Fast Company

Quiet Riot

An inspirational workplace that has all of the permanence of a tent.

Design a peaceful call center that our operators will actually enjoy. Fine. A high-quality building that says, "We value our staff." No problem. An office building that we can turn into a warehouse at the drop of a hat. Now, hang on ...

No one would have blamed London's Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners for declining this brief from wireless-service giant Orange. Create an inspirational workplace that has all of the permanence of a tent? As if. But NGP architect Simon Beames replied with Nexus, an unassuming 63,000-square-foot building outside Darlington, in northeast England. Nexus's simple exterior conceals an ingenious workplace design.

Call centers are, by definition, stressfully noisy and glary. Nexus is not. Even though the 450 operators here answer about 250,000 customer-service calls a week, noise levels rarely break a whisper-like 30 decibels, thanks to a wall surface that is 40% perforated and lined with 150 MM of insulation. And the light from 10 1,000-watt overhead lamps is diffused by a cluster of elegant "tunable petals" -- slender, 12-foot-wide frames covered with glass-fiber fabric. The petals distribute light without generating hot spots and diffuse natural light as well.

In addition, the center can be transformed into an industrial space within days, should the fragile local economy (and Orange's fragile market profile) demand it. Beames's design includes loading bays and warehouse doors at the rear and a reinforced floor throughout the building that can support forklifts and trucks, among other elements.

Beames's innovative open-plan space features two large studios divided by a mobile mezzanine of cafeterias, conference suites, and IT rooms. "Most call centers isolate groups of workers, but we believe in connecting them," says Beames, 30. "For example, we gave the kitchen a glass facade -- not for people to see sandwiches being filled, but to help kitchen workers feel part of the team."

Contact Simon Beames by email (simonbeames@ngrimshaw.co.uk).

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