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Sun 10 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Spaced out

As more and more companies expand, Becca Wilson looks at the reality of space planning in the region's offices.

As more and more companies expand, Becca Wilson looks at the reality of space planning in the region's offices.

With the cost of office space in the more popular parts of the Middle East soaring as high as US $272 (AED 1,000) a sq ft, businesses and their FMs are having to think twice about how they use their office space.

Depending on business size, expanding companies are either relocating or utilising their space more efficiently. For companies entering the Middle East region, it's wise finding space that will best suffice a growing company, at least for the first leasing period.

Building fancy shaped buildings are actually very inefficient.

Another reason to relocate could be down to an expired lease. With developments in the UAE in particular, appearing in months rather than years, a development that once had nice views, plenty of daylight and uncongested road systems, might now be overpowered by buildings blocking the sun and a shortage of car parking.

So what should businesses look out for and how does the Middle East fair up to the international companies setting up regional offices? Are architects and developers designing and constructing buildings with flexibility in mind? And how will the change in office dynamics affect the burgeoning office industry?

The on going debate that gathers attention and the question FMs all over the world often come across when thinking about space planning, is: how far you can push a comfortable working environment before it gets too cluttered and unproductive?

"Before, office space used to equate to around 18m2 a person, I was horrified. But now they are coming down to around 12m2 and this is happening because rent is getting so expensive and companies have to think more about how they utilise their space," says Simon Green, general manager, Schiavello.

"The cost of rent is driving this and inefficient planners will cost the client dearly. If it's a big company, it might be the difference between renting two or two and a half floors."

And when taking the length of the lease into account, it's vital the right choice is made to ensure costs are kept to a minimum.

Relocation realisation or staying put?

For those companies needing to relocate, space planning really does start from the beginning. The first step is to sit down and assess the company's requirements. How many staff are there? What is the projected growth? What kind of offices will be best suited to the company's business? And how much efficiency will you get out of that building?

In Dubai alone, a major problem is that of signature building and aesthetically pleasing architecture. "Building fancy shaped buildings are actually very inefficient. For example, because of the shape of Emirates Towers, you get these odd areas that you can't do anything with. That building is about 60% efficient. So you're paying 100% rent for a building that can only give you 60% efficiency," claims Green.

While he says it's impossible to achieve 100% efficiency, there are buildings in Dubai that work to a high standard of efficiency.

He cites Festival Towers in Dubai Festival City as one example and explains that even though the building has the odd curve, it's a "rigid building and nice to look at". Green claims its efficiency level stands at around 85%. But dependant on a company's business requirements, efficiency might not be top of its list. If prestige and location are more important, Emirates Towers could be exactly what a company requires.

Whether companies are relocating or utilising existing space, facilities managers should look to allocate 10m2 a person if they want efficiency. For those relocating, finding decent and affordable office space can be a problem.

"According to the Colliers report, in terms of the office market today, there is currently about a 1-3% vacancy in Dubai. But to be honest, it's often more like 1%. What happens is that as soon as one building becomes vacant, it is occupied straight away. So people are often forced to go into buildings that are badly designed," explains Green.

Because of this reason, it is imperative for facilities managers and building owners looking for new office space to act fast and allow enough time to assess the company's requirements before the lease runs out.

But it doesn't matter if the company is renting or buying office space, a grid or footprint of a building will help determine how efficient it will be for the company's business needs.

"A building that has columns to the perimeter and not in the middle, is important. Why? Because of the effect of the structure. If I've got a series of workstations in an office and the column is on the perimeter building, it won't actually affect me.

"But imagine if a column came in between the grids, I would lose one, two or four workstations every so often. That's the effect of the footprint. So it's very important to figure out where your columns are in relation to your footprint of your workstation on the grid. The effect, is inefficiency," stresses Green.

The choice to relocate or stay put is down to individuals and will be dependant on a variety of reasons. But if companies do decide to retrofit, Green says one of the problems can be the lack of swing space.

"Swing space is spare space for retrofit. If a company had a spare half a floor and they knew they needed a whole floor for growth, you could retrofit by putting some people into the swing space and fitting the other space," he adds.

"But what often happens here is that companies are very full, don't have swing space and can only do small bits at a time. It becomes a disaster.
Modular planning and flexible furniture

The cost of changing an office is very expensive. By using the building grid, which is usually based on 300, companies will find things like ceiling tiles, workstations and window blinds will fit comfortably.

"A good commercial building is built on a grid based on 300 because you buy your ceiling tiles six by six, three by 12 or maybe six by 12, your workstations are also three, six, nine, 12, 15 and 18," says Green.

FMs should allocate 10m2 a person for efficiency.

Modular planning enables a company to plan to the building's grid. This allows a greater understanding of the building, why it's suitable and the value it can bring.

System furniture is a great way to ensure the grid is followed, can be repeated and companies gain the maximum efficiency from the building.

By following a structured modular plan, other furniture will slot into place, for example, partitions. The older ones used to be 100mm in width and have cabling running through them. Now, partitions as thin as 30mm can be installed and cabling will run along cable trays on the desk or through the floor.

Green explains that the benefits behind choosing modular furniture can add significant value. "If you have 100 rows of desks with a 100mm partition between each of them, that adds up. If you have a partition of 50mm, you might be able to get another row of desks - it could mean the difference of renting another floor.

Forward thinking companies are now searching for flexible furniture. "Space planning is now not the most important factor, what to buy that can move with you is becoming increasingly valuable," explains Garabedian.

He says space planning is important and should be highly thought about, but slowly creeping into the equation is the investment in furniture that can relocate with the business as and when it needs to.

"The most expensive option is to buy a cheap product because most of the time, it cannot move with you," he adds. A comment Green agrees with.

"There is longevity in the flexible products. Whereas with the Chinese product, you might buy it because it's cheap but if you then try to grow, the Chinese product range is likely to have been discontinued. But if you buy systems that have longevity from the top companies, the value is that it's flexible and add-onable in the future, then you can always move your office, take and add bits to it," he explains.

If privacy is what a company requires for management or meeting rooms, Garabedian adds that by using flexible partitions or studio set-ups, you can create private offices and meeting rooms within an open-planned space and move them around accordingly as and when required.

Modular planning and flexible furniture should constitute for a comfortable and productive working environment if thought out correctly and Green claims that regional thinking is slowly changing.

"In a well-planned office, productivity increases. It's important to think about how you place people, why you're placing them there and the interaction of staff and their environments," says Green.

Mukadeer agrees with Green's comment and adds, "companies are now looking for flexible furniture and ease of adding or removing pieces, without changing the overall look and feel.

An increasingly important part of the office environment on an international level, is break out areas. Although the concept is only just starting to pick up in the region, one company taking it seriously is the ABN Amro bank headquarters in Dubai.

Each or the three floors is equipped with a colourful breakout area, situated away from desks. It gives staff the opportunity to take a break from the office environment or even have a meeting in more comfortable surroundings.

A huge office needs a breakout area to use as a facility for staff to go and grab a coffee, have a quick meeting or take clients," says Mohammed Mukadeer, sales manager, Officeland. "There's no point having a kitchen that's far away, as it will take staff longer to get there and back. Break out areas are starting to become more popular here.

ChurnIn a well-planned and thought-out office, churn should be the last of your worries. But if a building is badly designed, a study in Australia concluded that the cost of churn can be as high as AUD $2,500 (AED 8087) per employee.

"If we say a company has 100 staff, that's $250,000 and around 30-40% churn. With a well-planned, modular building, the cost of churn can dramatically reduce to around 0-3%," claims Green.

So the financial impact of a well-planned office is evident and payback for buying furniture with a longer life will save the company money in the long term.

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