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A Flexible Fit

22 October 2008

The charity, Carers UK, relocated to new premises that have been successfully converted into an inspirational working environment designed to cope with any changes in its future business

FROM UGLY DUCKLINGS TO STYLISH SWANS, charities have embraced design over recent years. Whether it’s a sophisticated website or chic retail interior – just think of the designer Oxfam boutiques that have arrived on some of our more select high streets over recent months – charities are waking up to the idea that good design helps their causes.

But it’s not just about stylish shops, websites and annual reports. What about workplaces? Carers UK has recently moved into its newlyrefurbished London headquarters, created by Harrow Green Design and Build (HGDB), which illustrate the benefits of good workplace design for the wider charities sector.

While offices occupied by charities need to perform just like the workplace of any other business, they have their own unique requirements. There are financial considerations – keeping running costs to a minimum and maximising value for money. And good design can also impact on productivity, helping to attract, motivate and retain staff. A well-conceived workplace can boost employee satisfaction and help to foster
a sense of creativity and innovation. In some cases, a distinctive office interior can also help a charity to
‘stand out’ in a competitive marketplace.

The flip-side is that cluttered, poorlydesigned workplaces can really hamper the operations of any business. Research by the UK’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices found that poor workplace environments can lower business performance and raise stress, causing a 25 per cent drop in productivity.

For staff at Carers UK, their former premises were indeed hardly a cause for celebration. The charity is Britain’s voice for carers who provide unpaid care by looking after ill, frail or disabled family members, friends or partners. Its London headquarters need to provide support, administration and training for carers
throughout the country.

Carers UK had been in its previous premises for 20 years. “They were freehold and revolting,” recalls director of finance, Ruth Eisenberg. “We’d not spent any money on them for five years. The wiring was
everywhere, there were leaks and the drainage system was faulty.”

Added to that was the key issue that the office spaces were over four floors. “They didn’t work for us as an organisation,” Eisenberg explains. “We weren’t using the space well. Each floor was small, with just a few staff and badly planned storage.”

Such a poorly conceived work environment was having detrimental effects on Carers UK’s operations. Says Eisenberg: “We were finding it difficult to communicate over the four floors.” Steps between the floors were uneven, making the office spaces difficult to access. “It was a problem for an organisation such as ours, where disability access is crucial," she said.

Acutely aware of the problem, Carers UK had looked into renovating their headquarters, but this was ruled out on cost grounds. “It would have cost us a fortune,” says Eisenberg. Instead, the building was sold and the money raised was used to purchase new premises and pay for the design and fit-out of a fit-forpurpose
working environment.

A prime concern for the charity was selecting the right firm to do the work. HGDB was chosen from a shortlist of several design and build specialists. “We liked them and their approach, and the work they had done in the past,” Eisenberg explains. A key issue was trust. Carers UK was an ‘innocent’ in the property world, she says. “It was important for us that the company we chose recognised that, and that we felt comfortable that they weren’t trying to rip us off.”

As a charity, budget was a key issue. “It was clear that HGDB could offer a good end product while sticking to the allowed budget.” The other important consideration was being able to deal with the internal processes of a charity, which are often much more unwieldy than for private organisations. Says Eisenberg:
“Every decision has to go through the trustees. Nothing can be decided straight away.”

Carers UK’s property agent identified three adjacent commercial units that were situated under a block of flats in central London. As shell and core units, they were like a blank canvas for the charity, with just concrete walls and ceilings. For Eisenberg, it was a daunting yet liberating experience.

Having signed a 125 year lease for the units, Carers UK asked HGDB to draw up a feasibility review. “It was a detailed look at the costs required to turn the three units into office space,” recalls HGDB director Roy Parrish.

This was followed by a more detailed exploration of the charity’s requirements. As Carers UK runs courses, it needed space suitable for teaching. There was also a need for meeting rooms, a specific number of desk
spaces, and a reception area.

One of the main challenges for HGDB was designing for the future, incorporating flexibility into the plans.
“We wanted to ensure that Carers UK could adjust to any changes over the coming years,” explains Parrish.
HGDB came up with a design that allowed the three units to work together or separately, as required. Adds Eisenberg: “We weren’t 100 per cent sure about how we would need to use the building in the future, so the three separate units had to work as a unified whole or as standalone units in case we ever had to part
with one, or all, of them.” As a result, each unit is equipped with its own toilets, fire escape and main entrance.

To get the best from the space, doorways were created between the units. “It gives a feeling of space and light,” says Parrish. “But it also keeps the working areas separate.” One unit houses the reception area and training rooms, while the other units contain the main workspaces.

Parrish explains that, for security reasons, it was important to keep a physical separation between the
‘public’ reception, meeting and training areas and ‘private’ workspaces. A secure swipe system was installed between the front and rear two units. This means that visitors can’t simply walk from reception into
the office spaces beyond.

Disability access criteria also had to be met. “Carers UK caters for people with mobility issues on a daily basis,” says Eisenberg. “The move from four floors to one has allowed us to make good use of space.” For example, the training area is accessible by ramps.

Another important consideration was the environment. Sustainability issues have risen high up the workplace design agenda over recent years, and Carers UK’s new headquarters features a number of initiatives that not only save energy but also keep running costs down. A ‘hydroboil’ facility means that employees never need to boil a kettle or queue for hot drinks, and is also very energy efficient. Underfoot, the carpet contains more than 60 per cent recycled material and was made with 100 per cent renewable

The results are light, bright and airy, a total contrast with the charity’s former premises. “We are thrilled with the designs and how they have translated from ideas on a page to the building,” says Eisenberg.

For Carers UK, the benefits of its new headquarters are immense. “We are now working in a fit-for-purpose environment,” Eisenberg states. There’s room for expansion, yet if the charity ever needs to downsize the
units will work well separately. “The three units tie together as a whole to give Carers UK functional, efficient office space,” says Parrish. With all office space on one floor, staff communication has improved and morale

“Having these purpose-built premises has set Carers UK up for the future,” concludes Eisenberg

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