Innovation: Windows of opportunity: Developers are losing the upper hand in an office design revolution. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
DESPITE some recent enthusiasm for living plants - perhaps even an atrium - law firms still fail to come to mind when considering breakthroughs in office design. Nevertheless, it was an architectural design project for a firm of solicitors that won ORMS a prize for innovation in awards made earlier this month by the British Council for Offices.

The award is given not so much for an outstanding one-off as for an approach that can be adopted by others. In this case, ORMS, which is building a reputation for fitting out dated professional offices and designing new ones, believes it has found an answer to a problem that has restricted the design of law offices for years. This is the requirement for every lawyer to have an office with a window.

This difficulty was thrown into relief for the ORMS director, Dale Jennings, when Watson Farley and Williams asked for his advice on fitting out a new building that had only 35 windows. Since the firm had more than 100 lawyers, it had the choice of 'giving me the names and addresses of the lucky few' or sharing the light, Mr Jennings said. The firm opted for the latter - and the result was something believed unique for a legal firm.

ORMS created a corridor on either side of the atrium between it and the outer wall. Here were placed groups of secretaries facing pairs of offices separated by glass divides, so that light could enter from outside and the atrium.

Previously, the idea of glass partitions had been frowned upon in solicitors' offices, because they created too many distractions. But by having the pairs of offices off the main thoroughfare - rather like a village bypassed by a dual carriageway, as Mr Jennings says - this reservation is overcome. Only people passing the glass wall will see the occupants.

'It also links very closely with the idea of the way that lawyers work - directly with their secretaries and with teams of other lawyers.' Moreover, the extra light created the illusion of extra space - something that is difficult to achieve in solicitors' offices, because of the clutter of files and storage facilities.

The project, at Appold Street, on the edge of the City of London's Broadgate development, was also unusual in the way that it was organised, or procured. In the subdued aftermath of the 1980s' property boom, developers and others involved in erecting and fitting out buildings are questioning the way things have been done. 'People are looking at the finance rather than how many people they can get to a floor. As a result, the whole game is changing,' Mr Jennings said.

He sees the Watson Farley and Williams project as a turning-point, with the developer relinquishing the upper hand to the tenant. He also believes it may lead to a reduction in the role of quantity surveyors, project managers and other specialists who get between the developer and the eventual user, and whose fees help to inflate costs. The system is not generally copied elsewhere.

Because each party involved - the developer, architect, builder and so on - has a corner to protect, buildings have traditionally been erected according to plans and cost estimates. With the Watson Farley and Williams project, the developer allowed the designers a certain amount of money and left it to them to decide how to spend it - 'it was like going to the supermarket with pounds 100,' Mr Jennings said.

Such an approach allows the project to proceed much faster than normal. And because no quantity surveyors are involved, buildings can be completed at a cost 15 to 20 per cent below the industrial average.

But for this to work, the designers must know whom they are trying to please, to avoid costly delays. 'We try to develop a character for an organisation. And to do that we make a lot of effort to find out about a client,' Mr Jennings said.

(Photograph omitted)