Deacons Sydney

Review of lawyers office fitout by Carr Design, ARTICHOKE Magazine, vol.06/02 March 2004.

Have you heard the news? Lawyers have discovered design.   At least some of the staff at the Sydney office of Deacons are working in some seriously swish interiors. This is largely thanks to the cool hand of Melbourne’s Carr Design who are working with them on the re-modelling of their national network of practices.  Occupying several floors of a 1960s high-rise rent slab, the clients are progressively refurbishing on a floor-by-floor basis.  If the first efforts on the prototype floor are any indication, the finished result should set a new benchmark for big end legal practices.

The clients are continually seeking to create a non-legal image to match their culture of change and innovation.  They sought a wow factor. The effect upon arrival at level 11 is definitely wow.  It’s not often that a strong almost architectural concept can be successfully implemented in an office fitout. When working within the fixed parameters of floor plate, ceiling grid and column layout it is difficult to achieve anything conceptual with a series of partitions. Here, a legibility of process and organization can be read in a funked up space that feels more nightclub than old boys club.

Deacons originally engaged DEGW to look at their organization in a strategic way. Through a series of nationwide workshops general feedback was that people wanted better lines of site and communication.  The idea of the workgroup as a neighbourhood was developed. It was felt that the team neighbourhood would enable good communications. DEGW then recommended Carr Design as the designers for the project.  

The building is planned on a long east-west axis to take advantage of the immediate harbour views to the north. The floor plate is a rectangular shape with the core located on the south façade. It is a relatively shallow floor plan. This works well for providing daylight access to the whole floor. However, as is typical of this vintage of building, columns drop down in the middle of floors.  This created planning limitations.  Challenges that would have been avoided in more contemporary buildings where column free lettable floor space is a prerequisite.

Transparency is the essence of the solution. All offices are clear glazed.  Front, back and sides. Nobody hides behind solid walls in this totally visible environment. Sliding glass doors on industrial tracks give a robust character and aural privacy. Internal offices receive borrowed daylight.  Everyone is almost equal.

The floor is arranged in groups or teams. Typically an open plan central area is flanked by rows of offices. Unlike a traditional pattern however, they are not arranged in a line along the external wall. Rather, they run perpendicular to the coveted northern façade. The view is there for all to share. The group sizes are largely determined by existing column spacings. All offices are the same size, ten square metres. This ‘golden’ size was established by Carr Design for the clients Brisbane office. Its purposes are twofold: firstly it attempts to break down the inevitable hierarchies of a structured organization. Partners are in the same size offices as underlings.  Secondly, it allows a high churn. People can move desks easily and quickly. Teams grow, merge and dissolve. Only the files need to move.  Lighting is sensor operated in the individual offices as an energy saving device.

The building’s floor plate virtually prescribed the organization of the internal layout.  A long corridor was the most efficient way of arranging the spaces.  The corridor runs east west and has been expressed as a red slot inserted into the tenancy.  The success of this project comes from the fact that a mundane element such as a corridor has been turned into an architectural concept.  It is at once circulation route and communications hub. Floor, walls and ceilings are red. A variety of materials: red rubber flooring, red film on glass partitions and red lighting create the effect. Were it not the top end of town it could almost be described as the ‘red wedge’. Why red?  It was seen as energetic by the client and in fact was the favourite colour of the client’s representative.  She loved the idea straight away but kept the actual colour a secret from the senior partners until the last minute.

At both ends of the corridor are the ‘sushi rooms’.  Small semi-enclosed casual spaces for lunch, a private meeting or a phone call.  They have  acoustic walls with integrated straps for magazine or newspaper storage.  Upholstery is a neutral palette as is the rest of the tenancy.  The red slot is the primary focus of the whole floor.

The linear kitchen is part of the red slot and is at the heart of the floor, a gathering space. Most office buildings have kitchenettes that are efficiently wrapped around the lift core. Squeeze in one at a time to prepare a hot beverage or heat up last night’s lasagne. Here the kitchen is open and part of the circulation space. A long red bench and glass splashback are the backdrop to the new social zone. Interaction is encouraged and inevitable. The building’s original kitchenette has been relegated to a services room.

Workstations and storage spines were all designed by Carr Design.  Storage units double as low height partitions between desks. The brief was to design a unit that prevented files being placed on top of the spines. The solution came in the form of joinery doors that hinge up when accessed. It works in the main, though we still observe files on top of units.  Defiant lawyers.  Cabling and wiring runs down columns and through the spinal units to workstations. It looks like the wire free office.  Flat panel screens keep the minimal appearance.

Workstations have evolved since the Brisbane fitout. There, kidneyshaped workstations were used. However the feedback was that this did not give enough storage close at hand. Simple rectangular desks now shoot clean lines. The height adjustable Vitra chairs finish the ultimate working environment. The prototype is complete and other floors are awaiting their transformation. Rumour has it that lawyers on the other floors are jealous. For the lucky folk of level 11 those billable hours are just flying by.