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Bench Desks. A good investment? Perhaps not.

By Crispin Maby

Bench style desks have some advantages over individual desks, but if you ever need to do an office re-configuration, or take your investment with you to your new office when you move, it could prove to be a costly mistake.
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It used to be very simple.  If you wanted to maximise your office space and populate it with as many desks as could reasonably fit, you’d buy lots of regular rectangular desks and set them out in long rows end-to-end, back-to-back. But a few years ago a designer at one of the big office furniture manufacturers came up with the idea of a bench-style desking system and now absolutely everyone (manufacturers and dealers) offers at least one, or a number, of such solutions.  Furthermore, they are now very popular and more often than not it seems that businesses are buying these, rather than single desks.  So what’s the thinking behind bench desks and are they a good deal, or are businesses being sold a concept that they might regret later?

A bench desk is defined by its design – one of long and/or wide work surfaces supported on a shared (bolted together and normally metal) framework and legs.  The original concept, apparently, was to promote flexible workspace whereby you could utilise as little or as much desk space as you needed dependent on the task in hand.  Fundamentally, no-one owns a fixed area of desk and everyone shuffles up and down the length of the bench to allow more people to join into the work group, or to have access to a larger bit of desk if they have big documents, or lots of documents to work on at any one time.  This is facilitated by the fact that the well designed bench desk has fewer legs beneath the desk top, and those that do exist are inset from the desk edge so that you don’t bang your knees as you wheel your chair up and down its length, and, perhaps more significantly, you can sit in any position without having to sit astride a set of desk legs.

That’s the theory anyway, and although I’m sure that someone, somewhere, uses these desks in this way, I’ve yet to see it.  The problem is that people still seem to like their personal space, even when hot-desking, even if the defining factor is simply the join at the sides and back of the desk where the worktop meets the next desk in the row.  But more fundamentally, no one wants to sit on the join between two desktops, no matter how discrete it is, and even though the bench unit might be many regular desk widths in length, it will invariably be too big for a single sheet of worktop (there are limits to the size a single MFC board can be practically manufactured and what can be carried into a typical office building), so we usually end up with lots of standard desk-sized worktops all bolted together.  The net result is that most bench desks are little or no different from the top to a series of regular desks sitting side-by side. Only the structure of the framework underneath is fundamentally different.

So given this,  why are people buying them?  The manufacturers sell the concept that shared components means fewer legs and less metalwork overall which in turn results in a reduction in price. But in my experience, where there is a cost reduction the difference is very small, but more often than not these systems are pretty expensive bits of kit and very often considerably more costly than the equivalent stand-alone desk.

There are clearly some advantages but in my opinion the single biggest disadvantage outweighs any and all advantages.

Advantages:

  1. Fewer legs makes the underside of the desk more open and access to under-desk cabling is easier.
  2. The open design makes it easier to incorporate a shared cable management system (one great big long cable trays basically).
  3. Because the framework and desktops are bolted together, the desk is generally very solid and sturdy and less inclined to wobble or move.

Disadvantages:

The downside, and this is a very major downside,  is that once you’ve got these things, you’re stuck with a set of very large desk clusters that can’t be moved – not easily anyway.  The problem arises mainly when you need to re-configure your office (perhaps to get more people in or because you need to change the working group arrangements), or when you need to shift furniture around  to re-carpet tile the office,  of if you move office and want to take your bench-desks with you. This is when you discover how extremely inflexible the bench system can be.  You can’t just pick up a couple of desks and shove them onto the end of another group, because they’re sharing a framework.  And you if you need to reduce the length of a bench by, let’s say, 2 desks and put those two somewhere else, you can’t just unbolt those 2 units either because the framework supporting them probably also supports part of the next positions in the line, and in any case you will end up with at least one set of desks with no legs. Although the manufacturers tell us that you can buy the extra components you need to re-configure these systems,  it can be complicated trying to work out what is required, the extra bits can be expensive and you will almost inevitably end up with a big pile of metal framework that can’t be re-used, and therefore wasted. Also, by time you need to do the reconfigurations, the manufacturer might have changed the design of their product and you might not even be able to buy compatible parts.

But let’s say that you can get all the bits you need to do the re-configuration, is that “problem solved”?  No it’s not, because now you have the enormous headache of getting everything done over night, or at a weekend, and have it all up and running again when the staff come into work the following day.  If you have individual desks, its a pretty simple process – you simply lift them up and move them around.  But with  bench desks, you will have to work out weeks in advance exactly what parts you will need and get them ordered in time for the move. Your furniture fitters might then have to spend time dismantling and re-building entire rows of desks, just because you need a couple of desks off the end of each, and this might have to be repeated throughout the office. That means that not only do the desks need to be cleared and computers and phones unplugged for the specific workstations that are being re-sited, but potentially many others too.  Of course, it depends on how extensive your office re-configuration is, and also what type of bench system you have, but what might take just a few minutes to complete with individual desks, could take an entire weekend with a bench system.

By the way, we sell bench systems, but that’s because people insist on buying them. That said, I always try to encourage customers to buy smaller units – for all the reasons explained above.

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Office Furniture and Fitout. How office shape can reduce usable space.

By Crispin Maby

When trying to figure out what office furniture you can fit into your new office, or what layout of meeting rooms, cellular offices and desks you might achieve, then the shape of the space often becomes a very important factor.   If you have 10 staff and an office the size of Heathrow Airport, then it probably doesn’t matter in the slightest, but if like most London based businesses you’re paying £80 (including rates and service charges) or more per square foot and you need maximise every available inch of your office, then shape most certainly does matter.   Much depends on how you want to use the space and it’s fair to say that what might be ideal for one business can be completely inappropriate for another, but the important message here is that the shape, rather than the size can often be the determining factor.

I’ve said it before in other articles, but you must never assume that two offices of the same floor area will give you the same results. Quite often you can fit considerably less of whatever it is you want to fit into one office than you can into another office of exactly the same floor area.  So let’s look at a few examples, but before we do, I’ve introduced a few rules.  Firstly, there’s the 11 cubic metre rule (an HSE requirement) and all of the CAD plans I’ve drawn and shown below give each desk/user at least 11 cubic metres assuming the ceiling height is 2.8m or more. Secondly, we must  allow a main traffic aisle through the office of at least 1.2m wide (in larger offices this may need to be increased in width or perhaps duplicated or triplicated – i.e. two or more main aisles of 1.2m wide dependent on the size of the office and layout of desks).  Thirdly, although not a legal requirement (as far as I know), I always like to allow at least 2m spacing between desks that are back-to-back in order that users don’t clash chairs and that there’s sufficient room for people to walk behind, and where a desk is backing onto a wall I like to allow at least 1m between a desk and the wall behind it, and 1.5m if there is a run of more than 1 desk side-by side (this is a personal view and legally you might get away with less but it depends on many other factors that I’m not really qualified to comment on). Finally, I’ve used regular sized 160cm by 80cm rectangular desks in all of my plans and of course you might argue that if we use smaller desks we can get more people in, but I’m trying to demonstrate a point here and comparing like-for-like, so 160m desks it is for the purpose of this exercise!
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Plan 1 shows a room which can comfortably fit 12 desks.  This room is exactly 47.52m².   Plan 2 is also exactly the same size at 47.52m² but as you will see, it’s a different shape and due to this there simply isn’t sufficient space to fit any more than 10 desks.

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Looking at this in a slightly different way, lets now examine how large two different-shaped offices (differently shaped to plan 1 that is) need to be in order to fit the same quantity of desks as plan 1.   Plan 3 is an extension of plan 2 and is 57.32m²,  and plan 4 shows a long narrow office of 77m², but both only sufficiently large to fit twelve 160cm desks. So on one hand we have a 47.52m² office in plan 1 which is sufficiently large to fit 12 of our desks, and on the other hand we have another office of 77m² (plan 4) which is also only big enough for the same 12 desks. This one is a whopping 62% increase on the first office in figure 1!

By now you will be saying “we understand your point, but in all of these other plans there’s extra space which, although not quite sufficient to fit desks, is certainly good enough to be filled with all the other furniture we’d expect to have in our offices such as cupboards, soft seating, casual meeting areas and the like”.  Yes, you’re absolutely right, but I’m trying to demonstrate a point without being absolutely specific to a particular office or space requirement, and besides, I will argue that these might well be rooms into which you need to cram as many desks as (legally) possible as you have all your storage, reception areas, meeting rooms and so on elsewhere in the building. Other factors also come into play, not just size and shape, such as the presence and position of structural pillars or columns which I have also written an article on, low or tapering ceilings, position of windows and much more besides.

What’s the financial impact?   London commercial property specialist Warwick Bookman informs me that as a rough guide a company signing a lease today for offices in central London is typically paying an average of £50 per square foot rental, plus £20 per square foot on rates, and £10 per square foot on service charge – totalling £80psf!   And this is just an average figure – prime space in the west-end is going at £100 psf on rental alone.   So, let’s assume that plan 1 would be absolutely ideal for your requirements if you could get it, but you can’t and so you have to settle for plan 4 instead.  At £80 per square foot (or £861 per sq metre), the office shown in plan 1 would cost you £204,573 over a typical 5 year lease term. This equates to £17,000 per desk.  The office shown in plan 4 would cost you £331,485 over a 5 year lease which equates to £27,600 per desk.  That’s a considerable extra cost and hopefully this demonstrates how important it is to ty to find the ideal office to suit your requirements specifically, rather than having to opt for something bigger with a lot of unusable space that you’re paying a high price for.

To conclude, the main message I want to put across here is that advance planning (even basic space planning) is so important. Renting office space is a huge financial commitment and the mistake I see made most often is that under the immense pressures of trying to get the lease signed companies don’t always check in advance that the office they’re about to take on is the right size and shape for them. Only when they’re fully committed do they then discover that they will have to make compromises, sometimes massive ones, on the size and layout of desks, partitioned offices, meeting rooms and so on. Occasionally and most critically, it means not being able to fit enough people into the office.

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Office fit-out & furniture. How pillars can reduce usable desk space

By Crispin Maby

IMG00547-20111011-1015You might have found a nice big rectangular open-plan office to move to which all looks perfect and the square footage is exactly what your agent suggested would be right for your staff numbers and general requirements. But hold on, I want to show you how two offices with identical dimensions can have completely different usable space attributes. This article examines the effect of structural columns (pillars) that are more often than not found in office buildings, sometimes to a greater and other times a lesser extent.

In an ideal world, you want to try to find an office space with minimal or no columns. Easier said than done, but as we will see in a moment, the impact pillars have on the overall area (square feet or sq m) is usually absolutely minimal, however the impact they have on how you can use the space can be dramatic.

Below we have two floor plans of exactly the same open-plan office, the same, that is, except that I have added some columns to the second drawing. The columns, each having a foot print of 0.16 square metres, take up less than a one square metre in total. The total floor area is 256m², but with the addition of the columns, figure 2 is reduced by just 0.8m² to 255.2m². Hardly worth worrying about is it. Or is it?

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We always have to be mindful of the fact that sufficient space must be left between desks to allow people easy access, and also that the main circulation channels (aisles, traffic routes or corridors) need to be sufficiently wide and un-obstructed, so I have allowed 2m spacing between desks back-to-back, and a 1.2m width main aisle running through the office (this is show as 2 thin blue lines). Another consideration is an HSE requirement that each person has at least 11 cubic metres of space, and this is dealt with in a separate article about how much office space I need.

As you can see, of the 66 desks we had in figure 1, thirteen need to be removed from the second plan (desks shaded in light grey) bringing the total down to 53 which is a reduction of almost 20%. The reason for this is that due to the positioning of the columns, the layout no longer provides for a sufficient main aisle and we therefore had to move this into the space that desks were previously occupying. The three desks near the entrance also need to come out because there would now not be sufficient access space for the people sitting at those desks.

So you can see that a small change can make a big difference and this is why you should never assume that two offices of similar floor space will give you the same amount of usable space. Of course, in some circumstances you might be able to use smaller desks or use the redundant space for something else, but that might be a compromise you don’t want to make.

I hope you have found this article useful.

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