INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Recent years have shown an exponential rise in lifestyle-integrated office design. In an age in which we are spending more time at work than ever before, it seems inevitable that our workplaces will increasingly submit to the need to become more flexible, domestic and sustainable. Property group Lend Lease has gone one step beyond to ensure that every detail of their central London workplace is attended to; and with the first ever BREEAM Excellent rating for a UK fit-out, its environmental credentials are ahead of the curve.

Set within the newly transformed mixed-use development Regent's Place, the interior design for Lend Lease's offices was entrusted to the capable hands of Woods Bagot, whose innovative approach to the brief places an emphasis on lifestyle, leisure and wellbeing - and was completed in less than a year. European Head of Interiors for Woods Bagot, Jonathan Clarke and Lend Lease's Sustainability Manager Duncan Young were keen to discuss with us their response to this emerging trend.

Spanning four floors of the sleek glass building in which they are housed, the offices contain 500 desks, 62 meeting rooms and 30 breakout areas, with 463 people on average coming into the building every day. From within the building's atrium, it is immediately obvious which section belongs to Lend Lease; its regimental rows of architectural plants lining the interior windows create an instant sense of identity and differentiation from the surrounding offices, whilst reiterating the company brand. 'There's a big focus on the plants as 'storefront',' explains Jonathan. 'The important part for me is the architectural quality. being able to look across the atrium and actually feel there is a sense of ownership of that atrium. I think what we've managed to do is to make it feel like Lend Lease own this space - which, frankly, when we first came here we were a bit nervous about.'

A vital aspect of the scheme is a focus on collaboration. Between the desk-filled offices are intermittent breakout areas with open shelving containing books, pictures, magazines, ornaments and plants, installed with the notion of 'trying to slow people down' to connect with each other and stimulate productivity. Responding to the fact that the lifts are external to the office space, Woods Bagot decided to insert three staircases, 'so everyone from the CEO to the tea person walks through the building, is encouraged to bump into people, have conversations and be part of the generation of business.' The staircase material itself is a beautifully soft French oak, salvaged from old railway carriages. The chaotic stiletto marks embedded in the wood are, Duncan suggests, reflective of the openness and honesty of the overall scheme. 'They make it look like it's actually being used, so we prefer to see it like this. And it's structurally fine. It gives it a bit of character.'

Almost 4,000 plants including Mother-in-Law's Tongue, Kentia Palm and Peace Lilies - all within the top ten plants for absorbing toxins - have been brought in 'to filter the baddies out of the air', whilst the overall palette of materials was chosen to avoid bringing in toxins in the beginning, on the basis that 'everything you touch you absorb'. 'We know from the health sciences that if you don't bring chemicals into the workplace then you'll have a healthier workforce,' explains Duncan. 'Everything we've tried to do is about going back to natural materials - everything's low toxic and durable.'

Even the soil has been carefully contemplated. A concern for the environmental impact of peat destruction in the UK drove the decision to source the soil from Sri Lankan

coconut fibres. 'Every part of the process we've tried to consider, and we also hope that there's a story to each part of those processes.' The plants not only clean the air, but help to keep the place tidy - people are less inclined to leave their paperwork lying about on cabinets occupied by a sea of plants. 'It's so integral to the project, and it's so extreme, that I think it works,' adds Jonathan. 'I think the worst thing is when you have a reception area with just one or two pot plants in it.'

'I think the plants really add to a feeling of homeliness,' Duncan reflects.

A carefully constructed connection to the natural environment re-emerges in the form of a biodiverse green roof terrace, which is not only pleasant for employees to look at and relax in as the seasons progress, but the basis for what Duncan calls 'a massive social experiment'. 'We want to restore wherever we can, so as a business we like to leave a bit more on the table than we took off... We have about 40 volunteer staff that maintain this area and watch for what we call beneficial insects. So we've put this biodiverse rich area here and we monitor which insects come, and we also monitor when they nest in this 'habitat hotel'.' The University of East London monitor the arrival of insects and the length of time it takes for them to colonise an area. 'The true benefit is instead of having to say to a development manager, come and sit through a three-hour biodiversity session, I can bring them out here,' says Duncan. 'So next time they go and build a building in an ecologically sensitive area they will understand far more about biodiversity than they would had I given them a biodiversity session in a classroom.'

But the beauty is also in the detail, such as the 'seedling swap' that takes place amongst employees in April, in which everyone gets together away from the work environment.

Cycle facilities are also geared up to encourage a healthy lifestyle. A map of London is pinned to one of the office walls, onto which people have stuck pins over the areas in which they live with the aim of finding cycling companions. One heroic figure, it was revealed, has been cycling a distance of 18 miles to work once a week. In fact, health and wellbeing are such a primary concern for Lend Lease that their plan extends to its employees diets. 'There's a big focus on fruit,' says Jonathan with a smile before Duncan reels off a sequence of fruit-related statistics: '62,000 fair trade bananas, 60,000 apples and pears and 3.6 tonnes of organic muesli each year - we provide all that.'

As if on cue, a man carrying a bowl of muesli walks past us moments later. Indeed, the whole operation seems to be running like clockwork. But taking into consideration such limitations as budget constraints, will it be possible for all offices to go this way eventually? 'From a cynical point of view, we're spending more time at work than we ever have - they've got to go this way, because who wants to stay in a horrible little white box?' Jonathan suggests. It is, he claims, all about added value - in a nice environment people want to stick around, have coffee, share ideas and make things happen - and that's where the real productivity lies. 'The proof will be in the pudding when we do our own office space in twelve months!'

And while Duncan is reluctant to quantify its effects, he is certain of its positive impact. 'We know people are happier in this kind of environment and everyone talks about it. This really is a showcase for us... we want people to have a different experience when they come here.'