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‘Form Talks’ Wellbeing with Studio Ben Allen

Making perfect spaces, is something that Brighton-born architect Ben Allen knows a thing or two about, and is impeccably demonstrated in Cundall’s new One Carter Lane workspace, which Allen recently completed in central London.

Allen has a noteworthy resume spearheaded by his earlier roles working at practices Fletcher Priest Architects and Jonathan Tuckey Design. He then spent a decade in Berlin, where he cofounded KWY, a multidisciplinary studio which experiments with collaboration amongst artists, writers, curators, educators, designers and other architects.

Interestingly during this time, Allen collaborated with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Elíasson, known for his interdisciplinary research laboratory and large scale installation art. Through this association, Allen also worked as the project architect for Studio Olafur Elíasson, who led the design for the south facade on the Harpa Concert and Conference Centre in Reykjavik.

Fast-forward several years and Allen is now at the helm of his own practice, Studio Ben Allen, a London-based collaborative architecture and design studio. The completion of Cundall’s One Carter Lane marks a milestone for the studio, as the new office is one of the first projects in Europe to receive the WELL Building Standard accreditation. WELL Certified™ spaces marry best practices in design and construction, with evidence-based medical and scientific research, to help  improve nutrition, fitness, mood and sleep patterns.

Curious about this new international standard that is focused exclusively on user’s health and wellbeing in the workspace, we caught up with Ben Allen to find out more about the carefully considered design features of this unique workspace.

What was the inspiration behind the design of the interior, and what were the ultimate goals for the look and feel of your client’s new space? 

Cundall is a multidisciplinary consultancy providing sustainable design solutions for the built environment, so we started the journey by challenging some of the preconceived ideas about the function of a workplace. We concluded that we wanted to provide the team with a space for research, testing and development, as well as showcasing their proposition as a company, so we focussed on their work in lighting, acoustics, health and sustainability.

Additionally, Cundall is a WWF ‘One Planet’ company and one of the key requirements for this scheme was to support the local economy. We decided to develop a bespoke desk system that was produced locally, and met our demands for robust and natural materials that get better with age.

Can you talk us through how the new design reflects some of the seven concepts of the WELL Building standard (air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind). 

Past experiences working in Scandinavia gave me an excellent insight into an approach to office design, in which the workplace is considered with the same care for comfort, as the home. In the design of the domestic environment, we provide interconnected spaces that cater for all of our human needs. Most of these needs also exist in the workplace but in different measures, so working, eating, meeting, playing, socialising, self-development and relaxing, are all now vital and interconnected elements of the new workplace landscape.

One of the most onerous aspects of the WELL Building Standard and one of the biggest challenges for us, was specifying ultra-low or VOC free products. Using natural materials and products really helped to improve the air quality, and was part of our holistic approach to ensure a healthy, efficient and future-proof space was sustained.

Talking of past experiences, has your previous collaborations with Olafur Elíasson inspired any of your future thinking around workspace design?

Having worked with Eliasson for an extended period of time, there are a lot of interests that I developed and share in the areas around his practice, however one of the most inspiring aspects was working within his studio. Although there is some overlapping in terms of the creative process with how one approaches a commission or project as an architect, there are also a number of clear distinctions. The idea of a constant theoretical and practical body of research taking place, independent of life projects and something that everybody is part of, is one key aspect. Another aspect is the studio environment that is generous enough to foster these diverse activities, as well as the social interaction of a wide variety of collaborators. I believe that all of our working environments can learn from this approach. The computer has allowed us to shrink our workspaces, but there has to be a payback in providing spaces for other types of working, creative and thinking processes.

 

How did you incorporate a focus on the health and wellbeing of the occupants into the new space and in your opinion, what aspects of the new space contributed to this the most?

Even before we started to consider the WELL Building Standard we were considering how we could make this a healthier workspace for Cundall. Because more and more people are working from so called ‘third spaces’, we wanted to encourage movement around the office as well as social interaction, all of which offer health benefits.

One of the most interesting requirements for the design was the necessity for 30% of the employees to be able to sit down to eat together at any one time. This allowed us to incorporate a really spacious café and break-out area, that encourages communal dining and could also function as an informal meeting space. We suggested putting this right at the entrance to the company, since we wanted it to be a very visible aspect of the office life.

It was great for us to be involved with the implementation of BAUX Acoustic Tiles into some key areas of the project, but just how important are acoustic materials in a space like this?

Good acoustics are very important in designing comfortable environments, however the opportunities that arise to make these a visible part of the design are mostly missed. Acoustic treatments are often either hidden or compensated for with commercial carpets, which can have hygiene, VOC and lighting implications. BAUX provided us with a means to adopt a more playful approach to the acoustic treatment and added visual interest to the reception and meeting areas, in the form of structural patterns.

 

Cundall’s belief that “great design should inspire a creative and collaborative workspace” certainly rings true of their new space, but what does Studio Ben Allen’s vision of a creative workspace look like? 

Although we are relatively new to the workplace sector, when Cundall approached us we were already working on a new workplace concept called ‘Beta Office’. This is our own thoughtful response to the generic spaces that many purpose designed offices provide and is a flexible approach to building a ‘workplace ecosystem’ that responds to the various needs of an organisation.

At the heart of this concept is the idea of fostering creative thinking, providing spaces for experimentation, testing and showcasing ideas, and encouraging movement and comfort in the workplace. Many of the ideas resounded with what Cundall aspired to for their space and the requirements of the WELL Building Standard. We have now fed some of this thinking back into our design concept and are keen to peruse more projects in this field.

 

With thanks to Studio Ben Allen

Photography courtesy of Dirk Linder Photography

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