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Transformational Stories - designing spaces for people

Write-up of the live design talk held on 12 Sept 2023 at #DesignPopUp Belfast

Our latest design talk was held at #DesignPopUp Belfast at a new venue, The Drawing office at The Titanic Hotel. The guest speaker for this event was Gordon Yeaman, a director at Michael Laird Architects, who work within the company as an interior designer and strategic consultant specialising in workplace strategy. We were delighted that he was able to share some of MLA’s transformational stories with our Belfast audience, as well as some interesting thinking on how the workplace is changing and how design can accommodate and assist with that.

The Expert

Gordon Yeaman Director,

Michael Laird Architects

The Strategic Consultancy team at MLA work by getting in-depth with their clients, working out briefs for them, but also looking at change management and Post-Occupancy Evaluations to find out how the projects have worked for each organisation.

In evaluating the successes of their projects, Gordon stressed the importance to MLA’s Strategic Consultancy team of taking in as much data and info as they can. By this, he means both the “hard facts” which can be gleaned from surveys and analysis, what the buildings themselves are telling the team, but also by anecdotal information, interviews, feedback, and conversation with the people working and living in their spaces. In Gordon’s opinion, “the sweet spot” of understanding transformational design is in between the two, and it’s just a matter of getting the balance right!

Gordon went on to share some recent case studies of people-centred workplace transformations completed by MLA, and some of the thinking behind them.

Infographic on the timeline of Brodies' refurbishment

Case Study 1 was MLA’s creation of the flagship Edinburgh office for Brodies LLP, the largest law firm in Scotland.

Brodies wanted to create a new destination workplace in the heart of Edinburgh for clients and colleagues; underpinning this was an institutional ambition to change and be more dynamic as a legal sector, become much less corporate and stuffy in the way they approached work and workplace culture, and use the consolidation of their workspaces

as an opportunity to instill new working practices.

The project had started in 2018 following a very corporate approach, but a change of management brought about a significant change in how they operated - it broke down and softened how they wanted to approach corporate culture, which also radiated out into their plans for the new office space and brought about radical changes in the space plan MLA were designing.

The new building – a vast modernisation over their previous home in an old Georgian townhouse split over several floors with the workforce siloed into several different rooms – occupies the top three floors of a new building in the heart of Edinburgh.

Lockdown also represented a great opportunity for MLA to engage with the staff themselves, who were all working from home, to see what they would want out of office space and sell the idea of returning to the office.

Light, window-focused spaces for co-working at Brodies'

Brodies have led from the top - it’s been a complete rethinking of corporate culture. They’ve never previously used break-out spaces, having been much more focused on a traditional model of desks in rooms. Another key shift in their behaviour has been the giving of choice; they’ve created many different places where people can come together and work, or tuck themselves away to focus. Nobody now has an office, and there is indeed no owned space aside from support services. MLA also made sure that there was a consistent quality of fit-out between the workspaces and client-facing spaces, so the whole office gives off a very tangible feeling of investing in their people.

The ability to get people together is the biggest thing we could learn in workplace design recently. Regardless of how introverted or extroverted you are, you still need connection.”

- Gordon Yeaman, MLA

Gordon showed a short video interview with Brodies’ finance director David Edwards, who says he now really enjoys the experience of coming into the office. Edwards talks about the creation of spaces for collaboration using terms like “battery hen boxes” to describe the culture at their old office, compared to the idea of “breakaway spaces” which have been encouraging far more “ad hoc meetings”. Edwards praises the design for being focused on interaction and collaboration. He says “You’ve got to make the office an attractive place to come to” and comments that they have a space now that makes people want to visit it and work in it.

Case Study 2 was the creation of the brand new National Robotarium at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University.

The National Robotarium is the first of its kind: a centre for robotics that is also an innovation hub, bringing together commercial, industry, and academic workers. The building design needed to accelerate the generation of knowledge and flow of robotics and autonomous systems, and to offer the potential for the whole building to gather data in a Living Lab.

Several different types of labs needed to be brought together, so MLA created a central town hall’ space where people could meet and share information, and this central hub was focused on communication and interaction between the different departments. The mix of spaces required also included large industrial testing labs alongside computer working stations.

A challenge here was getting the right balance between interaction and the need for confidentiality, so they needed to come up with spaces that could be private alongside spaces that could be more collaborative.

Colleagues meeting up to sit and discuss on large, plant-lined auditorium steps lit by skylights in the Robotarium, Edinburgh

Gordon showed a video where the architects and clients commented on the new building, which began with CEO Stewart Miller commenting: “If you come into the National Robotarium you’re going to feel light, energised and as though anything is possible”. Other comments taken from the lived experience of the site included “It’s light, it’s vibrant, it’s intelligent, it’s interactive,” and “The overall ambiance of the building helps make it feel like a creative space where people can think about things and develop new ideas.” The architects discuss how they wanted to centre people and wellbeing at the heart of the building, that as you enter the grandness of the building’s exterior, there’s a soft, tactile timber space in the entrance and forum, with extensive use made of natural materials. The architects describe how they have focused on visual connection so that when someone’s in the Robotarium they can see what’s going on in other parts of the building and feel part of a community. “What the building has to do fundamentally is work for the people and that belief in architecture is the greatest satisfaction”

Case study 3 is the BT Group’s Belfast HQ at the landmark Belfast Riverside Tower

This has been part of a major ongoing transformation for BT, who are in the process of rolling out consolidation and rationalisation of their estate. The Riverside Tower is a 13-storey tower on the river, which is a well-known landmark in Belfast but which was also showing its age; Gordon shared some Before slides showing what he called a “tin can entrance” and a very old-fashioned lobby, which has been replaced by an open new glass entrance way. Gordon spoke about “really carving out a lot of interventions architecturally across the building, modernising and opening up into something fresh” What MLA was brought in to do was help instill new, better workplace practices, and create a new beginning for that building; the reuse of and investment in such a prominent building in Belfast was a big story in and of itself. BT was starting with a disparate workforce spread across a number of buildings; those within the tower were spread across several floors with quite a lot of those floors sitting unused, so it was a great opportunity for them to consolidate all of that back into the building.

Gordon Yeaman of Micheal Laird Architects

MLA helped initiate a breakdown of multi-story of the hierarchy of the building, so executives were no longer holding court at the top. The disparate nature of the workforce - not just in terms of the multi-storey structure but making sure that teams and individuals who worked different shift patterns could be included - also presented a challenge, so MLA focused on, as they describe it,

getting good well-being practice into the space.”

One of MLA’s key interventions was about finding those “Moments that Matter”. BT wanted to create landing points on each of those levels for collaboration, recreation or refreshment, meeting together, or having some focus time and there was a roll multi-story out of those different sorts of spaces across all the floors.

Ultimately, the challenge here was, ironically given the nature of the client’s work, improving spaces for communication across the building. MLA had conversations with the workforce on even seemingly small details like the methods for managing day-to-day working procedures like room bookings, to help get the various teams out of their separate silos. BT had also never really been able to successfully host clients in the building before, so the top and bottom floors have been fully opened up to create town hall spaces which, as Gordon described it, function like “the hearts of the building”.

Case study 4 is the headquarters of the Scottish Bible Society.

This small Edinburgh-based charity is based out of a former church, which had been heavily cellularised when it was converted into an office in the 1970s. MLA was brought in to reinvigorate the space, hinting back to the history of the church building by stripping back to the original features while keeping it modern and fresh and getting away from all the dated cellular workspace. It still looks like a church from the outside so the modern interventions within are a pleasant surprise for people visiting for the first time. Simple architectural and interior interventions have meant that staff can communicate and see each other, and the idea of complete transparency carries through most of the design, most notably in an all-glass meeting room with sliding folding glass partitions, which transformed what the building could offer.

“Nothing ostentatious” was a brief requirement from the client, so simple materials like ply were used to create freshness without going over the top, and the architects used the phrase “humble and tactile” as a touchstone.

Bright, open, and welcoming spaces within the Scottish Bible Society

MLA found that they were able to have a lot of fun with the brief – speaking to who the organisation is and about their work involved etching the words of Jesus into some of the meeting booths and creating artwork relating to statements from the Bible. There was an idea of timelessness underpinning the whole design, too: the top floor has been made an open plan, with walls knocked away to create an open plan space exposing the honesty of the church structure.

In the video Gordon shows, SBS staff describe the space as “friendly and open and inviting”, and say that it’s much easier to work collaboratively; and that the work they do being engraved in the walls is such an encouragement to them as a staff team. Comments include: “The integrity of the building has been maintained but the space itself is fresh and focused” and “It absolutely reflects who we are and what we do”. The space is white, light, and bright, with the high ceilings and exposed beams of the church feeling airy and inspirational.

The final case study was of Glenkinchie Distillery, based in Tranent, East Lothian.

Glenkinchie is the home of one of Johnnie Walker’s Four Corners of Scotland blends. It’s known as the ‘lowland whisky’, and its distinctive floral taste is key to its appeal. Glenkinchie is still a working distillery but also offers a whisky experience for visitors and tourists; it’s a longstanding employer within the local community and as such there were a lot of considerations to be taken on board in the refurbishment of the traditional brick distillery building.

MLA found the experience a really fun one as they were working with a brand consultant on this project, which allowed them to connect the distillery with its story, which related to the floral tasting notes and involved championing nature and reinvigorating and planting into the Glenkinchie garden setting around the building. The garden has now become a key attraction for the local community in its own right.

This was a very sustainable refurbishment, rooted in the history of the building and in reimagining that history. retained a lot of the brick walls inside the building, but stripped off the old-fashioned tartan carpets and repurposed a lot of floorboards in repair operations. There was a celebration of the existing distilling equipment, with maturation barrels transformed into benches in the lovely reimagined garden area, and timber and brick from the historic process repurposed into the experiential spaces. As Gordon put it,

You get sold a story in Glenkinchie now; it’s a fully immersive experience.”

MLA is also delighted to have noted through their Post Occupancy Evaluation that there has been a huge positive impact on both workers who have been with the company for years, but also for the community who can now access that outdoor space, and that the refurbishment has really invigorated the area.

This event took place on Tuesday 12th September, at 5.30 pm. You can catch up with the video recording on your YouTube channel:


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