Ramboll Headquarters, Copenhagen
As a Director at Ramboll, a Danish engineering company, Copenhagen is my second city. You feel an underlying happiness from walking and working around the city. Their workplaces are certainly focused around the people. This must play a part in Denmark being $4 an hour more productive than the UK.
Why are Danish buildings more people focused than ours? It starts with the Government. The Danish Government’s architectural policy is titled “Putting People First”. Such a strong and clear manifesto from the Danish Government is hard to ignore. It underlines the importance that people focused design has in Denmark. This strong message influences the way that cities evolve. There is a strong belief that no building is an island. Each is part of a wider ecosystem. It must give more than it takes.
The UK Government don’t have an architecture policy (though the Scottish Government has). We have scores of governmental planning policies on design and architecture, but there isn’t a single cohesive declaration of what buildings means in the wider context of the national economy and society. In some ways the absence of a policy provides more freedom for building designers, and there are wonderful examples of buildings in the UK that put people first, and that become part of a wider society. But there remains the risk of buildings sacrificing the needs of the wider society for simple return on investment, if there is not a clear mandate to consider it. Clearly good design delivers both, but the Danish government have certainly made clear their expectations, and what part buildings play in an evolving society.
The Danish Architectural Policy is a relative call-to-arms, in stark contrast to bland UK planning policies. It firmly encourages innovation and experimentation. In my experience Danish building design is more intrepid than the UK. This is, in part, due to the commercial atmosphere. The risk of commercial action in Denmark is considerably lower than the UK. With a lower risk of litigation or commercial action, or simply just not being paid, the shackles are off and design innovation flourishes in favour of delivering for the benefit of society. As a result, the Danish design community is celebrated for their creative buildings.
These buildings build upon the famous Scandinavian design heritage. This design heritage was born of the need to create practical solutions for inhospitable Nordic climates that cheer the soul. The often mentioned Danish term ‘hygge’ is described extensively elsewhere, but it encapsulates the Danish need at a basic human level for this simple comfort. Scandinavian design responds to this need for contentment through beautiful design achieved by the simplicity of form following function. So, it is a simple expectation that Danish buildings subscribe to the basic fundamental need for comfort, and ultimately health and happiness. Certainly, this permeates through workplace design.
In some regards, the workplace must bring happiness. Unemployment is not necessarily financially painful in Denmark due to the A-kasse insurance system. This means that workplace occupants need to feel like their work is meaningful and that’s their workplace supports their lifestyle and values.
A good example of how our office design differs is demonstrated by natural light in the workplace. In the UK it would not be unusual to deep plan offices with desks twelve or fifteen metres away from a window. The Danish regulations are very onerous, and usually this means that you can only have desks two or maybe three deep at the window. As a side effect, raised floors are not usually adopted. Power and IT infrastructure is run down the walls and across the desks. If desk-islands do occur cables are usually routed from the ceiling to the desks in tubes.
To get as much natural light in to the workplace as possible, and therefore maximise the occupancy, full height glazing is often adopted. Floor to floor heights are also stretched, aided by lower land values releasing vertical pressure on massing. Without raised floors height is also given back to bring even more daylight into the workplace.
Total annual energy demand limits are also tighter in Denmark than the UK, so Danish designers usually rely on high performance façades to reconcile this conflict. The facades tend to be high performance, often triple glazed and frequently with external automatic shading systems. In this sense both the investment in cost and carbon terms is usually skewed towards the capital, rather than operational phase.
The generous amount of natural daylight results in lower energy consumption associated with artificial lighting in Denmark. The artificial lighting regulations are also extremely onerous, with a focus on LUX levels, uniformity and contrast to reduce eye strain in the workplace.
Additionally, indoor air quality is superior in Denmark in comparison to the UK. There are increased fresh air changes, and air movement is very carefully controlled. Also, noise limits are much more stringent than the UK, which limits the extent of large ductwork.
When it comes to drainage, the Danish regulations permit zero run off from the roof into the sewer network. It is therefore necessary to deal with all the run off on site. For large buildings tanks are often unfeasible, so attenuation lakes or sacrificial car parks are often utilised. The Danes seize the opportunity to create parks and water habitats. It’s all part of the bigger picture.
Circulation is similarly adopted as the building’s ‘high street’. Lifts are often pushed to the background, with large staircases facilitating chance meetings. Generous canteens and facilities are common, with occupants spending time interacting with each other.
Of course, the Danish approach to building structures is characteristically Scandinavian, that is: flat packed. Almost all Danish building structures are prefabricated offsite, and bought to site to be assembled. It’s part of their mindset, their design approach and it’s even taught at university. It’s the approach we’re now seeing develop in the UK, though far too slowly, and the Danes are already realising the benefits in faster programmes, higher quality and lower cost.
The Scandinavians find the British concept of work-life balance curious. It’s just life! Rather than forcing a separation between the two, the boundary between their home and office is blurred. Work and life coexist and complement each other. The workplace brings joy to both.
The Danish way of life and mentality is hard to define. That’s why we take every UK Ramboll graduate to Copenhagen when they join us, to see Danish life and design for themselves. It’s a key part of who we are.
We take these lessons, and more, and incorporate Danish design into our UK buildings. It goes beyond the UK regulations, but adds so much value for our clients without adding cost. It’s bringing joy to the workplace, and ultimately happier and more productive occupants.