INSIDE BUSINESS : Airline office that is streets ahead Design: BA's new operations centre is built for efficient management

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The Independent Online
Designers are becoming increasingly eager to stress how the design of buildings can affect the management of the companies that occupy them.

Although businesses have tended to be sceptical about the idea, designers seem to have at least one ally in British Airways. The airline claims it will reap savings of more than £1m a year from the spectacular building on the edge of Heathrow Airport that now serves as the base for its 12,000-strong flight and cabin crew and 1,000 support staff.

The most obvious gain results from having all these people operating together in the Centre for Combined Operations rather than spread around various often ageing buildings.

"Departments that were once a 20-minute drive away will now be just a short walk, enhancing punctuality and helping to reduce the effects of operational disruption," BA says in an internal publication issued at the time of the move.

But it is not just a matter of putting all the personnel under one roof. According to David Davies of Davies/Baron, one of the consultancies responsible for creating the interior of the Nicholas Grimshaw-designed building, huge efforts have been made to encourage greater communication and co-operation between departments.

Mr Davies says he was seeking to create something like a town, rather than a conventional office. The idea is that people will be encouraged to wander around or loiter in "streets" and "piazzas" and talk to each other, instead of conducting most of theirbusiness behind closed doors.

He also talks somewhat grandly of being inspired by pictures of Paris taken from the air to produce squares, circuses and avenues to improve the circulation of people. And he describes how the designers went to France to obtain exactly the right type of stone for the floors.

But BA executives seem to have embraced the approach. Captain Jock Lowe, director of flight operations, says the building will "match the professionalism of our staff with facilities of the highest quality".

Among those facilities are various types of catering - ranging from beverages to full meals, shops, medical posts, hairdressers and even counsellors. In addition, crews will enjoy better conditions in which to report, receive briefings, and relax betweenflights.

Moreover, having flight operations, cabin services and operations planning and delivery in one place will also ease the exchange of information and instructions, while making it easier to deal with such problems as delays caused by bad weather.

This is not to suggest, however, that the building - which is split into three main parts - is strictly functional. Mr Davies and his counterparts at Aukett, the space planners and architects, have also incorporated effects such as a Grand Central Station-style departure board, huge clocks telling the time in different parts of the world,and sweeping views through enormous windows.

In the words of Fotoula Karamouzos, the airline's properties project manager: "The philosophy behind the CCO is not only to build a functional, efficient base but to give staff a workplace they will be proud to come to."

Even Mr Davies seems mildly surprised that a large company should be willing to talk in abstract terms about business. But he insists that he has never worked on a project that has been as well received by the people who will be operating it. "They seem to feel they have got so much more than a good-looking new building," he says.

"There's a tradition in creative businesses of thinking about the work environment. But now other business is moving that way."