Special | the office after the office
initiated by Evoline
Thick walls guarantee flexibility
Adeline Seidel talks to
NL Architects
Oct 25, 2013
Adeline Seidel: To what extent does the conversion of the “NS Stations” HQ in Utrecht reflect the changes in working conditions today?

Kirsten Hüsig: “NS Stations” is a subsidiary of “Nederlandse Spoorwegen”, meaning the Dutch railway company, which is comparable to “Deutsche Bahn AG”. I think the comparison is useful as it indicates the structure of such a large corporation. Like many other corporations that have existed for decades, NS Stations also faces the challenge of reflecting the changing ways its staff members work and what this means for the workflow. Many of the single office cells are no longer used thanks to “home offices”. What were once sections now become cross-section project teams. The new design is intended to enable such changes in the work culture and render them more efficient. However, NS Stations did not just want flexible workstations as not all the staff members can adjust to the new work model overnight. This mix of flexible and “traditional” working structures alongside each other strongly reflects the current changes in the working world.

What brief did the Dutch railway corporation give you?

Walter van Dijk: „The idea was a combination of flexible and highly specific workstations within an open-plan office. Then, after a period of transformation, or so the plan, all the workstations would be fit for flexible use. In other words, the design was to be resilient enough to enable such changes. Moreover, the company wanted a plain, minimalist, and yet fresh and sporty design for the offices.
Walter van Dijk (founder and managing partner at NL Architects), Bobby de Graaf
and Kirsten Hüsig (both architects of the project) in their Amsterdam office. Photo © Adam Drobiec
That’s a fairly clear shopping list. How great was the divide between the existing facility and the requirements? What were things like when planning started?

Walter van Dijk: The NS HQ had the ideal location for such an undertaking: The 1970s high-rise floats over the tracks at Utrecht main railway station. This also means that the building possesses any number of structural elements such as are required to provide the load-bearing capacity. Moreover, it is deeper than most office buildings, something which impairs work station light levels.

Kirsten Hüsig: Moreover, the original, striking brutalist façade disappeared behind a dual glass curtain wall in the course of modernization in 1999, when the cell offices were, incidentally, also introduced. It had had an open footprint until then! This step meant just short of 40 percent of the GSA of each story was useless as work space: no daylight and lousy ventilation, which increasingly translated into “broom cupboards”.

What measures did you take to change that?

Kirsten Hüsig: Any number of them! We didn’t alter the façade, the location of the two stairwells and the lift shafts. Otherwise we ripped out all the dividing walls, and moved the server room and toilets to the respective narrow ends of the building, thus gaining a maximum open area, and we completely revamped the kitchens.

Walter van Dijk: One key side-effect of this new layout was that the concrete structure came back into view. The former outer façade with its unusual H-supports, now covered over by the double glass curtain wall, is visible from the inside today. After our interventions, these structural elements shape the space and imbue it with a quite unique identity. Something that had been completely lacking.
Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec
But the ground plans evidence any number of walls...

Kirsten Hüsig: Any open-plan office, with different areas and usages, requires a structure of some sort, but not one set by a corridor. To this end, we developed “Thick Walls”, and they can handle a whole host of functions. These “Thick Walls” create clear zones without these being insulated from the overall structure.

To my mind, Thick Walls sounds like something that flies in the face of the flexibility required – or can they be moved?

Walter van Dijk: I think that the word flexibility often gets misunderstood. Flexibility does not mean you can push desks around and alter rooms as if by pressing a button. Flexibility means that existing rooms and desks can be used for different purposes!

Kirsten Hüsig: The “Thick Walls” are flexible because of the variety of uses they support. They consist of different elements that can be assembled as required, such as a flipchart, shelving, cupboard, projection screen, in fact even self-contained spaces for concentration. Now these are functions for which you always need specific items of different furniture or built-in systems. We put it all together in a single module, and that really saves space! As areas no longer get cluttered up by mono-functional bits and pieces.
Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec
The future may still hold more changes to workflows. How flexibly can you respond to them?

Walter van Dijk: Technological developments will of course influence work and you definitely need to foresee them. Which is why the IT section was part of the design team. As a result, we decided to lay a kind of “cable loop” along the glass façade and thus round the entire building. From there, the various power and data cables run to the workstations – beneath the wooden false floor. Every two to three meters you can take up one of the wooden floorboards. Underneath is a “bespoke” cable duct. The wooden floorboards are subdivided into 50cm, 100cm and “end sections” with a cable exit. The IT boys can thus place the cable connect exactly where it’s needed if the workstations should at some later point in time be relocated.

In the case of open floor plans, ensuring the workstations all have the same high quality is a real issue. How did you handle lighting in such deep spaces?

Kirsten Hüsig: One of the most important elements we included in the interstice between the two layers of the curtain wall is the “Delta Genius” solar protection system. The lamellas have an angled profile that reflects heat and solar irradiation without the lamellas actually having to be completely closed. Meaning you get natural light in the office. The solar protection is activated centrally, automatically, as this is the only way to reliably control heat levels – generally speaking, people close the blinds too late and the heat has already infiltrated the building.

Walter van Dijk: It’s always a tall task to reconcile one person’s needs at the desk with the different interests of a colleague at the next desk. We’ve therefore opted for lighting of 300 Lux throughout. That’s quite sufficient for work at a PC and anyone needing more light can get as much as 500 Lux from the luminaire at the desk.

An office space sized 800 square meters and up to 80 people in it – how do you handle the acoustics?

Walter van Dijk: At the NS HQ we opted for “Sound Masking”, that’s the name of this “empty-noise sound system”. It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with from street noise: During the day, the individual sounds blur in a general buzz while at night, when the sound level falls, you can hear every single car.

Kirsten Hüsig:Loudspeakers mounted in the ceiling emit background white noise at a frequency that is hardly perceptible. This means that individual sounds are no longer perceived as sharp tones, such that the colleague on the phone no longer troubles you. Or, put differently, his colleagues do not understand enough to hear every single word, something that fosters a bit of private space within an open-plan office.
Photo © Adam Drobiec
You’ve added a staircase on each story. Is that enough to augment communication between the individual floors?

Kirsten Hüsig: In particular with “high-rise” office typologies you have to promote chance encounters and thus more interaction. People tend always to only move on “their” floor. At the NS HQ, it can easily be the case that you don’t find a spare workstation on “your” floor. Then the extra staircase makes it a lot easier to simply find one on the floor above or below.

Walter van Dijk: What is key is that the staircase doesn’t run across the 15 stories. Each only connects two floors and the next one is located differently. Meaning you have to meander through the individual stories, and that encourages the desired encounters.
Kamiel Klaasse, also one of the founders and managing partner at NL Architects. Photo © Adam Drobiec
We’ve visited a few architects’ firms for our “The Office After the Office” special. How come architects’ offices rarely resemble the working worlds they design for others?

Walter van Dijk: That’s a bit like “the tap in the plumber’s home drips”. Architects are still strongly tied to their desks, need powerful computers, need space for plans and model building. But architects’ offices are intrinsically flexible, even if they don’t look that way. We use space very organically, adapt it swiftly to our needs. But we don’t shift furniture round or define specific zones. Particularly in smaller or medium-sized firms, adapting for new uses tends to be an informal, organic process that doesn’t require a special corporate design.

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