U + I FIELD PROJECT
Inspiring development's key stakeholders
FIELD of Play
The FIELD Project is a future-of-workplace experiment. Situated at Preston Barracks, in Brighton & Hove, it temporarily occupies a former military site. Let go by the army in 2000, several attempts to redevelop the Preston Barracks site failed, and it subsequently fell into disrepair. Now earmarked by Brighton & Hove City Council and the University of Brighton as part of a wider north-of-city regeneration scheme, it is set to become Brighton & Hove’s newest, future-facing mixed-use quarter, one that will include new housing stock, student accommodation, new academic buildings, parking, and retail and commercial space.
Creative, mixed-use developer U+I have been selected as the key partner in bringing the site forwards. Rather than leave it fallow, we felt it imperative that the site-in-waiting be opened up for the community, and that it serve as the site for an ambitious experiment that would inform its future. The FIELD Project is that opening up and that experiment.
FIELD of Work
A significant feature of the Preston Barracks regeneration scheme is the design for a 50,000 sqft campus for product design and technology start-ups and small business.
The need for such a space is urgent. Brighton & Hove is home to an extraordinary flowering of entrepreneurial and creative talent. Much of this new wave of creativity centres about the interaction of the digital and the physical, with technological advances in the likes of 3D printing ushering in a new era of product design and making. With most large office spaces built in the pre-internet era, and any available site prioritised for new housing stock, suitably adaptable workspaces for Brighton and Hove’s booming home-grown high-tech industry are hard to find.
In this context, a new campus for physical product companies is absolutely necessary, and presents us with the opportunity to design, build and manage a radical workspace for the future. We have our ideas as to what that space might be, but we are extremely aware of the need to gather sound on-the-ground evidence as what that it might look like in situ, on the Preston Barracks site, in and amongst the very community that will house, feed and nurture it.
So was born the FIELD BTN project, which over a period of 18 months gives over a converted ex-army building to a handful of partners and product design and technology start-ups. Their mandate: to create their ideal place of work. Our hope: a roadmap to the workspace of the future.
Step 1: Create a Blank Canvas
The first task was to design a space that framed the experiment.
The site was assessed early 2015. The old army building was in a serious state. It had been illegally occupied. Ceilings had collapsed. Services had failed. It was covered in graffiti. Windows were smashed. There was some fire damage. It was not fit for habitation, let alone as a workspace for the future.
Clearance of debris began July 2015. The first stage of refurbishments was completed in December. The space was painted and decorated January 2016.
While it was important to make the building both safe and workable, it was equally important that we should not direct future residents as to how to design and use their space. So, apart from clearing it out, connecting services, whitewashing walls, and branding the building’s externals and public spaces, we left the space as a blank canvas, enabling creativity, collaboration and ownership.
FIELD House opened to the public in February 2016.
Step 2: Bringing the Space to Life
The second task was to select our partners and residents.
A central mandate for the Preston Barracks regeneration scheme is that it should benefit all stakeholders, the host community very much included. Finding ways of creating a genuinely neighbourly campus is crucial to the scheme’s success. Evoking Preston Barracks, the University of Brighton and local groups’ shared history of volunteerism and community engagement, our partners and residents were partly selected on the basis of how they might contribute to creating a workspace that would involve and / or service the wider community.
A Ready-made Neighbourhood
The selected partners for the FIELD project are:
1) The Wood Store, a wood recycling social enterprise. It was heavily involved in the early clearance of the site and opened shop August 2015.
2) Old Tree Cafe and Brewery, a waste-free and local produce food and drinks company. It refurbished the kitchens and servery, opened for business April 2016. and has since designed and planted the FIELD gardens.
3) Community 21, a University of Brighton initiated collaborative practice designed to engage the local community in neighbourhood planning. Partnering with Blockbuilders and Exploring Senses, it gives people the opportunity to share and workshop ideas and projects using specialised toolkits.
4) Bike Hub, a bicycle recycling, repair and workshop company. It moved in July 2016. Their collective provision being organic sustenance, sustainable furniture, grassroots planning and zero-carbon footprint travel, it was postulated that together the partners formed the makings of a small, ‘green-from-within’ and communally-focused neighbourhood, one that would serve the aims of the FIELD Project well.
Meet the Makers
The FIELD Project’s residents:
1) The Bug Boys is a sustainable insects-as-food food business.
2) Play Talk Learn is a mathematics-based early-learning company.
3) Flux Cycle Works designs and makes affordable delivery and commuter bikes.
4) Intrepid Camera designs and makes professional, affordable wooden cameras.
5) P Kirkwood designs and makes leather, denim and canvas bags, clothes and utilities.
6) Control Freq designs and makes smart, intuitive entry systems.
7) Union Motion design and custom-make electric motorbikes and other lightweight vehicles.
8) MakerClub teach electronics, programming and product design to ages 10+.
The first seven residents moved in March 2016, and MakerClub joined them in June. Each was given a grant to customise their working environment. Rent is waived for the duration of the project, although each business contributes to the running costs of the building.
FIELD of Learning
At this point in the experiment, making hard-and-fast statements about the workspace of the future would be premature. However, there is plenty of observational evidence from which we can learn a huge amount. Broadly speaking, four key themes have emerged.
The Inherent Value of Collaboration and Community
From the point of view of the regeneration project’s developers, architects and key investors, there is nothing new about the notion of ‘collaboration’, ‘community’ and ‘cooperation’ as being especially valued in the workplace. They are the social gel of the workplace, the reasons why it works, and ultimately, from the point of view of workspace designers, good for business. They make for a fluid, positive and opportunity-rich commercial environment.
This is true, but only narrowly so. The evidence from the FIELD project points to commercial benefits being only part of a much bigger story. While community generated leads and opportunities are important, what the community actually values is the community itself. It’s the chance to meet and socialise with the likeminded and the inspirational. It’s the friends made, the conservations had, the opportunity to share, the support given and received. It’s the community in and of itself.
In short, what’s important to FIELD’s residents is the daily opportunity to be – collaborate, exchange ideas, socialise – with others, irrespective of the tangible, commercial gain these interactions may offer. If true, and if we’re going to talk about the commercial benefits of the workspace community, it’s worth speculating as to the importance of better understanding its inherent value, and how that value –security, satisfaction, respect, joy – leads to greater confidence and, therefore, productivity.
The Technology of Spaces
With everything the computer has given us, it’s easy to think of technology as entirely digital. In doing so, we tend to forget that at its root ‘technology’ simply means craft, art or skill. It is the systematic application of our imaginings to create something more efficient, interesting and appealing. A hand tool is no less technical than a machine learning algorithm: each is the result of great ingenuity; each has served to advance our ability to create and produce. A technology, then, is any method of making, digital or otherwise.
In this respect, when thinking of the workplace of the future, the FIELD Project has seen that our technological advancements are such that today’s designers, engineers and makers are able to both afford and master a range of digital and physical technologies. MakerClub makes use of multiple technologies, including 3D printing, robotics and IoT networks. Intrepid Camera employs digital design, fundraising and production methods to re-create a traditional technology. Control Freq utilises everyday devices for a futuristic digital product. All need and have created workspaces capable of accommodating a great diversity of new and evolving technologies.
Looking forward to the future design of workspace at Preston Barracks, such evidence would seem to suggest that we will need to think about ways to create a workspace that enables the co-existence of ‘dirty’ workshop and ‘clean’ office, of the industrial and the digital. Rather than a space fixed in a given time, fashion, or office architecture of the moment, it will need to react organically to complex changes in technology and user use.
Seen this way, the workspace of the future is not fixed, managed and administrated, but instead is best understood as being endlessly curated.
“Good design is as little design as possible.”
Dieter Rams, industrial designer
Dieter Rams’s oft-quoted adage has served as something of a first principle for the FIELD project. The grandson of a carpenter, Rams never forgot his maker roots. Untouched by fame, he taught humility, arguing that design ought to take account of the user’s own maker sensibility, and designed products that stood as a framework for that creativity. The FIELD project’s blank canvas design works in exactly the same way: a ‘little designed’ white cube, it creates an eminently customisable space.
In the world of office development there’s still a tendency for green issues to be treated as a regulation-driven afterthought. In an effort to shift from bolt-on to a green-from-within approach to workspace design, the FIELD project is as much an ecology-focused experiment as it is anything else.
Each FIELD partner serves not just as established counterpoint to our resident start-ups, but also as an inspirational and ecologically-sound business. The evidence with regards to Bike Hub, The Wood Store and the Old Tree Cafe and Brewery shows a mixed community of residents, workers and inhabitants voting for the approach to the experiment with open wallets. When given the option, we seem to positively enjoy having quality services driven by well-thought through ecological principles on the doorsteps of our workspace.
It seems clear to us that the inherently ecological workspace is the future, and must serve as central design-tenet for the Preston Barracks campus.
FIELD of Future
Considering the themes as whole, the FIELD project’s key finding so far is the fact that any design of the Preston Barracks campus must address the notion of the future workplace as being a community of mixed, ecologically aware and technologically evolving group of start-ups and small businesses. We are designing for a future of natural collaborators, a workplace that gives space for creativity, a space in which the user is also the designer.
This new type of physical product entrepreneur is increasingly empowered by digital technologies in design, prototyping, fundraising and production. As a result, new businesses are built, grown and indeed wound up at an increasingly rapid pace. If Brighton and Hove is to nurture the potential of this new community of maker entrepreneurs, it needs to create an environment in which they have the freedom they need to thrive. The Preston Barracks campus presents as a wonderful opportunity for creating such an environment.