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!



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.



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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