Central Retail Park Masterplan
Sir Richard Leese hinted at movement within months on the 1m sq ft office scheme at Central Retail Park. Credit via framework

The Subplot | Nightmare offices, Ancoats puzzle

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Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the North West business and property market from Place North West.

THIS WEEK

  • The nightmare office: why you shouldn’t get too cosy in the post-pandemic workplace 
  • Ancoats paused: four reasons why nothing is happening on a 1m sq ft office scheme

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DON’T HAVE NIGHTMARES

Person Sleeping The Subplot 30.11.21The office design bromide

Having tried workspace-as-hotel, post-pandemic office designers are now experimenting with workspace-as-your-home. Will it tempt young workers back, or is this an invitation to sleepless nights?

At Bruntwood’s Bloc in Manchester, you can doze off in a sleep pod. At architect Hawkins/Brown’s new Northern Quarter office, a lovely-looking kitchen area opens out into a large communal table, just right for “family” meals of the kind shown on the invitation to the new office’s opening party. Suddenly, office interiors aren’t just about hospitality, but about replicating the home.

Kitchen to die for

A few days ago, Canning O’Neill director James Dickinson was showing some potential tenants the show suite at CEG’s 196 Deansgate. “It’s great, the kitchen fit-out is out of this world, and it’s what the clients wanted. They want to feel like this is their kitchen, their lounge,” says Dickinson. “I’d say 60-70% of the occupiers I meet are looking for an office that’s a home from home.” The last four months have seen the homely rhetoric tick-up, he says.

Never go home

In part, of course, frequent referencing of “home” is a metaphor, even perhaps a joke. Dickinson tells of a visitor to Bloc who, seeing the sleep pods, the 24-hour access, and the eating and lounging opportunities, resolved to give up their city centre flat and move in permanently. But it is also an attempt to lure home-workers, especially younger home-workers, back to the office.

Tired ideas

Home comforts make a bold, visible statement about a commitment to a cosy kind of wellness, and today that scores points. “Sleep pods might be a bit radical, maybe they will get used, maybe not, but it all helps sell office space that can otherwise be pretty humdrum,” he says. “If you had suggested sleep pods in offices 18 months ago, I would have said you were having a laugh.” It is 150 years or more since Manchester apprentices last slept under their looms but now it’s back and labelled as “wellness”. Andrew Cooke, strategic director at Bruntwood Works, says: “Spaces that allow people to decompress are vital for health and wellbeing, and for giving them the thinking space to do their most creative and productive work.”

The explanation

Office designers say it all makes sense. “Although people that have been working from home are not necessarily looking for that to be replicated in the workplace, it does need to be somewhere they feel safe and comfortable. That is why it is less about designing offices to look like homes, and more about creating inviting spaces that offer the ability for someone to control their environment in the way they can at home, to meet their individual needs,” says Leanne Wookey, director at tp bennett. Her team is fresh from designing Hilti’s new 42,000 sq ft Manchester office at Circle Square, complete with informal homely places to relax, eat and socialise.

Yes to hotels

If it’s all about hospitality – meaning like an hotel – then Manchester International Office Centre designer Jasper Sanders is all in favour. But when it strays into the cosy and homely, he gets uncomfortable. Some would add it is particularly uncomfortable when it is about luring younger workers. Many of this cohort are still fresh enough to enjoy feeling adult and often have fairly scant rented home lives, which makes them vulnerable to a bit of razzle-dazzle design.

No to coffee tables

“I have a problem with the homely aesthetic. Cushions, coffee tables, standard lamps. Coffee tables are useless for work – you can’t put a laptop on them. Sofas are for the evening. The trouble is this homely metaphor bleeds too much,” says Sanders. “Comfortable, familiar, safe, yes, but a place to go to sleep? Occupiers and landlords want to entice people back by making it more like a home, but that’s a mistake.” His point is simple: homes are for relaxing in, offices aren’t. The hotel – a more transient place with a busier ethic – makes a more successful metaphor, he says.

Asking a lot

There’s also a price to pay for homely workplaces. “There’s a very real hidden subplot of going down the domestic route,” says Sanders. “Each design project gets more cossetting, cosier, it is like each office is competing for hyper-levels of cosy. But if you need that much cossetting, go and see your mum and have a cuddle, you probably shouldn’t be in work if you’re in that state.”

Emotions

There are emotional stakes here. Wookey says homely offices “offer the ability for someone to control their environment in the way they can at home” but that could not be more wrong: it is a strictly policed environment. Try sitting on a fancy workplace sofa in your pants, leaving dirty plates on the floor, or your clothes on an office radiator, and see if you can count to ten before you get a written warning.

Slamming doors

After all, it’s a funny kind of home that has fairly clear norms, a relaxed but still real dress code, and an implicit hierarchy. We’ve all had experience of a home like that (our parents’, when we were teenagers) and almost everyone leaves after a series of more or less explosive rows. Spending every day in an emotional simulacrum of their parents’ home may not be the best way to lure young people back to work. Even adulting well gets boring.

Just get over it

It may be that the solution to luring young workers back to the office is to stop trying, and simply to tell them, like it or not? Employers (like parents) once had that kind of confidence, but have since convinced themselves that uniquely among all human generations, and quite unlike employers 15 years ago, they face a “war for talent” that makes this unfeasible. Even so, some parents see signs of change.

Tears before bedtime

“Landlords are doing all they can to create this home from home environment,” says Dickinson, father of a 17 year old. “Employers are nervous because younger employees are not learning, not developing, and they need them back in the office to do that. Until now they have been treading on eggshells with younger staff. Lots of staff are saying what they are going to do, and employers are increasingly saying that is not going to work for them. There is a cauldron of issues brewing, you can see it. Soon it won’t be about treading on eggshells, but about breaking eggs.”


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…

Ancoats and the four paths to wisdom

Speaking at a Place North West event last week, outgoing Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese hinted at movement within months on the 1m sq ft office scheme at Central Retail Park in Ancoats. Spin or reality?

Four years after the city council acquired the site, is something about to happen at Manchester’s 10.5-acre Central Retail Park? On the face of it, plans for a 1m sq ft “exemplary net zero commercial district” look stuck. When Subplot asked Town Hall sources about Sir Richard’s boosterish comment they were more cautious. There are four views of what’s going on, and why it’s proving hard-going.

The story so far

First, a recap. In February 2021 Manchester City Council resoundingly lost a High Court judicial review launched by protesters Trees Not Cars, who wanted to stop the council using the site as a temporary car park (a meanwhile-money-spinner made necessary by the site’s £37m purchase in 2017, Subplot, 12 January). Judge Bird decided the council ‘misled’ its planning committee and ‘failed’ to discharge its equality duty to local children. The council attempted an appeal on fairly narrow grounds, one that fizzled out very rapidly. Nine months later, it is hard to see any signs of movement. The prime Great Ancoats Street site is as empty and forlorn as ever.

A near miss

To be fair, there has been a bit of action, though it misfired – a 140,000 sq ft HS2 requirement flirted with the site before deciding the timetable wasn’t right. Today there’s talk about getting underway with the selection of a development partner.

Theory one: muddle

Property sources favour two potential, and interlinked, theories. The first says the reason nothing has happened is that nobody knows what to do, as competing plans and re-thinks struggle for political attention. More park, less park, more offices, less offices: it’s all up in the air, says this theory. A touted big public sector pre-let (maybe up to 1m sq ft) is not going to be easy to reel-in, and will come with strings, which mesh or don’t mesh with these competing plans. Hence slow-going.

Theory two: bad news

The other property view says that after three years of sustained bad publicity the council is now paralysed by fear of stirring up trouble on green and sustainability issues, issues where campaigners have shown them to be vulnerable. Until the council has unequivocal good news to report, and a big jobs number to counterbalance the more hostile stories, the Town Hall would rather keep schtum.

Theory three: big man

A third theory, which fits neatly with the other two, says nothing could possibly happen at Central Retail Park until Sir Richard was off the scene (he leaves office tonight). Leese was personally associated with the car park plan and a U-turn was not feasible under his leadership. This theory appears to be in the mind of campaigners who are (reluctantly) reconciled to the office development but want the scheme modified to include more green spaces.

Will Bev unblock?

“We are trying to form positive relationships with the new council leader,” says Trees Not Cars’ Claire McDonald. A letter has gone to Sir Richard’s replacement Bev Craig – and in the meantime the campaigners are still measuring pollution levels so they are ready in case there should be another showdown. “Councillors promised new parks in the May 2021 elections. Sir Richard’s failure to integrate parks into the growing city has set us back but hopefully [things will change] with a fresh approach from the new leader, who we hope to meet and collaborate with.”

Theory four: leverage

A fourth theory is worth mentioning. In 2019, the council pivoted from a residential-led Central Retail Park masterplan to an offices-led plan, then in 2020 it doubled the amount of offices to 1m sq ft, reportedly to satisfy the aforementioned public sector requirement. This was ashes in the mouth to U+I, developers of the nearby and market-adjacent Mayfield scheme. Nobody wants a massive council-backed rival on their doorstop and, rightly or wrongly, Mayfield too had been associated with the Whitehall mega-requirement. At the time, U+I sources chose their language carefully but the subtext was clear enough. However…

…times have changed

Now Landsec has replaced U+I, the company might also look at Central Retail Park and wonder what’s next? Speaking at the Place North West event, Sir Richard voiced the fear that Landsec would tilt the balance at Mayfield back from offices to residential. If Landsec wanted to do this it would require buy-in from the Mayfield Partnership, which of course includes Manchester City Council…. Do you see where this thought is going?

The boys are back in town

And behind all this sits another thought, which is the possibility that Sir Richard’s days of political leadership may not be quite over. “We don’t believe he’s really stepping back,” one source told Subplot. “This feels a bit like Sir Howard’s situation,” says another helpful caller, referring to former city chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein who is still visible in the city’s property market. Connoisseurs of the Manchester property/politics interface will know how closely each took an interest in both the Mayfield and CRP sites and will be awaiting further developments with exquisite suspense.

The Subplot is brought to you in association with Cratus and Oppidan Life.

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Sorry but this article sounds like bull shit to me.In the late 1960,s I used to have a cat nap most dinner breaks and my AO size drawing board provided a private space.
These cat naps stopped in the 1970s when everything went computerised and now you never seem to get the opportunity to take a healthy cat nap.

By Paul griffiths

The stuff on central retail park is hilarious. Regeneration takes a long time. Timing is everything. Spinningfields and first st have taken 25 years. Noma 15. Look at what happens when you try to swim against the tide…..you get great northern. In the absence of any information you just make nonsense up.

By Bluetit