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Office Life

15 December 2006

The refocusing of the commercial property sector to recognising that its tenants are valued customers is welcomed by BCO’s Richard Kauntze who sees office occupiers as of key importance to the future evolution of the office sector. Jane Fenwick reports

ONE IMAGE OF THE COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SECTOR is the slick suited, largely male ‘wheeler-dealer’ whose main concern is to get the best return on their investment in an office development. In this scenario, traditionally the tenants and their businesses are trapped in inflexible long term leases, and communication between them and the managing agent, landlord, developer, investor and architect community is disfunctional.

Fortunately, this perspective is changing fast as not only have occupiers recognised the impact their workplace has on their business outcomes, but also as property professionals refocus on their tenants as ‘customers’. This is good news for the British Council for Offices (BCO) whose whole mission is to “research, develop and communicate best practice in all aspects of the office sector.”

As Richard Kauntze, BCO’s chief executive for the past seven years, explained, “One of my passions within the BCO is that the occupier – the ultimate customer – is central to every debate. In the past the occupier has been ignored to varying degrees. When offices are designed and constructed and all the people involved – the architect, builder, developer, agent and building contractor – are happy and well paid for their work, often within just six months of the occupier taking possession he finds that the office does not work. This is a disaster because the building is there fundamentally to serve the needs of the ultimate client; it must be the servant not the master of the client and it must deliver what the organisation that is paying the rent needs.”

Kauntze admits that among the BCO’s 1,200 members, relatively few are corporate occupiers, and those that are, are members are the largest blue chip organisations. “The large corporates tend to find us interesting because they occupy a large amount of complex space and they have the people available to participate in the BCO’s activities.”

Intelligent approach
Kauntze does not pretend that attracting occupiers to the BCO has ever been easy and he described low cost property agendas held by many CEOs and finance directors as “crude and foolish. “The reality is that working in offices is all about people. In most businesses 85 per cent of their costs is for people, with property costing 15 per cent, a small proportion of the overall costs. We say spend your 15 per cent more intelligently and it can have a significant impact on the bigger ‘people’ costs.“

To its credit, the BCO believes in equality of membership so that everyone in the office community pays the same and has the same benefits. “BCO’s strength is that it has a broad spectrum of members that want a greater engagement with occupiers and others, and this allows us to have free ranging debates.”

The hot topic at the BCO currently is the impact of the climate change and the environment on offices. “The environment and green issues are mentioned more in BCO debates than any other subjects,” Kauntze said. “This has come about partly through legislation such as changes to building regulations and energy labelling of buildings, but also through pressure from investors and institutions who are increasingly taking their corporate social responsibility seriously. But perhaps more important, we are seeing an empowerment by people at large. There is an awakening about the state of the planet.”

Last month, BCO launched the BCO’s Guide to Environmental Management in Offices. Described as essential reading for office developers, designers and occupiers, it provides a model for environment management from the conception of the office as a more environmentally friendly building, through its management in occupation to its ultimate demolition.

Kuantze now sees the environment firmly at the centre of the office debate. He said, “In the past green buildings are seen as marginal and not attractive to mainstream occupiers, but all that has changed and green issues are high on all agendas. Architects and developers now realise that it is not enough to produce something that is funky and weird but a more efficient ‘plain vanilla’ office that will suit most occupiers. There are opportunities for progress in how the building is designed and constructed, how materials are sourced, and how efficient the heating and cooling is made.”

Less glass
He foresees that architects will need to rethink about the extensive use of glass in facades that have typified the present generation of office design. “New build and refurbishment present a fantastic opportunity to raise the bar in a way that is no threat to anyone since everyone will have to pull their standard up at the same time on an equal basis. There will be healthy competition among developers to offer even more efficient buildings.”

Environmental excellence featured strongly in the BCO’s Office of the Year Awards this year, which formed the centre piece of a new awareness raising venture, Good Office Week held from 2-6th October. The Good Office Week formed a series of themed days designed to open debate about the office as a workplace.

Commenting at the launch, Kauntze said, “Some nine million of us work in offices in the UK alone “Credible research clearly demonstrates the impact that the working environment has on employee performance. But great offices go beyond simply ‘housing employees’. Today the office agenda is driven by sustainability aspirations, innovative design, fit out that matches brand values and more. Corporate real estate will usually be in the top three fixed costs on any businesses’ balance sheet. National Good Office Week throws open the debate about the offices we work in, how we manage

He said it was important to empower the office worker to demand better working environments particularly in those business where the people spend the least amount of time in the office building have the biggest and best space allocated to them. A survey of office workers conducted by MORI and published in Good Office Week found that issues concerning temperature and light still top the list of workers concerns and more than half said the impact of their workspace on their overall happiness at work was ‘very important.’

He applauded the new National Trust central office in Swindon which won the BCO’s Innovation award presented at the BCO Awards because, he explained, it had paid particular attention to light and ventilation as well as the sourcing of construction materials including using timber from the National Trust’s own estates. He also singled out the fact that one of Europe’s largest ground water cooling systems was integrated into the BCO's Best of the Best winner, the Roche UK head office in Welwyn Garden City, together with good use of natural light. He said this confirmed the growing trend for integrating environmental factors and energy efficiency into building design as a norm.

This tradition of celebrating excellence in office design, and expert knowledge of building and operating offices are the attributes that Kauntze expects the BCO to take to New York in May 2007 when, for the first time it will hold its annual conference outside Europe. Having already held successful BCO conferences in Dublin, Berlin, Barcelona and Paris, Kauntze sees the New York venue as an “irresistible opportunity”. He describes London and New York as ‘twin cities’ in terms of their power, communications and political influence, and rivals as global financial centres. As home to many of the first skyscraper offices, he promised that New York will offer a spectacular opportunity for the 600 BCO members he expects to attend from the UK in addition to 200 more US based delegates.

The BCO has no global aspirations in a territorial sense but Kauntze envisages a future in which the BCO could partner with like-minded organisations in the US, Europe and South Africa, Australia. He feels that the BCO’s depth of research means that there is a lot it can teach overseas. “However, we can learn from the US, in particular, about construction efficiency. Their contracting industry is very slick; it takes pride in doing the job right first time and winning repeat business. There is a real pride in ownership among all the building trades.”

He also says the US is ahead of the UK property sector in its attitudes and practice in service delivery. “ In the UK, this is not an area where margins are high, and managing agents and service providers change frequently. The British attitude is not sufficiently service focussed. I have always felt that there is a capacity for major property owners to offer a fuller service on common services. “Rather than saying that ‘it is nothing to do with us because it is on your premises’, if the managing agent offered the service they could charge a margin. Many businesses just want these workplace issues sorted out simply and efficiently.”

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