David Mc Cuaig, Director of the Strategic Heritage Plan (SHP), UNOG
1 Feb 2021

The new H building features open space.  Since the Covid-19 outbreak, many studies were published putting into question the future of open space. How is this impacting the initial plans that have been foreseen for the H building?

Open office space means a lot of different things to different people and there are many different factors involved, from how densely people are accommodated in the space to the indoor air quality provided. The fact that some of the work areas are open is just one characteristic of a new building that actively supports staff and their working needs. While COVID has re-opened the issue of open offices and proximity to other people, apart from an alternate desk seating plan, our design of the office space, which is based on the needs of the entities moving into the building, hasn’t changed.

The H building space will follow all of UNOG’s current workplace recommendations as a minimum standard including those related to COVID-19 such as physical distancing, cleaning, availability of sanitization materials, and ventilation. The indoor air quality in the H Building is guaranteed according to relevant standards (Swiss standard SIA 382/1 2014 of the Swiss society of engineers and architects) due to it having mechanical ventilation. It provides 100% fresh air at a rate of approximately 10 litres per second per person and the vitiated air is extracted without contact with the fresh air intake The air change rate is 36 cubic meter per person per hour in office areas, and 10 cubic meters per person per hour in meeting rooms.  Those numbers may not mean much to most people, however, the indoor air quality of the new building is significantly better than many other office buildings, including, for example, the E building or S building of the Palais des Nations.

The first moves into the H building are expected only in late Spring 2021, and by then the COVID-19 situation is likely to have significantly evolved, especially with the roll out of vaccines.

Despite the fact that the H building will host hundreds of staff, the common café area, where staff from different departments will be able to mingle, meet informally and relax is very small. Could you explain the reasoning behind this choice?

The Grab and Go is a great facility that will compliment all the other catering facilities in the Palais – it is not intended to be the only catering option for the occupants of the new building.

But the great thing about the design of Building H is that that the Grab and Go is not the only space for staff to meet informally and relax. There are pantries on each floor with associated café-lounge areas and informal gathering spaces, open collaboration areas furnished to support informal gatherings and meeting of staff at different points of the Building.  There are also open spaces, two courtyards and open terraces at various levels, all with different ambiances and fantastic views.  Throw all this into the mix and I’m sure the Grab and Go will soon be loved by staff as much as the Press Bar or Bar Serpent.

As a senior Project Director, you have been in charge of many renovation projects. What are the similarities and the differences you could identify between the SHP project and others that you led before joining the UN? 

I spent thirty-five years managing construction and renovation projects including office spaces, residential, commercial, military installations, and performing arts venues. Each had their unique technical challenges, but the commonality is that all buildings affect how people work and live in them. For better or worse, we all adapt our work habits to the space provided. Every successful project I have led has required the users of the facility to embrace change. A building is a complex assembly of spaces, components, and systems, but it is the users that breathe life into it and make it their own. 

With good design and vision from leadership, change can be very positive. As an example, as the Project Director for the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Canada I led a project with the stated intention to fundamentally change the way people experienced the performing arts. Built in the 1960’s, the facility was designed for the “elite” attending opera, theatre, and classical music concerts. The architecture was opaque and forbidding signaling to the average person on the street that this was not a place for them. The new design wrapped the facility in a glass atrium effectively turning it inside out. This design, coupled with new public programming, reinvented the NAC for a new generation. 

The new Building H could not be more different from the existing Palais and Building E. Like the NAC, the building is designed not just for current needs but also for the next generation of international civil servants. It will drive change in work habits and how people interact with each other within the space. A lot of expertise and thought has gone into how this space will work, and the SHP and UNOG Transition Teams are doing everything we can to facilitate this transition to a new work environment.  

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-Chief of UN Today. Prisca Chaoui est l'Éditeur en chef du UN Today.
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