exterior of brick building by train tracks

Henning Larsen Builds a Housing Agency’s New Home

The architecture firm collaborated with Denmark’s chief administrator of social housing on a headquarters that reflects its mission.

What is the future of the office in a post-COVID landscape? It’s a dilemma that has been debated in news columns, academic think pieces, and virtual conferences the world over, and it has long intrigued Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen, which recently completed a project intended to merge home and office into one. 

“We’d already been looking at people’s changing work styles [before the pandemic] and how they use social areas in the office,” says Troels Dam Madsen, Henning Larsen’s associate design director, describing the behaviors that influenced the studio’s design of a new 79,600-square-foot headquarters for KAB, Denmark’s largest administrator of nonprofit housing. “Now with COVID-19, there has obviously been more of a cultural shift,” he says.

KAB—which was established in 1920 to develop, build, rent, and administer moderately priced residential properties—is an umbrella organization that manages nearly 64,000 units across Greater Copenhagen, housing approximately 120,000 residents (10 percent of the city’s population). Henning Larsen was asked to create a central office that would represent the company, and the country’s approach to collective responsibility, welfare, and the idea of home itself.

“The building had to be warm. Really, it is quite small, and so in some ways it made sense to organize it more like a house than a headquarters. In small spaces, it is easier to communicate with one another, so that is something we focused on,” says Signe Kongebro, global design director and partner at Henning Larsen.

brick and glass facade with a bicycle path in foreground.
In Copenhagen, Danish firm Henning Larsen has developed a welcoming new headquarters for KAB, the country’s largest administrator of nonprofit housing. Not only is the building nestled between the city’s existing railways but it also lies at the intersection of two major streets and neighborhoods. For Signe Kongebro, global design director and partner, the site was an opportunity for connection between different parts of the city. COURTESY LAURA STAMER

“We have a black belt in designing offices with atriums, so we decided to work with the atrium here in a different way,” Kongebro adds. “We wanted to explore how stairs and landings can be somewhere where people meet and engage with one another, like in a community living space.” The slender, wood-clad stairs in addition to large potted trees give the atrium both scent and texture that lends to its homey feel. 

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Overall, the team needed to infuse the project with a combination of the best aspects of work and home. Consequently, the structure (referred to internally as the KAB House) is full of elements more traditionally found in domestic settings, including a living room, a garden, a full kitchen, and meeting lounges. 

atrium interior with views into offices and conference rooms, wood interior
The building contains nine unique central meeting rooms, informally dubbed the Doll House, that can be seen from the staircases and atrium. The windows in the rooms allow for natural light to shine in from the atrium’s skylight. Madsen notes that each meeting room has its own interior look and feel, with different lighting used in each. “The material and furniture choices here, and across the building, are more domestic than corporate,” he notes. COURTESY LAURA STAMER

From the vantage point of the stairs, one can look across at a series of open meeting rooms informally dubbed the Doll House by the 400 employees who have worked in the building since it opened in June. According to Kongebro, “There are nine meeting rooms with twelve windows which allow you to see in, rather than just seeing your own reflection. It’s like a set design in a theater, where you can see lots of people doing different stuff in an apartment building.”

Design inspiration came in part from the Swedish notion of fika—which roughly translates as “making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee.” Madsen explains, “In Sweden, fika is a fixed activity every day, and offices are designed to accommodate everyone together in a social space as soon as they arrive for work. This is still unusual in Denmark, and tea kitchens are usually just used for tea breaks, but the fika culture is growing at KAB.” With this in mind, Henning Larsen created kitchens with islands, dining areas, and spaces filled with books and art, which can be used for informal gatherings. 

wooden interior staircase in atrium
The project blends the best elements of work and home, with the designers aiming for a hyggelig feeling. “Our goal was to make warm, social spaces,” says Troels Dam Madsen, the studio’s associate design director. COURTESY LAURA STAMER
wooden atrium and lobby front desk
With this in mind, the ground level lobby functions a lot like a living room, with a large reception desk flanked by a plant-filled seating area and an office canteen. COURTESY LAURA STAMER

This feeling of openness and connectedness extends to the building’s public-facing facilities. “During lockdown KAB became a phone-only service. So now that there is a physical space again, it had to have a different, more inviting feel,” Madsen continues.

The atmosphere of the ground floor changed completely with the addition of a café and public access to the rooftop garden’s “magnificent view to four parts of the city.”

For those with an interest in the changing face of Copenhagen, the physical location of the red-brick KAB House is fascinating. The pentagonal building sits at a crossroads, both literally and metaphorically, in leftover space between several contrasting neighborhoods. According to Kongebro: “Both [we] and the client fell in love with the site straightaway. It is literally an intersection of infrastructure, but if you look at a map it is also an intersection between four different parts of the city.” It is a visual metaphor, she says, for the role KAB itself plays in the city.

For Henning Larsen, the KAB House presents a compelling example of how the office of the future might look. 

“It can be a super-busy space,” says Madsen, “but as soon as you enter through the revolving door, you step onto soft carpet as if you have loafers on in your home environment. It just creates a very different feel to the traditional office in a way that is cozy and surprising.” 

open plan work area set off by wooden screens
A warm, wood-clad staircase winds up the six-story building and is visible from the open atrium. The stairs connect to communal kitchen landings on each floor and are modeled after the stairwells of multifamily residential buildings as places to meet your neighbors. COURTESY LAURA STAMER

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