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The Architecture Firm Behind "World's Smartest Building" Wants to Design Your Office

I'm sitting with David Leventhal and Andrei Martin, partners at London-based PLP Architecture, during a meeting in Manhattan, and they're explaining a model project their firm is working on for an overseas client. A proposed city district bookended by high-rises, linked by a park and cultural venue, the plan needs to include significant commercial space. Leventhal mentions the trend towards converting warehouses and historic buildings into large, open-plan offices; a great idea for smaller structures, it's tougher to pull off when you're looking at a 50-story or higher tower that requires increased structural support. PLP's solution involves working around the core of the taller main tower; the standard, rectangular structure has been divided into three section, which swing out into a sort of stacked tripod, all still connected resting on a central pillar. With each floor anchored in the middle, it allows for long, cantilevered levels and sprawling workspaces. It's a bit of a metaphor for what PLP, which is planning to expand to New York early next year with a planned satellite office, wants to do with commercial design projects in the U.S.

PLP was founded in 2009 when five former employees of New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects broke away to form their own firm. After setting up shop in London, the new practice has grown into a player in the London market, and has taken on a growing role in the city's development boom; responsible for 22 Bishopsgate (formerly the Pinnacle), set to be the tallest building in the capital, the firm also has a sizable portfolio of residential, institutional and commercial projects. One in particular, an office building in Amsterdam called The Edge, has been called "the smartest building in the world." It's given the firm a higher profile, and as Leventhal and Martin see it, more reason for them to come home to the States.

"These big opportunities come during periods of growth, when it's possible to experiment with new typologies," says Martin. "There's this new confidence and desire to build something new."

The Edge certainly offers something new, a model of what the firm could bring to New York, according to Leventhal. The 430,000-square-foot building's slightly awkward shape, basically a small ramp encased in curtain wails, belies the technological marvels at its core. Operating with 70 percent less power than a comparable structure, the building actually produces more power than it needs via solar panels and an efficient aquifer thermal energy system. An exceptional series smart sensors make it extremely efficient and interactive. Employees of the main tenant, Deloitte, lead a relatively untethered work life, checking in via a custom app whenever they come to the office to choose a workspace, register their preferences, and provide their employer and building management with reams of data that can help make the space more comfortable and efficient. Would they like the work along the 15-story atrium? Perhaps they want to check the app's thermostat feature to find a meeting space that's not freezing? Unlike many traditional offices that devote 10 percent of the floor space to common areas, The Edge devotes a quarter of the available space to community space, from cafes to meeting rooms.

A break from more traditional office spaces, The Edge was designed to encourage new interactions and collaboration. And it's a format that just wouldn't be possible with many of the staid, standard, rectangular office spaces in mainstream commercial buildings.

"Deloitte's ambition was to bring people back to the office," says Martin. "We see that with many building projects, clients want to draw people back into the office, and create a space that isn't terribly different from a home or lounge. It's about adding sensory stimulation that makes you want to be there."

As office space becomes not just a business requirement but a differentiator needed to attract top talent, Martin believes a new generation of flexible, communal spaces can alter perceptions of and performance at work. He sees the key challenge going forward as one of scaling.

"How can you scale up startup spaces, where the virtue is being small?" he says.

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