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An office space odyssey

Paran Balakrishnan | January 11, 2003


High summer isn't the sticky ordeal it once was for top executives at Apollo Tyres. As they drive to the office they can call in to a central computer and set the air-conditioning in their rooms.


Other employees who want to work out can go to the gym on the premises and if they want some quiet time they can head to the library. But don't think they can goof off too easily. They have to use an access card to get to different parts of the building -- so their bosses always know where they are.


Welcome to the Indian office of the 21st century. It's a long way from Writer's Building in Kolkata. Or, even from the crumbling cement palaces of Nehru Place and Bhikaiji Cama Place. In fact, these buildings wouldn't look out of place in New York, Toronto or Shanghai.


"I didn't want to construct a Jaipur or Jaisalmer. An international work force needs to look at an international language," says Sonali Srivastava Rastogi, of Morphogenesis, the architectural firm that designed Apollo's gleaming corporate office in Gurgaon.


Procter & Gamble's white granite-and-glass façade stands out in grim and grime-ridden Chakala, Andheri East. The building -- designed by Hafeez Contractor, the new doyen of Indian architecture -- is earthquake resistant and follows P&G's global norms for fire safety regulations.


Even a handful of vastu principles have been followed to ensure good selling karma. For employees who feel the urge to hook up their laptops anywhere in the building there are 500 LAN points for instant connectivity. And mobile handsets -- the office has a state-of-the-art wireless PBX system -- ensure that employees can take calls anywhere in the building.


An architectural revolution is changing the face of the Indian workplace. And it's taking place across the country. Whether it's Tidel Park on the outskirts of Chennai, the DLF Gateway Tower in Gurgaon, or even the Quark Media campus in Chandigarh, these are highly visible symbols of how the design rules are being rewritten in corporate India.


Says architect Raja Aederi who designed ICICI's impressive Mumbai headquarters: "K V Kamath (the ICICI chairman) said he wanted the best so I told them about the international standards that buildings in say, New York, have and we worked from there."


Who are the owners of these new buildings? It could be anyone from staid public sector corporations like the Bank of Baroda which has now moved into plush new premises in Mumbai. Or it could be one of the many call centres and software services companies that are springing up around the country.


Contractor, for instance, has built a string of buildings like the Colgate headquarters at Hiranandani Gardens in Powai to the IL&FS, Citibank and Lakshmi Finance buildings in Bandra-Kurla and the P&G Plaza in Andheri. Besides, that he has built Cyber City in Gurgaon (including Nestle Towers), DLF Square and the GE Call centre in Gurgaon.


Similarly, Aederi has created attention-grabbers like Essar Towers, Mahindra Towers, and the ICICI Bank building in Mumbai. In Delhi, his work includes the IFCI Tower and Capital Court.


How are these new buildings different from the old ones that sprung up in places like Nariman Point in the '60s and '70s? It isn't only a matter of appearances. Take a glance at how ICICI's 16 high-speed Mitsubishi lifts cope with the early morning crowds. If the entire staff turned up at 9am each day they would all be transported to their desks in 15 minutes. Anyone who has ever stood in an elevator queue in one of the older Nariman Point buildings will appreciate the difference instantly.


Or, look at the other features that have been incorporated into the ICICI Building. The floors have been sprayed with fire-retardant called vermiculite and the boardroom sprayed with fire-retarding infumiscent paint. And all the modern buildings have full power back-ups and central air-conditioning systems. In some buildings the air-conditioning has been programmed to be on full blast in areas facing the east in the mornings. That moves to the west in the evenings. "It doesn't have to be ostentatious. The accent is on functionality with an emphasis on services," says Sohrab Dalal, director, Spazzio, an architectural firm which has designed offices for Adobe in Noida and Eli Lilly and Paras Milk Corporation in Gurgaon.


But eye-catching appearances do count. The DLF Atria in Gurgaon has a needle-shaped roof over the entrance that creates a dramatic visual impact and transforms an otherwise ordinary office block. And the Novell building Mumbai has a giant parasol-like structure that rests on a ceremonial column. And ICICI has four large waterfalls inside that add to the visual effect.


Technology is also a key factor in new age construction. Some hi-tech offices -- particularly ones like call centres that depend heavily on technology have expensive extras like false floors -- which make it easier to fix or change wiring. And acoustic ceilings are considered important in open-plan offices where noise levels can rise steeply.


It isn't tough to figure out what has triggered these changes. In the mid-'90s, a new wave of multinationals arrived on Indian shores and they brought concepts like global building codes with them. Says Anuraag Chowfla, partner, Mani & Chowfla: "Multinational clients are interested in more contemporary buildings that meet global standards."


At the same time Indian industry, with the software industry in the vanguard, was casting an eye over international offices from Redmond, to Silicon Valley or Shanghai. The result was new complexes like the Infosys Campus on the outskirts of Bangalore.


These newcomers had needs that couldn't be met in existing office blocks of that era. Often, they wanted giant spaces of contiguous space and ideally they wanted about 20,000 sq ft on a single floor. But this wasn't possible particularly in places like Nariman Point. Says Contractor: "Earlier, office buildings had small floorplates. With the entry of the multinationals, a major shift took place to larger floorplates." Adds Anshuman Magazine, of C B Richard Ellis: "There was no supply of land in the central business districts. So the new buildings started coming up in the suburbs."


The problems became even more acute with the coming of the call centres. Contractor, for instance, designed the 200,000 sq ft GE call centre in Gurgaon. Similarly, American Express, for instance, took 60,000 sq ft in an existing complex for its call centre but found that its 24-hour needs created plenty of problems -- and expense. The company found that it was being charged so much for air-conditioning that it was cheaper to put up its own chiller plant. Says Dalal: "They faced ridiculous after-office hours service bills."


The arrival of the software companies and the call centres led to another change in approach. Many of the new companies began looking at 'built-to-suit' facilities that would be designed to their own requirements. And, with the multinationals leading the way the top Indian companies suddenly realised that they too needed an architectural facelift. That in turn prompted developers to look at better facilities. Says Chowfla: "Even the clients (the developer) figures that he can't sell a trashy building."


But it wasn't only the coming of new multinationals that triggered change. As India liberalised its import rules it became easier to bring in materials that wouldn't have been available earlier. Aederi imported ICICI's double-glazed hermetically sealed glass façade. Similarly, he brought H-section steel columns (that can support greater loads) from Luxembourg.


Today, that process has gone several steps further and an enormous number of fittings are being bought from abroad. Architects are using aluminium composites and stone cladding that have all come from abroad. C P Kukreja Associates have, for instance, used sandwich metal panels with insulating material that are fast to execute on the Hindustan Lever office in Gurgaon. Says Dikshu Kukreja of C P Kukreja Associates: "Architects have a wide choice of materials. There are world-class building finishes available. And we have the freedom to choose."


In fact, the new offices are being filled with imported goods of all kinds. Furniture from Malaysia is frequently cheaper than Indian-made equivalents. And imported non-toxic carpets are relatively cheap and easily available. Almost every building now uses imported hardware. Says Chowfla: "You can now buy a decent lock. It is worth spending on items like hinges and door closers."


Even construction methods have altered rapidly in recent years. Manual excavation work that once took a month can now be done in two days with the help of sophisticated machines. Says Kukreja: "Every medium-sized contractor has this kind of equipment now."


Certainly, the new workplaces reflect the new found confidence in the Indian architectural world. Says Rastogi: "We need to regain position as a world trendsetter. Why build as a tourist attraction." Adds Chowfla: "Philosophically, we've all kissed Nehruvian socialism good-bye."


The confidence also shows in buildings like the Bangalore transformer factory that has become the corporate home of brand consulting firm Shining. The exterior is violet, taking its colour from the violet blossoms of the jacaranda trees that grow nearby. Outhouses coloured in green, red and blue serve as reception, café and guesthouse.


The office has been designed according to concepts made clear by Shining's founder Shombit Sengupta whose love for vivid colours is reflected in his brown cotton suit and violet shirt matched with a maroon tie. The garden is laid out non-geometrically. Inside, the corridor is not straight but winding. Says Sengupta: "People in the building have to emotionally connect with it and the human body does not have a single straight line."


Can Indian office buildings compare with the ritzy palaces that have come up in other parts of the world? Some architects say returns are still too low in India and therefore developers have to keep the lid on costs. Says Dalal: "All buildings in Gurgaon, for instance, respect structural codes and they have better systems like full power back-ups and improved air-conditioning. But buildings aren't at world levels because land prices are still high and returns aren't there.” By contrast, interiors are now very close to world levels.


Also, prices of materials have been falling in the last two years. About four years ago most well-heeled companies would have spent about Rs 2,000 per sq ft on a new office. That has now tumbled to about Rs 1,300-Rs 1,400. That's because international suppliers have realised that India could turn into a big market and have all started appointing representatives here. The competition has, for example, brought the price of imported carpets down from about Rs 200 a sq ft to about Rs 50 a sq ft.


Architect Ranjit Sabikhi still remembers how difficult it was to convince clients to spend a bit more on their buildings. He was responsible for the DLF building in Delhi's Connaught Place which made big strides forward by putting in features like central air-conditioning. But he is still sceptical. "Big developers could get carried away by flashy images. Sometimes the facilities are not very well planned."


But there are ambitious projects on the anvil that incorporate the best in design and technology. Take a look at the Paharpur Cooling Towers Business Centre being constructed in Noida, just outside Delhi.


The building is environmentally friendly in more ways than one. Wastewater is recycled and fly ash bricks are being used. Computer controls will measure carbon dioxide levels in every room and the building will have greenery everywhere. What's more, Mani & Chowfla is using a dust envelope during construction to ensure that neighbours aren't inconvenienced. That's a major step forward in a country like India where spindly bamboo poles are the norm on construction sites and hard hats an unheard of luxury. Says Chowfla: "Some of these things need not cost more. It is just a matter of design."


Do these buildings reflect a new-found concern for the employee. Firms recognise nice surroundings with natural light backed by cafeterias and gyms help morale. Most Indian offices still have a long way to go. But the foundations are being built as India attempts to catch up with the world.


Additional reporting: Aarti Dua and Subir Roy

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