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An open, transparent office with a floating glass box meeting room and elevated deck reinforces the huge cultural change that has transformed this workplace

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When you are in the commercial property business, you are in a prime position to notice major trends in the workplace. And so it was for Charter Hall, an Australian company with an office, retail and industrial property portfolio in excess of $11 billion.

Joint managing director David Southon says the company was well aware of the move towards activity-based working and investigated the potential for its new Sydney office at No 1 Martin Place.

"Although our former building had an open-plan workplace, we were operating over a number of levels that were not well connected," Southon says. "There was also no link between workstations and the more public parts of the office. It didn't help that the building was old and tired and did not suit our long-term aspirations."

The company commissioned activity-based work experts at Veldhoen + Company to consult on possibilities for the Charter Hall workplace, and chose to implement such a model in its new premises, designed by BVN Donovan Hill Architecture.

"We had the opportunity to accommodate the office over two connected floors," Southon says. "But this was not just about creating a much more open and transparent workplace; it was also about introducing a whole new way of working that would be significant cultural change for the company. Employees would have the freedom to work wherever they wanted, depending on their needs at any particular time – this office model recognises that one size doesn't fit all."

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Architect Abbie Galvin of BVN Donovan Hill Architecture says the new building provided a large floorplate over two levels that allowed for flexible planning to accommodate the required elements. There were also large windows to bring in natural light to most areas.

"Charter Hall proposed a collaborative floor on the upper level and a focus floor on the lower level, with some crossover," Galvin says. "We introduced a new generous stairway to physically and visually link the floors and to provide transparency and connection throughout the office.

"Essentially, we removed two structural bays and wrapped the soffits at the edges of the void with mirror panels. These reflect the parts of the office you can't see. We also added mirror panels to the ceiling, almost like a series of frescoes. These reference the company logo and give the entire space a little sparkle, creating an uplifting environment."

Creating a warm, welcoming office was crucial, for employees and visitors. Everyone entering the office arrives at the upper level where there is a concierge, not a reception desk.

"The traditional barriers have been removed," says Galvin. "When you come into the office, you are not confronted with a guard house – instead you immediately feel part of the Charter Hall hub. And the whole office is on view, and activated, so it is a very dynamic environment."

This animation is enhanced by a clear glass box accommodating a meeting room that appears suspended above the void. The team calls this The Lookout.

Another active part of the office is an elevated timber platform that runs the length of the building beside the windows. This is a collaborative area known as The Deck, where staff can meet and connect both formally and informally. The tables can be grouped or moved aside to create a large space for social gatherings. Because the platform is stepped up from the main office, it retains a sense of separation without being cut off from the rest of the interior.

"This is very much a town hall space," Southon says. "It is used for our regular big breakfasts and drinks on a Friday, and it can be used for client events. It enhances the transparency of our business for our customers and stakeholders."

The lower floor presents a raft of different work environments, with employees able to sit or stand at workstations, sit at a table, in a lounge chair or in a lab space where the chairs are high and the tables are bench height. There is also a high-focus zone, where people can work uninterrupted, and bunkers where workers can make confidential calls.

"For most of the office, there are no partitions blocking the visual connectivity," says Galvin. "Even when someone is sitting in one of the huge hood chairs, they can still have a sense of engagement with the office – they are not isolated."

The flexibility is supported by the latest office technology. Employees have new laptops and soft phone solutions, while the entire office is wireless and features new LAN connections and high-end audiovisual solutions. The use of paper in the office has been greatly reduced.

In keeping with Charter Hall's philosophy, sustainable alternatives were specified wherever possible. Natural light is maximised, products and timber were sustainably sourced, and the joinery was modularised for minimum wastage. The design also ensures employees retain a sense of connection with the outside, no matter where they sit.

Southon says there has been a noticeable lift in energy, enthusiasm, engagement and collaboration since the team moved into the office, and plans are under way to roll out the model regionally.

"Charter Hall has always prided itself on its ability to deliver smart property solutions for clients by knowing the market and being able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Our new office supports this business focus by enabling greater collaboration, increased business efficiency and sustainable business growth."

First published date: 21 August 2014

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Credit List

Project Charter Hall office, Sydney
Architect BVN Donovan Hill (Sydney)
Interior design BVN Donovan Hill; specialist graphics and signage by Urbanite (part of the Frost collective)
Workplace consultant Veldhoen + Company
Construction company Isis
Mechanical and electrical engineer EMF Services
Quantity surveyor MBM
Fire consultant EMF Services
Window and door joinery X-clusive doors and glass auto sliders
Automatic gate Centaman
Blinds Silent Gliss
Wall and floor tiles Nash Tiles
Paints and varnishes Mars
Lighting TLE Artarmon
Office furniture Workstations from Living Edge; chairs and coffee tables from Jardan; additional furniture from Unifor, Wilkhahn, Corporate Culture, Stylecraft
Security system Hud Security
Signage Wizardry