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Interviews and videos

Interview:
Sevil Peach

Sevil Peach

in an exchange with the trend expert Birgit Gebhardt

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Sevil Peach, the London based Interior [Architect] Designer, has been honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Frame Awards 2018.

The SevilPeach Architecture + Design Studio is working on retail, residential, healthcare, exhibition and office projects. This cross functional and human approach leads to fruitful collaborations with clients like Vitra, Deloitte, Novartis, Swiss Re, Kvadrat and Microsoft.

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The FRAME-Award-Ceremony, was partnered by IBA and took place in Amsterdam this February. A perfect occasion for trend researcher Birgit Gebhardt to ask Sevil Peach about her personal view on the past, present and future of office design.

A place to encourage

Birgit Gebhardt (BG): Dear Sevil, Congratulations! The FRAME lifetime achievement award not only shows, that your ideas and design have made a difference. A lifetime achievement also might indicate, that it is a long journey, transforming office spaces into better places that are human, supportive and inspirational and allows people to work in communication and collaboration and with pleasure.
Due to your credo of what you and your studio are proud of, you say: “From Day 1, we want people to walk into their new office and feel at home, as if they've always been there. Workplace is not about flimsy partitions, bad lighting, poky spaces and narrow corridors. It's a place to encourage, develop and utilise all the energy and talent of the people who work there.” To achieve this, what is the main challenge, today?

Sevil Peach (SP): From our point of view, we would like to see the workplace to be more human. The offices we knew from the 1980’s consisting of rows and rows of desks still goes on – what I call the Graveyard – with dead people working in it (of course I don’t really mean they are dead but the environment feels that way): low ceilings, no fresh air, awful ceiling tiles, awful lighting which may fit the norm but not the individuals. All this may appear to be yesterday’s office but actually it is still today’s office too. Whilst it has become quite trendy to speak about the new workplace, new ways of working, I think 90 percent of the offices still look and operate like that old “row-model”.

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BG: Could this be a result of the industrial era, where all work-procedure has been standardized to serve the mass market? Most of us were (and still are) educated and socialized in this industrial logic of one-fits-all-average. It seems that people had to function more like machines than individuals in the office.

SP: Well of course they are individuals outside of the office environment, but one forgets about it as soon as you become part of an office. In this professional uniformity you can lose your identity and individuality and that should be given back to people.

Giving humanity back to the people

BG: How did you give humanity back to the people in the offices?

SP: For us, this was almost a mission to see what changes we can bring in the workplace to humanize it, to make it better for people. Based on our own experience it simply started with the question: what do we like and how would we like to work? And we came up with basic likes, when it is sunny it will be nice to be out in the garden and work there. So, we asked our clients: why can’t we create a courtyard or a garden so that people can go out on sunny days. It is just a human reaction, not rocket science. It does not require big philosophical analysis, it is easily understood, as it is quite natural.

However, I would like to emphasise that this is not about creating a ’candy store’. It is also important to understand the company culture, its goals, its aspirations, its needs and to create a synthesis out of the whole and by challenging current perceptions and set patterns.

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BG: Did this conscious arouse while you were working this way or already before you worked in your own space?

SP: As I set up my own company very spontaneously, at the beginning we started working from home. So when the numbers grew and there was not a desk available for all of us, we learned to be flexible especially as the technology allowed us to be more mobile: we sat on the sofa with a laptop, worked on the kitchen table or the garden and this was okay and pleasurable. We all do that when we go back home from our offices anyway so it is this idea of creating a work environment around the people and the type of task in hand and working with pleasure.

For example if you work with big amounts of paper, you need a bigger desk than a standard desk, so we started questioning everything: What is work?  And how did we learn how to work? No one has told us or showed us how to work. The only reference we had was how we worked at the University, but as soon as we left Uni and join a company and start working for other people, we stop that free spirit and the ability to adapt, to be flexible and to be creative in the way we do things.  

Kvadrat Headquarter, ©Ed Reeve
Kvadrat Headquarter, ©Ed Reeve Lupe_grau
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BG: Now, claiming for transdisciplinary teams, diversity and cross functional learning, we realize that we have not gained much experience in the office on how to solve problems differently and individually. Do you think design could be a useful trigger to inspire human beings finding new ways of working and learning?

SP: Indeed. That is how we came to do work environments, which are totally different from what a normal office is. I think some of the other designers talk about flexible working and inspirational work environments a lot but I don’t think what they do comes from the heart necessarily. It just appears to be another trend and that is really sad.

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BG: What is missing?

SP: Well, what is missing in a lot of offices? What I see (in the magazines, or visits) looks very sexy as they only take photos of or show the breakout areas, which looks fantastic and different, but then the immediate work environments, where people work have not changed, they still have rows and rows of desks. So, you are still working in this awful open plan space that goes on to infinity. Only when you are not working and want to have a break or a coffee then you are in a nice environment. But this makes no change, you are still back in these ministerial, monotonous rows of desks.

A change in behaviour via design?

BG: Do you think you could change a behaviour via design?

SP: Yes, I have seen big cultural shifts occur numerous times in the projects we have worked on.

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BG: Are you referring to your example of taking away the paper bins?

SP: Yes, this is a one small example only and it is a good one because it is so basic. People need to move away from their desks/computers for a few minutes to refresh and stretch their backs, otherwise we will all suffer from back aches and computer dumbness.

It was back into 1994-97, when everybody had their printer on their desk tops, when we took that away from the people in order to encourage them to move, it was a riot: “Oh, we need a printer! We cannot work without it and we have no time to walk!” So, there were a lot of arguments deriving from lack of efficiency.But we managed to take the printers away, and created printer hubs to which they had to walk to, around which people socialized and collaborated, they became communication hubs. This allowed them to pause from the static work.

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BG: How did you convince them?

SP: This is only possible when the design process and the vision is transparent. We had a lot of communication and user involvement. In the end our strategy appeared quite logical and easy to use especially with the development of follow-me printing. It also gave them access to much better and faster printers.

Sevil Peach explaining her way of work at Frame Lab 2018, ©Presstigieux
Sevil Peach explaining her way of work at Frame Lab 2018, ©Presstigieux Lupe_grau

Design is not about imposing a new behaviour of work, but to open up the discussion, which can be quite painful and difficult. Doing something different means a lot of hard work in terms of talking and persuading the client, the users and so on. It is not that you as a designer, ask some questions, go away for a certain time and then come back with a ‘fait à compli’ (finished) product. In transformation processes you have to bring people along with you, to guide and support them. People who are involved, have to understand both the benefit and the reason and the designer has to understand the DNA of their work processes, and that of the company too. Once they ‘buy in’ and accept, they are very keen on the new situation.

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It is interesting that a good solution is rarely something that the users wanted or imagined in the beginning, because normally they want what they already know. With no disrespect, users often just don’t know what the possibilities are.

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The role of the designer

BG: And do designers know better?

SP: They should do. One of the designer’s key roles is to solve problems. So obviously, if there is an issue, we should think, understand, experiment and work to solve the problem and bring appropriate solutions to these issues.

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BG: If a designer can change the way people work and trigger a cultural change, how can this be sustainable?”

SP: I think, this kind of cultural change has to be regarded on a long-term basis and usage, which means that the designer’s job never ends. They should revisit the project a few months after completion plus some years later, because otherwise you are not going to understand, whether the design and the strategies were successful or not and to see how the users are interacting with the new environment. Having done a successful project doesn’t mean having published photos in several media. You do have to revisit the site and if you become aware of a decline in the way people are using the environment and if you think that this is not happening in the intended manner you have to find out why.

For instance, you may find out that 50 percent of the people have changed since the completion and that the new users have not been properly inducted into the thinking behind the project, so don’t understand it and therefore simply revert to old and ingrained habits. So, all of this really requires an on-going commitment to invest time not only from the designer but from the company, too.

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BG: And the idea, that the design itself could intuitively explain its usage, so that the setting, the artefacts, the scenery invites you to do the ‘right’ thing (in the sense of activity based working) – Do you think having this trust in design is naïve?

SP: Hmm. You could only just produce such things that are really required in a working day. For example, we all know that open plan is effective in terms of communication, but it could also be overwhelming, annoying or disturbing, depending on what task you are doing. So, then you have to give something back to the people, or you have to find some intervention or planning that makes it less noisy or disturbing. You need to provide a variety of other elements within the structuring of the space that allow people to step away and find alternative settings that support the task in hand.

Spatial role models to be reinvented

BG: These different required spaces for communication versus concentration – are they defined and solved in a satisfactory way by designers?

SP: Well, we try our best. We test different solutions from one project to the other, we are also experimenting with different ways and strive for better solutions. For example how can we create a space for focused work and eliminate physical noise as well as visual noise. Variation is also always useful, for example so that people don’t go into meeting rooms which all look the same, we seek to create different identities, colours and atmospheres as much as we can.

Vitra-Studio Office, Birsfelden, ©Arial Huber
Vitra-Studio Office, Birsfelden, ©Arial Huber Lupe_grau
Spaces  Hofplein, ©Jansje Klazinga
Spaces Hofplein, ©Jansje Klazinga Lupe_grau
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BG: Meetings are a good example, because the meeting intention is quite different, too: you have meetings for presentations, for interviews for a creative workshop, for a negotiation.

SP: Yes but you can also have a meeting in a café or have a quick stand-up meeting. There are different typologies, we put into our offering list and try to position them and locate in such a way that they are more suitable for that specific activity.

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BG: And would you also have a variation between a meeting space which is more a creative workshop and the other being more a negotiation about facts and figures?

SP: Yes and no. It is more about providing for a variety of meeting needs, including the right ‘tools’ in a space so that it can serve both as a workshop environment and also for other types of meetings but making sure it is inspirational after all ‘facts and figures’ also require creativity. It also very much depends on the building type and the Client’s aspirations.

Both the role and the nature of the office is changing, for both the company and the teams. Key for both parties are communication, collaboration, teamwork and interaction. Everyone is highly connected both within and outside the workplace.

What now is deemed a valid meeting and where this can occur is symptomatic of this change. There is still the need for formal meetings, but we have worked hard with clients to also replace these with quicker less formal ones. Meetings in the open, soft meetings, stand-up meetings, web based meetings, providing settings that provide the opportunity for spontaneous and equally effective meetings.

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BG: Regarding the future, won’t the whole office itself be a space for different kind of meetings?

SP: It will be, but this doesn’t mean having lots of meeting rooms as we know them. As we continue to be more responsible, more socially aware and more conscious about space and resources, I think the offices in the future will become much smaller and act more as hubs for communication and collaboration, because we cannot afford the type of office spaces as we built them now. The office buildings are mostly empty at night with their lights full on, the office building as a mono-functional piece of architecture is useless and not sustainable. Not only that, in general 60 percent of the people are not in the office at any time! Where are they? They are travelling, working from home, in a meeting elsewhere, I think we need to get smaller, the offices needs to be more a cultural hub, a place to meet and exchange ideas and learn from their colleagues and to communicate face to face which serves to create and reinforce the identity of the company.

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BG: Several units like small satellites in a network, docked on nice and multipurpose facilities?

SP: Yes, something like that.

Spaces Rode Olifant, ©Gilbert McCarrager
Spaces Rode Olifant, ©Gilbert McCarrager Lupe_grau
Spaces Hofplein, ©Jansje Klazinga
Spaces Hofplein, ©Jansje Klazinga Lupe_grau
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BG: Ok, but on the other hand we see that companies want to create a proper working culture by expanding their offerings in spaces like restaurants, roof terraces, market places, fitness areas, … being inspired by urban planning and trying to embrace the whole city, with all their urban amenities. Do you think this is necessary for an office in the future?

SP: You are right, this is also happening, especially if the company is located outside of the city. The companies want to attract and retain the global talent and the provision of wellbeing is increasingly important to the younger generations. These amenities can exist in a smaller hub scale or as shared facilities between companies.

Urban planning as orientation

BG: Concerning modern city planning, there are a lot of hybrid and multipurpose spaces. A blurring between public and private, work and leisure, nature and buildings. In how far do these hybrids also question some habits of office investments?

SP: When we design offices, we usually take the city or at least a city landscape as an example, creating areas of common interest, cross sections of circulation, where people are able to bump into each other, creating social spaces, such as a plaza that has a café, a park, the neighbourhood’s and the landmarks that they can identify with and then there are the private spaces, the homes that they can retreat to.

Eating is a communal activity and therefore a strong asset for the creation of a vibrant working culture. But should every company in an office building have a restaurant, or is there the opportunity that this becomes a shared facility, a place that companies can cross fertilise with each other?

There is also the emerging trend of co-working, the shared use of communal facilities by a collection of individual freelance workers or small companies, such as café/restaurant, service centres, meeting rooms and diverse work settings. It seems to me a more sustainable way.

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BG: So, the idea of a modern networked city – including all the common aspects of sharing and sustainability might lead to a just such office organization. And there is another reason, why the floor plan and space offerings will change: the necessity to be close to technical installations is not a given any longer in intelligent network surroundings. The closeness to a printer, as well as the tapping on a keyboard, the sitting in front of a monitor, we are less fixed to our technical tools and I think they will no longer dominate the office spaces.
As you said in the beginning, it should be the human way of working and learning, which should dominate the organization. What is your most successful trigger to make spaces more human?

SP: Well, for me it is actually about getting to know the people who will be working there. Because I think we perform best by loving and caring. If it is just anonymous, if we don’t get to know and engage with the people who are going to be working there, I find it really difficult. Sure, if it is a 1,000 persons company it is not easy to get to know everybody, then it becomes about selecting a user team, a group and having a dialogue with them in order for it to become a more personal relationship, they become friends. This then makes us perform to our best.

BG: As you said in the beginning, it should be the human way of working and learning, which should dominate the organization. What is your most successful trigger to make spaces more human?

SP: Well, for me it is actually about getting to know the people who will be working there. Because I think we perform best by loving and caring. If it is just anonymous, if we don’t get to know and engage with the people who are going to be working there, I find it really difficult. Sure, if it is a 1,000 persons company it is not easy to get to know everybody, then it becomes about selecting a user team, a group and having a dialogue with them in order for it to become a more personal relationship, they become friends. This then makes us perform to our best. 

Sevil Peach in her studio, ©Frame Publishers
Sevil Peach in her studio, ©Frame Publishers Lupe_grau
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Thank you very much for the interview!