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Plants provide taxing solution

Author : Tim Fryer

31 March 2012

There can be few better places for a supplier to demonstrate its abilities than KPMG’s facility in London’s Docklands. However, even such a gleaming new building required a delicate touch from the facilities team and its partners when getting the final touches right. Tim Fryer reports

KPMG’s new HQ in the UK is based in Canary Wharf in a purpose-built building that opened on-budget and on-schedule early in 2010. From a FMs perspective, as well as the service suppliers involved, this must be about as good as it gets - big budget, blank canvas and high profile. But of course, along with the opportunity comes responsibility. The new building needs to provide a productive and enjoyable place for KPMG’s employees to work in.

The role of indoor planting in creating a healthy and constructive working environment is well recognised, even if difficult to quantify. Guy Stallard has a broad brief that covers the management of all of KPMG’s buildings across Europe. He was already a convert to the benefits of plants in the workplace and already had a UK-wide agreement with Ambius to supply and maintain the indoor (and outdoor in a couple of places) planting across KPMG’s 26 sites. Stallard was involved in the project right from the beginning and has made sure that the various suppliers have become involved at an appropriate point in the process. All of the incumbent suppliers during the design and fit-out stages were asked to contribute to ensure that all services could operate efficiently without expensive adaptation when the building was ready for use. Apart from the foundations the building’s design was new and therefore open to influence. This was particularly important for the catering operation that was, and still is, being run by Compass who also provide reception services. “We were keen to avoid telling suppliers what they had to work with,” said Stallard. “We wanted to use their industry knowledge to get the best solution.”

Stallard continued: “I would say that the planting and landscaping is part of the design process and the overall objective of the design process was to have a building that people enjoyed working in and is productive. If you look from the road outside, you can see the ‘pocket’ atrium and that is the one glassed area where people can see in, so it was key to get the planting such that it created the right impression of our building from the outside.”

Giving a good impression to the outside world and visitors is one thing, but of critical importance is the morale of the 5300 members of staff working in, or from, the building. What complicated the issue is that most of these employees were moving from different working environments and structures.

“As we moved into this building we used the concept of desk sharing,” explained Stallard, “so we have effectively designed the building to mirror how many people are in the office everyday. Because we are audit, tax and advisory business we on average only have between 50 and 60% of our staff in the office every day. At no stage have we had more people in the building than there are desks, although we monitor that very carefully. The interesting thing is over the economic cycle our heads will go up and down, but in effect as we get more people it has limited effect on the building as most people are out on client sites. What we then have to look at is at certain times is what activities do we need to run out of London and as part of a re-balancing we moved a lot of back office operations out to Watford in 2006. It is very carefully balanced and if we have to take extra space there is quite an amount of spare space around here. But what you don’t want to have is a building that is too large because in the times in an economic cycle when your headcount is not as high, people get used to a different way of working that is very, very difficult to reverse. At one stage in London we had a ratio of one head for every desk and most of the desks were too close together which is a loss in both ways because you have unused space and the person who has three empty desks next to them has negative motivational effects.”

Although many staff would be moving over from temporary open-plan accommodation in the Canary Wharf tower, there was also a sizeable proportion who would be moving from central London offices that were cellular. To get the ‘buy-in’ from these people it was possible to show them what it was going to look like, which included having the planting in place as this was part of the design. For all that this was designed to get opinions and preferences, it was more of a process of controlled consultation rather than a free for all as Stallard explained: “I would say that if you went to everyone with the full sweetie shop list you would probably get the wrong result as an organisation because everyone would tick everything!”

Making the final decisions about the planting scheme did have certain limitations imposed by the perilous state of the economy in 2009 and still a consideration now. Stallard said: “Plants have a very good affect on the building in terms of the morale of the staff. However, if redundancies are occurring they can also been seen as an unnecessary expense, so one of the challenges we have got is at the moment to have the right level. If the British economy gets back to more buoyant times we might get to expand what we are doing and there are times in history – not at KPMG but at other organisations – where they have cut flowers throughout the building completely. One person’s necessity is another person’s opulence.”

Having been involved in all the initial consultations, Ambius recommended a planting scheme that would meet KPMG’s business objectives, which was then tempered slightly by Stallard’s financial limitations and a partnering solution was reached. This solution combined the use of art to create the target working environment, as Stallard described: “In terms of the office floors we are at a stage in the economic cycle when you have more plants on top of filing cabinets rather than big pots on the floor. In my view we have balanced it exactly right. There are two things that are really good at altering the way people feel about the place they work in. One is the pictures on the wall. Ours are not expensive and we rotate them through our buildings around the country, effectively always making it different.

“The other thing is plants and landscaping as they give you the ability to raise the morale within the lifecycle of a building. You can’t re-carpet or do other similar things because they have an 8 – 10 year life, but people still want some change. Intellectually this is no different from what people do in their own homes. At home you could move the furniture around but we can’t do that as it is so optimal about where people sit, so we have to use these other things to have that effect. It is actually very interesting if you look at behavioural science – with the move from an old building to a new building morale goes up straight away normally. There could be factors like location that affect a number of people but in general it is good. Over time the new level becomes the norm and so the positive effects drift away. What you have to do then is re-energise to get it back up to those initial expectations and that is where plants can play a part.”

There are other variations that need to be taken into consideration as the KPMG building is more than just an office block. On the top floor is a fine dining restaurant, in which the planting is used to create a different environment from the office floors below and it is also requires the finishing touches of fresh cut flowers. These can also be used on the ground floor where there is a presentation suite that is used for functions and therefore needs to compete with hotel conference facilities. The building’s demands are therefore multifarious and the role of the planting scheme is to meet and, in some cases, define these roles.

Barrie Davies, UK Facility Manager for KPMG, described how the planting scheme played a part in health and safety: “The building is split into cassettes. So each cassette is three floors and is linked by an internal staircase and under each one if you are not careful you can walk underneath and bang your head. To stop people walking underneath we have huge troughs of different sizes that increase in size to follow the line of the staircase and these effectively form a barrier for health and safety. So rather than put up a physical barrier or tape we are actually using the plants as a health and safety barrier.”

To maximise the benefits it still required attention to detail, as Davies described: “What we didn’t want to do with the planting was get a very dull pot for example and spoil the whole ambience. So we actually engaged a number of people – the designer, the workplace team and Ambius of course. What we came up with over a series of meetings was what fitted this building. I think you can have too few plants, but you can also have too many – you need a balance of the right type of plant and the right type of container, but also that fitted into the whole type of feel of what we are trying to do here which is an open plan building. Here nobody has an office – not even the chief exec. He may have a few more plants round his corner of the office but we have tried to maintain that open feel, not great big barriers with a lot of plants.”

Also important was that there is a degree of flexibility. There is a uniformity about the colour of the containers so that there is no clash with carpets of flooring wherever the plants are periodically moved to around the building. Conversely there are many shapes and sizes so that they can be used to create positive change.

Davies concluded: “What we tried to do was build in as much flexibility as possible because one thing that you can be sure of is that nothing will remain the same over the duration of any contract.”

Fact File
The building has 18 floors and was commended in the RICS Award for Sustainability
Floorspace is 412,000 sq ft and it accommodates 5300 employees.
Key suppliers:

Reception: Compass
Catering: Compass
Cleaning: OCS
Plants and landscaping: Ambius
Security: ISS
M&E: Carillion
Mailroom: Swiss Post

In all there are 147 plants in the building and these include:
Dracaena : Janet Craigs, Compactas, Janet Lind, Steudnerii, Rikki, marginata, goldcoast, lemon & lime, yellow coast (+ 40 varieties)
Kentia palms
Guzmania (several colours)
Philodendon Xanadu

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