The success of multifunctional offices lies in achieving the right mix of spaces and using the right mix of materials to achieve the required functionality of these spaces.

The face of commercial interiors has changed significantly over the last couple of decades. Instead of long corridors with closed-door offices, workplaces have become more open plan, partly to fit more people in per square metres but also to enhance communication and teamwork.

Taking it a step further, “multifunctional offices” became a trend and sparked an ongoing debate regarding the effect it has on employees and productivity. What has become clear, is that the success of this kind of office spaces lies in the dual meaning of the word – having spaces that can suit different purposes as well as having a range of different spaces that suit different needs.

With more than 20 years of commercial interior architecture and design experience, Maria Cowie, COO at Pure Design, explains: “The design of multifunctional office spaces very much depends on the needs within an organisation. Finance divisions, who work with figures and confidential information, need to be treated differently to marketing or sales teams, who are more collaborative, creative and noisy. It is necessary to strike a balance for each client and have a good mix of spaces to create a successful environment and a good design.”

Homey offices
One thing that is certain, is that workspaces are becoming homelier with aesthetics playing a much bigger role than before. People’s lifestyles are becoming more flexible, some are spending many hours at the office, and companies have started to realise the importance of retaining happy employees and the role the office environment has on this.

A success story: Johnson & Johnson
Cowie sites the revamp of the Johnson & Johnson offices in Cape Town as an example. “When we started working on the project, it was dreary corridors – the floor plans haven’t been touched for 30 years. We changed it to open plan and put a coffee/pause area with lovely furniture and lighting almost in the middle of the floor,” she says.

“Chatting to the staff afterwards, they found that the collaboration between teams improved incredibly. The pause area is used constantly and creates a more upbeat energy. One of the key project sponsors also mentioned that she saw her email volume drop significantly because people would see her more and quickly chat, whereas before they were all behind closed doors.”

Walling in multifunctional spaces
According to Cowie, interior walling is crucial in multifunctional offices as this implies and creates different solutions for different areas in the same space. For example, the acoustics for dedicated meeting spaces in open offices need to be dealt with more so than in pause areas, so appropriate materials must be applied.

Drywall systems
Still the go-to material for creating and dividing spaces, drywalls are lightweight and offer sound insulation properties, a low thermal conductivity (K-value) and high thermal resistance (R-value). “Architects are continually experimenting with shapes and sizes to make drywalls far more interesting than ever before,” Rodney Gould from Pelican Systems states.

He further points out that access in fire walls through doors and frames is available without compromising the fire rating, meaning that the door and frame can be purchased with the identical rating having been tested in the wall.

Acoustics: Intelligent solutions
To address acoustic requirements, Cowie explains that, depending on the drywall structure specification, sound absorbing materials can be put within the wall, as well as in the room itself. “Large upholstered panels can serve as decorative items while preventing sounds from bouncing off hard surfaces. We are currently installing a special self-adhesive, felt-type fabric that has sound absorption qualities for one of our clients,” she states.

Aluglass Bautech’s Petunia Mpoza reiterates that to create successful multifunctional, open-plan spatial configurations, acoustics need to be addressed appropriately.

“Today one gets partition systems that combine transparent, movable and sound-insulating room concepts, with which it is possible to modify room sizes with ease,” she says. “In addition, motorised acoustic partitions allow individual elements to move into position and extend their seals at the touch of a button, affording speed and flexibility.”

Mpoza adds that open-plan settings can pose challenges, when it comes to work productivity and privacy, and recommends personalised wall and ceiling absorption panels to remove unwanted reflections and echoes, or best, consider re-mountable acoustic glass partition system to create quite office spaces with flexible frame components.

She, however, warns that expecting too much out of a single product instead of integrating a complete acoustics solution can minimise the effectiveness of the desired sound treatment and lead to disappointment.

Light: Polycarbonate sheeting
Tyrone Blommestijn, director at Perspex SA, highlights that, together with the clear move towards open-plan offices, interior architects are looking to introduce more natural light into the work space.

“South Africa is blessed with sunny skies, so using natural light is a cost-effective way to improve indoor environmental quality and translucent polycarbonate sheeting offers a lightweight, yet rigid option for creating meeting spaces or screening for breakaway areas within an open-plan office,” he says.

“The trapped air inside the cells of the sheet also provides acoustic and thermal insulation, whilst giving a sense of privacy,” Blommestijn adds.

Glass walls and partitions
According to Gould, the use of glass for interior walling and partitioning has become increasingly popular in commercial applications, either on its own or in conjunction with other systems.

“We are seeing clear glass with blinds as a feature, as well as designs and patterns printed or sandblasted onto glass. Using alternating glass and panels of drywall with polished dark wood veneer doors makes for a really striking contrast, while combining glass with exposed aluminium and steel can create an industrial feel,” he explains.

Glass bricks are another option to let through some extra natural light. According to Mpoza, specific glass bricks can provide excellent thermal insulation, while offering a high level of sound insulation and making a good fire barrier, since they are fire resistant, not forgetting they are totally recyclable.

Privacy: Argon Asset Management
While glass is great from a transparency point of view, in some cases more privacy is required. Designing an open, multifunctional office for Argon Asset Management, Pure Design put in double glazing to retain visual openness but dampen the sound.

“Another interesting material that we have used, is electrochromatic film that gets applied to the glass. In an instance, the electric current can be activated by a remote, turning the film opaque and creating complete privacy in a room,” Cowie explains.

Choosing materials
Dr Dustin Tusnovics, architect at Space Matters Architecture & Urbanism, sees walling as a relative term. “I love experimentation, so any material used in the right way can be relevant,” he says.

“We often just want to divide areas with the grade of division determining the material. Glass can be enough if it is only a spatial division, but for better acoustics more solid materials with a bigger mass are needed, however, sound absorption can also be achieved with wood or wood-derivate products. However, often walls just need the correct surface treatment to influence things such as user comfort and fire ratings.”

Whether considering wood, glass, bricks, drywall, concrete panels or even fabric, Tusnovics sees sustainability as fundamental in selecting materials for internal walling. And for the materiality to be sustainable, it needs to respond to the requirements of the space. “It is the functionality of the material that determines the quality,” he says.

“For transparency, the choice would be glass. For sound absorption, bricks are ideal, while wood or concrete panels are more modular choices. Today, glass and wood have a great appeal in the office environment, but bricks and drywalls are equally relevant, with time of realisation being another good criterion for material selection,” Tusnovics explains.

Getting creative
Cowie agrees that sustainability is a huge consideration and to combat the negative impact of drywalling that ends up in landfills when demolished, Pure Design opts to use furniture to define spaces where possible. “The back of cupboards may form the walls of a meeting room, while on the outside one has storage functionality. And instead of creating cordoned off meeting rooms, we create pods with high-back sofas for more informal conversations,” she explains.

“We also think about how we can use what we have differently,” Cowie adds. “We may create screen walls out of a mixture of timber and some epoxy-coated sheet metal to also function as a sculptural element. Or we may mix different materials and strung them onto a frame to create interesting visual barriers where soundproofing is not a necessity, an approach that was evident at the recent Milan Design Fair,” she says.

Clarence Kachipande, commercial specifying manager at Marley Building Systems, adds that to achieve functional and quality spaces, walling systems need to be durable and meet performance standards with respect to thermal, fire and acoustical requirements. “Another critical factor in product choice is material honesty and integrity as a methodology to achieving authentic built form. But above all is the need to mitigate high building costs,” he states.

Urban regeneration
“Open flexible planning, as an essential genesis of modern architecture, is an ongoing trend that not only guides new developments, but allows for easy building function reinterpretation and reuse,” Kachipande states.

“This is evident in the urban regeneration space, which has spawned the trend of spatial reclaim through the conversion of existing and outdated office building stock into modern residential units, giving new life to the interiors of buildings.”

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Pure Design, Space Matters, Aluglass Bautech, Perspex SA, Pelican Systems, Marley Building Systems and The Tile House for the information given to write this article.