The Fifth-Annual Smart Environments Awards: Macquarie Bank

The creator of the Googleplex in Silicon Valley and the infamous ChiatDay offices continues his radical reinvention of the global workplace.

Macquarie Bank
Clive Wilkinson Architects, Los Angeles

The Action Office was supposed to free the modern worker. Launched in 1968 by Robert Propst, a designer at Herman Miller, it started out as a modular unit that could change as its occupants’ needs evolved. It had different levels to encourage standing rather than sitting, and multiple work surfaces to liberate papers from the inbox. But once it was appropriated by cost-cutting facilities managers, the office lost its action, shrinking, then multiplying, and begetting the much-reviled cubicle. Propst reportedly hated the cubicle and regretted that his innovative design spawned such “monolithic insanity.”

The architect Clive Wilkinson, one of this year’s Smart Environments Awards winners, shares Propst’s antipathy. “It was a fear-driven work setting, which cut out the surrounding environment,” he says, his South African accent still strong despite 20 years in Los Angeles. “It should be
the last solution.” Had Propst been around to see Macquarie Bank’s Shelley Street office in Sydney—a 3,000-person complex that is the latest step in Wilkinson’s quest to radically reinvent the modern workplace—he might have been reassured. The cubicle is losing its grip, and Propst’s original bid to humanize the office is taking hold.

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“We wanted to create a sense of community in the workplace,” says Macquarie’s head of design, Anthony Henry. We wanted someone who looked at it from a town-planning perspective.” Working with Wilkinson’s firm, the global investment bank transformed a site in Darling Harbor originally designed as an apartment complex into ten stories of active, flexible work spaces held together by a soaring central atrium that the designer says is “part space station, part cathedral, and part vertical Greek village.”

Inspired by the building’s proximity to the waterfront, Wilkinson initially imagined that the glass-walled meeting rooms, which cantilever out into the atrium, would be mobile. A group would dial up a room, and like a shipping container on a giant freight elevator, the room would come to them. Though that concept was later discarded by the bank as being too sci-fi, the transparent meeting rooms themselves survived, retaining the atrium’s sense of drama. The work of the office becomes a form of theater, animating the space and eliminating the need for the safe, oversize sculptures that often populate office complexes.

Additional visual stimulus is provided by the constant stream of people who opt for the open staircase instead of an elevator, helping to fulfill Macquarie’s goal of a healthier work environment. The atrium becomes the spine for the entire office. “On large projects, the scale requires
you to create a village,” Wilkinson says, “and a village needs a Main Street to give it a heart.”

There are no designated offices in this building. Instead, all work is mobile, and employees, armed with laptops, can choose from different spaces arranged in hundred-person neighborhoods. Think of it as a university library. Depending on your work for the day, you might want to sit in a carrel or a more social lounge area, a long communal table or a cafélike booth. Crucially, the settings—12 in all—are designed to encourage creativity rather than practicality. Each floor is built around a themed plaza: the Garden floor is overgrown with real greenery, and the Playroom floor is scattered with brightly colored pod-shaped cushions. On the inevitable Library floor, workstations are wrapped in bold bookshelf graphics, with nary a piece of actual paper in sight.

The response has been tremendous. More than half of the employees change their workstations every day. (Word is that Macquarie’s banking head, Peter Maher, likes to sit in the ground-floor café.) The building is regularly used at 85 per-cent capacity, whereas the average in large offices is 40–60 percent. Elevator use has been halved. Anecdotally, Henry says, intergroup mingling and cross-pollination of ideas often occur.

This design has served Macquarie well. Known in financial circles as the “millionaire factory” for its sizable pay pack-ages, the company is in the unique position of being overcapitalized thanks to an enormously profitable run in the early aughts powered by a unique asset-management tool. The new offices house a wide range of employees, from financial planners and private investors to lawyers and sales staff, all of whom frequently meet with clients—another incentive to create a welcoming environment. “Why should only creative ad agencies get great spaces to work?” Henry asks. “People are people. They respond to the same sorts of things—energetic, theatrical spaces with lots of good natural light.”

Of course, ad agencies were among the early pioneers of mobile working—and chief among them ChiatDay, one of Wilkinson’s early clients when he was employed at Frank Gehry’s office. Although that project resulted in the famed surfboard conference table, workwise it was a disaster. There were too many sofas and lounge chairs that were not conducive to working; each morning there would be a scramble for the few ergonomic spots. After a few years ChiatDay went back to a more traditional model, but Wilkinson continued to hone the concept in projects like the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles, where students could study in networked deck chairs grouped around a “pool”; and the attention-getting Googleplex in Mountain View, California, where the Main Street concept was enthusiastically embraced, even as the engineers demanded stationary offices that they could nest in and decorate like digital magpies.

Wilkinson was already at the shell-and-core stage of the Shelley Street project when Macquarie decided to go mobile, adopting the Activity-Based Working concept, a platform developed by Veldhoen & Co., a Dutch consulting firm. It wasn’t until Henry and others went to the headquarters of the Dutch insurance company Interpolis, in Tilburg, that they saw how ABW could be embraced. “Australians adopt new technologies,” Henry says. “It’s part of our pioneering mentality—we’ve got to accept new ideas to be competitive. That aligns us well with Dutch culture.”

The late-stage adoption, however, meant that acres of already-ordered carpet had to be repurposed, and a more varied selection of furniture had to be procured. Obtaining enough materials for such a large project while trying to meet Australia’s Energy Star System (a LEED equivalent) was a challenge. “Ordinarily everything has to be shipped in,” explains Neil Muntzel, who led the sustainability front on the Macquarie project for Clive Wilkinson Architects. “The range of products that we’re comfortable with in the U.S. or Europe is not economically feasible in Australia. Many work settings had to be custom-made, as there was no suitable product on the market.” Fortunately, the Sydney-based executive architects, Woods Bagott, were able to point to local products that met standards. “Because of the nature of the ABW model, you wind up needing more different types of furniture,” Muntzel says. “You can’t rely on a few repeated elements—like 5,000 of the same chair that maybe would have a lot of recycled content.” Instead, Wilkinson’s firm was able to work with Macquarie to repurpose existing conference tables and lounge furniture from the company’s other Australian offices.

Another existing element that contributed to the building’s reduction in energy usage was Darling Harbor’s cold water. Rather than install an air-conditioning system, the designers used chilled-beam technology, in which a closed system of water cooled by the harbor circulates throughout the building, lowering the temperature and creating a natural convection current that circulates the air. Innovations like these resulted in halving the energy consumption.

A large part of that reduction came from the ABW model itself. Macquarie needed to house 3,000 employees, and if it had stuck to a traditional office, another 50,000 square feet would have been required. The reduced carbon footprint is aided by the use of laptops rather than networked PCs, which draw almost double the energy. “This building enables the business to be more agile,” Henry says. “In our old workplace, if you wanted to reconfigure your team, you had to ring up the help desk three weeks in advance.” The facilities department went from moving 2,500 people a year to zero. Overall, Henry estimates, Macquarie saves $3 million a year in energy costs.

The ability to move according to their needs also gives workers a greater sense of responsibility. “Often there is a command/control–type leadership system, which the conventional workplace reinforces,” Henry says. “Management is in a corner watching a group of people in a fixed cluster.” A shift in work style required a shift in behavior, with an increase in transparency that goes both ways. Employees are just as likely to observe their managers at work as the other way around. “Soon we weren’t just creating a great workplace,” Henry says. “It quickly became a business-transformation project.”

Transparency is an unusual goal for a bank in the midst of our global financial unease. “It’s a paradigm shift,” Wilkinson says. “Banks no longer hold cash, so they don’t have the same security issues from 150 years ago. Transparency is the magic buzzword. With it, people understand the activity around them, and that leads to empowerment, accountability, and knowledge sharing in a democratic environment.” It’s the 21st-century Action Office, where the mailroom is virtual, watercooler talk is everywhere, and the cubicle has finally been vanquished.

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