Design is often mistakenly thought to be an “add-on” feature. You take a basic arrangement of spaces, furniture and other elements and then add some “design” to it, for a different “look”. While most people spend much money, material and effort in pursuit of this “add-on” value, some use design to reinvent perception.
S+PS Architects is a young design firm in suburban Mumbai, whose work is part of an exhibition of interior design projects of six Indian designers and organizations titled “Insite”, which opened at the ifa Gallery, Stuttgart, on 15 June and will travel to Berlin on 23 August. Two of their office design projects, submitted for this exhibition and featured here, are exercises in reinventing the work culture, brand identity and the capacity for outreach of existing organizations.
“The design of an office environment can express an organization’s identity,” says Pinkish Shah, who, along with wife Shilpa Gore-Shah, runs S+PS Architects. These two offices even go so far as to suggest that design can do more: It can actively shape the very work culture that forms an organization’s identity.
The two organizations could not be more different. Span Engine Cooling Systems manufactures, well, engine cooling systems. It wanted to transform its typical 880 sq. ft space in an industrial estate in the bustling Mumbai suburb of Andheri, into a fresh, elegant and friendly office space. The other, KR Choksey Shares and Securities Pvt. Ltd, is a family-run stockbroking firm. It used to be housed in the Bombay Stock Exchange before it set up another office at its present location, also in Andheri.
In both, the new-generation owners were already redefining the organization when the interior design process was begun. The design of the office space soon became an important driver in this process.
Interestingly, neither client explicitly asked that reorganization of the work culture and the interior design process to linked. KRC was already involved with reinventing itself with the help of brand consultants, but did not anticipate that interior design would have a key role to play in the process. However, the architects understood quite early on that design might turn out to be central to the process. At Span, however, they did not quite make the connection of design with a new work process initially, admits Shah. It was only midway through the design process that the team decided to shelve usual configurations and explore something a little different.
The design that has emerged at Span goes beyond an elegant use of industrial finishes and textures. The old hierarchical system of cubicles with low partitions and better finishes for the senior staff has been replaced with a more open plan where team workers huddle around a central clutter-free workstation, while the senior staff have individual tables of the same materials, but in different shapes. The result is a sense of openness and transparency, both within the office as well as in its link with the outdoors. The fully glazed double-height entrance façade does more than extend the modest office space outwards: it lets in the glare-free light from the northern sky deep into the office.
In both offices, very few lights are switched on during the day. To optimize daylight at KRC, the architects have gone a step further. Since the clients had bought the top floor of a building under construction, it was possible to introduce a running skylight through the roof slab just over the central passage in the office. This was fabricated in a way to cut down heat as well as provide security. Daylight from the skylight is supplemented by that from the peripheral windows, and even on an overcast day, very few artificial lights need to be switched on.
Of course, the day lighting works because the office space is very transparent. Deven Choksey, managing director, KRC, wanted to emphasize the firm’s reputation of probity in internal and external financial dealings through physical transparency within the office. The lack of barriers to vision allows light from top and from the peripheral windows to penetrate every corner.
The abundance of daylight has provided greater optical comfort and lower fatigue to people in the office. In the face of the savings on electricity, no one has complained yet about the almost redundant sensors (they still work on rainy days and on winter evenings) originally included to control artificial light use automatically. A natural gas and water-based air-conditioning system is also in use. This does involve extra expenditure initially, but consumes much less electricity than normal systems.
Open plans can often make desk workers restless since they are denied the necessary comfort of “personal space”. The design has been detailed taking into consideration this concern.
Swirling fabric screens in lilac, stretched across curved pipes, provide privacy to the research department while introducing an element of fun into the young office. The fabric is a bit of a tease, allowing a coloured view of everything beyond, walking the tightrope between disclosure and concealment. Swivelling shades in fabric are also mounted on stands by the side of the skylit passage, as adjustable protection from the occasional glare of the sun.
This play of colour is carried right to the serious business of the dealing room, with its partition of glass panels in multicoloured mosaic.
It was with the design of the conference rooms that the architects demonstrated the power of design to suggest and enable new business activities. The exceptionally detailed brief from Deven Choksey had asked for three meeting rooms. S+PS provided a system of beautifully detailed folding partitions that allowed the three rooms to be combined in different configurations. The fact that a spacious conference space could be easily arranged in-house has prompted the organization to develop a stronger programme of outreach activities crucial to the business.
In both offices, there are numerous such clever details, each adding a layer of discovery to the experience of dwelling in it.
But it is in the connection with the natural outdoors each office engineers, that the real strength of S+PS’s designs lies. In the middle of the concrete jungle, they have bracketed out bits of nature—a sliver of sky or vegetation on the terrace—and connected indoor spaces to them.
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