delivery world our focus is on creating an end product which is truly representative of building services functionality, architectural aesthetics and facilities maintenance.

Such an approach throws up many more questions: Who should take the lead in the delivery process? Is it the engineer’s deep understanding of performance and function? Is it the architect’s vision? Is it the facilities team who will be operating their new home for years to come? In terms of designing for manufacture and installation, where is the best place to start from? Should it be from co-ordinating the functional systems in the ceiling void or by working back from the aesthetics of the finished space?

My view is that with understanding & capability, we can build a coordinated design which provides a journey that is both efficient and retains the aesthetic vision of the reflected ceiling plan, whilst also respecting the mass, density and volumes of the components that need to be safely fitted within the ceiling voids. 

Ideally, we’d like to kick the journey off with a Behavioural Workshop to ensure the principal interest of the team is the outcome i.e. providing the ‘right’ comfort environment, with the ‘right’ visual, with the ‘right’ provisions for planned preventative maintenance. This requires an open conversation in a ‘psychologically safe’ environment whereby all parties can explain the decisions taken thus far, any concerns they have about the quality of information produced thus far and their objectives over the course of the project. For example, the Stage 3/4 design inherited by the appointed Main and Sub-Contractors may have been based on the Architect and Consultant Engineers having limited access to site for surveys during the design period, or maybe reliant on record information that is inaccurate.

The Behavioural Workshop should begin with the vision, whereby the architect through visualisation can express the expectation of the finished article. Through discussion with their design colleagues from the building services, audio visual, structured cabling and acoustician fields (to name a few core members) this will have informed the principles of the reflected ceiling plan. It is essential the setting out and interfaces between services and the ceiling connections conform to regulation and is uniform where possible, to achieve the required aesthetic.

Our expertise and experience in construction methodologies from shell and core helps us to understand the base-building services systems and how these may impact on the construction process and the ongoing maintenance of the building. As a result, selecting robust products and coordinating accessible locations is a priority. These factors will inform the approach to a cohesive above ceiling and reflected ceiling plan coordination, particularly around core areas where landlord central services exist and perimeter or penultimate occupied floor conditions where external lights and roof drainage might enter the ceiling void. The situation can be further exacerbated by base build openings not being available, excessive deflections in the structural slab and variances in structural steel depths - it is not unheard of for primary beams to be installed upside down and not corrected, creating misaligned openings.

Supervisory processes are similarly exacting, geared around 5 stages of Commissioning, and inspections of the installation of each of the numerous MEP sub-trades in real-time is crucial to delivering a successful outcome. Having the best design management system is a complete waste of time if we cannot be certain that our supply chain contractors have installed each element correctly. This is particularly the case with ceilings where removing meticulously finished tiles for remedial works can become exponentially expensive: in the wrong hands, above ceiling coordination to facilitate a reflected ceiling plan can become a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous exercise.

By engaging the construction team as early as possible a clear benefit can be realised. Opening up the space to obtain precise measurement information from point-cloud surveys allows for a model to be layered up package by package to ensure ‘design fit’. The Architectural design can also be included to ensure solutions developed for the RCP do not compromise designs elsewhere in the workspace.

Listening is the number one skillset for people who want to integrate efficiently, with knowledge sharing and respect creating a fantastic combination to locate the right solution. By pooling the immense knowledge of our designers, contractors and supply chain we can balance the design intent, visuals and solve the inevitable complexities that emerge. In doing so, we will protect the reflected ceiling plan.

Where would you like to start? Reflected ceiling plan or above ceiling coordination?

Mark Jones, MEP Executive, Structure Tone

The Installation Contractor’s View

Building shapes have changed enormously since my father installed suspended ceilings in square grids in the early Canary Wharf towers. Nowadays, the fashion is for more asymmetric shapes – they photograph well, excite planners and increase net lettable floor areas for developers – which in turn demand bespoke detailing to accommodate the irregular sized meeting rooms, offices and open plan areas the base-build creates.

As more customers, consultants and main contractors come to agree with Dom and Phil’s excellent points – well designed ceilings create richer working environments and more choice for occupiers than runs and runs of the same type of system – the number of mock ups and benchmark rooms we have to create during a project will increase. As a result, our main focus, like Mark from Structure Tone, is on how to help our teams work productively and for the project to hit all relevant sectional and Practical Completion dates. Similarly, a large proportion of our attention is spent on winning work - if we can’t win the project in the first place it all becomes academic! For that, we start with a detailed review of the tender information to understand the outline of the project i.e. how many different ceiling types are there, how will we fix into the slab, how will the interfaces work in practice, how will the bulkheads work and what information is outstanding?

The tendering process for a major corporate occupier will last for approximately 8 weeks as we build up a more in-depth understanding of what is required. We will consider numerous options in terms of methodology, such as how to sequence the project, what is the most practical way to set it out, how much of the base build Cat A ceiling can be reused, what other trades will be working at the same time, how many gangs to operate, their sizes and the composition of their skills i.e. would a labourer, or two, increase productivity of bulkhead formation by 10% or 20%, or higher? What gridlines should we start from? How will we feed material into the gangs? Despite what pricing books might suggest all tradesmen are not made equally – they each have different preferences and skills – so we try to play to their individual strengths. Ceilings are a people business from the guys who physically install them through to the lawyers, bankers and coders who will be working under them!

Another significant factor is how much supervision will be needed, and, increasingly, as projects become more complex – occupiers’ demand for privacy and confidentiality requires using more innovative materials which perform at higher levels of acoustic performance whilst having a lower mass to provide better options for aesthetics - how much training will our guys need to produce more unusual construction details with the latest materials?

Far from being a problem, though, the speed, complexity and intense competition means there’s never a dull moment!

Jon Whyte, Managing Director, Celtic Partitioning

The Developer’s View

There are some interesting changes coming into the office world, driven in part by Covid, which I think is acting as a catalyst for changes that were probably going to happen but more slowly.

More and more employees were reacting to the traditional 9-5.30 type employment and were looking for a more interesting and stimulating environment.

Potentially the greatest catalyst for change has been that working from home has proven far more effective than everybody thought it would, and an element of working from home will undoubtedly continue.  The number of days spent in an office will probably only resolve itself over time, however, people do need to come to the office, in part because it is the best way of interacting, and, as human beings we like to see and understand the body language of the person we’re talking to – additionally, personal interaction is the way that humanity works.

From a corporate standpoint, the office is where people imbue the culture of the business, meet their peers and seniors, learn from them, and generally understand the business.

Hence, office fit-out is going to become much more important in not only encouraging staff to come to the office, but also expressing what that business is about.  The single largest element of an office fit-out is, of course, its ceilings, and therefore an ideal element to use in expressing the style and identity of an area. Indeed, the etymology of the word ‘ceiling’ comes from the Latin ‘caelum’ meaning ‘heaven’ helps to explain why blank domes have proved so alluring to great artists throughout the ages, and their importance to religious, cultural and social groups. 

One mustn’t forget that as well as aesthetic design, ceilings play an essential role in how mechanical services for a space are dealt with, both in terms of internal comfort and also environmentally as we look for more energy efficient ways of running our space.

Part of this is also to look at how air-flow works in order to try and minimise the amount of time airborne viruses remain in the room atmosphere.

Overall, there is much more to ceilings than people initially think. Similarly, the design of the ceiling needs to be looked at holistically within the overall concept of the office.

Peter Rogers, Principal, Lipton Rogers  

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