An intriguing insight into the relationship between architecture, development and investment comes from Yolande Barnes, formerly global research director at Savills, now a professor at, and chair of, the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, University College London.

Paul Finch

Speaking at a forum on masterplanning organised by architects Allies and Morrison, she noted that the requirements of investment institutions regarding the performance of their property portfolios had changed. Until recently, the emphasis was on capital growth rather than income but, as a result of increasing longevity and other market conditions, this had switched to income generation.

Barnes’ analysis suggested that yesteryear’s model of complex buildings with simple uses (such as offices with long leases to single mono-use occupiers) has been replaced by simple buildings with complex uses (such as hybrid building types with multiple occupiers and uses).

This rang several bells in relation to recent design and development trends. One is the general assumption that significant workplace buildings will include shops, cafés, restaurants, breakout spaces and possibly quasi-public viewing areas along with some form of contribution towards the public realm.

Such buildings require more active management than in the days of ‘let and forget’, not least because the era of long leases is assumed to be at an end. Unless, of course, that long lease is held by an intermediator such as WeWork, which may explain why some developers that have deals with it are such fans. It takes the effort out of management, or at least it seems to.

Variety of uses

In fact, it is not unreasonable to view WeWork as a design outfit with an asset base of leases that do not justify the nutty valuations it had prior to its failed flotation. Last year, Danish superstar architect Bjarke Ingels joined WeWork as ‘chief architect’; his second-in-command is flamboyant and impressive Mexican architect Michel Rojkind.

Leaving aside the flotation question, the message from WeWork is that the nature and use of commercial buildings are changing.

What are the implications for commercial architecture? One is the extent to which design enables or makes impossible a variety of uses. We know from history that certain building types have not only been able to accommodate a variety of uses but have also stood the test of time. The obvious example is the Georgian house, which can be factory, home, office, hotel, club or restaurant.

Compare that with the typical UK commercial building of the post-1945 era: short life, tight fit, high energy, the exact opposite of the RIBA mantra ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’, which has informed more thoughtful architects and environmentalists since it was first propounded in 1972.

Derwent London - Brunel Building

Source: Dirk Lindner

How does this translate into actual design? In the world of offices, I would date a new way of thinking to the 2008 Monsoon Accessorize HQ in west London, designed by AHMM’s Simon Allford with structural engineer Hanif Kara. This was an example of what became known as ‘white-collar factory’ design, a name that has since attached itself to the Derwent London building at Old Street roundabout, also designed by Allford/Kara. If this building needs to change to non-office uses over time, it will be easy to achieve – thus providing longevity and sustainability.

A distinctive feature of this and other Derwent projects is the unusually high floor-to-ceiling height, in this instance 3.5m, and access to natural light. Developers might miss out on a floor as a result, but this is more than made up for by long-term adaptability and rents. Derwent’s most recent example is the Brunel Building (pictured) in Paddington, designed by Fletcher Priest Architects with engineer Arup. Almost unbelievably, the final rents achieved on the fully pre-let building are at more than £92/sq ft.

When Development Securities and Sheppard Robson made their Paddington Goods Yard move in the late 1990s, the notion of mixed-use was applied to the site as a whole. These days, it is assumed that mix will take place within buildings themselves, which means that individual tenants may wish to install a gymnasium/bar/auditorium and so on, as at the nearby Brunel Building.

There are other examples of mixed uses that involve unexpected juxtapositions: for example ‘beds and sheds’. Combining student housing with logistics now seems inevitable rather than peculiar.

The message is that complex uses are good, but the designs need to be simple – and generous enough to meet the needs of anticipated futures.

Paul Finch is a programme director of the World Architecture Festival