Juggling act: The growing trend of mixed-use spaces

Multi-function spaces and venues aren’t anew phenomenon. But as Tim Kridel found, they’re becoming increasingly common and in new places for a variety of reasons.

Once upon a time, this journalist attended a US elementary school where the gymnasium doubled both as a cafeteria and as an auditorium for plays and concerts. This mixed-use space was a product of its times: an attempt to wring maximum use out of a single space and thus stretch the school’s chronically tight budget.

Compromises were many, particularly acoustics. Nearly a half century later, the mixed-use model is seeing a resurgence and showing up in some new places. Technology has also improved and mitigated many of the drawbacks. But one aspect hasn’t changed: Budget is a big driver.

“The more things cost, the more creative people get in trying to use that facility 100 to 105%,” says Anders Jørgensen, Stouenborg project chief. “The more it costs to run an operation or to run a building, we’ve seen a tendency [of] saying: ‘Our auditorium is not just an auditorium. It’s also a place where we could do workshops or eat.’”

Another, more recent driver is uncertainty about how a space will be used long term. Offices are one example.

“If we’re doing a project for a single occupier, they very rarely look to propose some sort of co-working space or anything [else] because they’re looking just to get their own employees the space,” says Mike Halliday, Cordless Consultants, director of multimedia and infrastructure.

“That said, a lot of the space is designed often to be multifunctional, particularly now in the post-Covid world. Noone’s really sure where they’re going to land when it comes to hybrid work and remote work and all that. We’re certainly noticing a trend where people are looking to provision for future uses as much as day-one use cases because they’re not quite sure where that strategy is going to end up.

“Let’s say on day one they’ve decided they’re going to have a whole lot of meeting space. We’re making sure we’re cabling it so that if they decide to rip out a lot of those meeting rooms and convert them into desks, we can do that. We’ve got the infrastructure in place.

Meanwhile, landlords are increasingly breaking tradition with their multi-tenant buildings.

“Instead of a traditional kind of lobby reception area, which was typically a big welcome space for multiple tenants, we’re seeing a trend of increased use of those spaces,” Halliday says. “[They’re] opened up to the public for co-working or bars or cafés.

“They’re even identifying certain areas within a building where the landlord themselves can run a co-working space on a subscription/membership basis. [Sometimes] there’s a few meeting rooms and spaces carved out.

So landlords themselves are starting to drift into that co-working venture and making them more of their [portfolio], especially as we’re also seeing leases by occupiers be a lot shorter than they were because people are wanting to be more flexible.

A new way to work from home 

Some landlords are evolving their residential business models to cater to professionals who can work remotely but don’t want to do it in their flat.

“People are wanting a bit more flexibility where to work, and it saves their commute,” Halliday says.

One example is Unity, a growing chain of Nordic venues featuring a mix of housing, meeting, recreation, co-working and leisure spaces, sometimes with rooms/areas designed to support a range of use cases.

Venues such as Unity cater to professionals who want everything under one roof. “We would see this as a current trend,” says Harri Kiukas, CEO of AVconcept, the Finnish integrator that designed and installed all the AV systems at Unity’s latest properties in Helsinki and Tampere. “Remote working has become more common, and the operating costs of company premises have increased, which increases the demand for this type of rental premises. Customers can rent premises even just for a day.”

Unity is noteworthy partly because AV quality was a top priority. For example, the Helsinki property includes a “barception” area.

“Serving as both a reception and a café-bar with a lounge, plus an open-plan co-working space on a half-mezzanine, this area needed easy audio management to cater to various moods and times of the day.” According to the venue's audio system vendor, Genelec.

“The café-bar plays louder music, especially during evenings when it transforms into a bar and event space.

These diverse audio environments created a mix of requirements, which AVconcept met with Genelec Smart IP networked loudspeaker systems: two 4420s and two 4430s.

“We didn’t want the audio spilling over into the co-working areas, disturbing guests trying to work,” Unity Finland general manager Tina Kaikkonen said. “So, we focused on providing high-quality background music that sets the right mood without being intrusive. As for the reception, we aimed to envelop our guests in a sound barrier to ensure private conversations with our team members.

Think outside the box

Land and buildings don’t come cheap, especially ones intended for business or academic use. The more uses that a venue can accommodate, the more revenue it can generate. It also can save money if the owner doesn’t need to buy or build multiple venues for each use case.

One example is the Aarhus School of Architecture, whose classrooms, studios and workshops were scattered around its namesake city in Denmark. A case study in the November 2021 issue of Inavate explored how the school consolidated everything into a new, four-storey building that includes an unconventional teaching and presentation room called “Didaktek.”

“That space has been used for all the things you would do in an architectural school, like lectures, but also concerts and conferences,” says Jørgensen, whose firm served as consultant and integrator. “They have yoga classes in there. They even had [community events with] small tables where people can come into sell and buy old stuff.”

Part of Didaktek’s flexibility comes from projection screens on all four sides of the room. “They have been doing conferences where you have people joining through Teams on all the screens,” Jørgensen says.

The community events also are an example of how building owners are opening new revenue streams.

“We’ve seen a lot of museums also going this way and renting [out space],” Jørgensen says. “For instance, Den Blå Planet here in Denmark, which is the national aquarium, after hours they’re renting it out so you could have a fancy dinner in an aquarium. So they gained revenue by extending the opening hours.

“You could address 200 people in front of a big aquarium. But in order to do that, you need to, for instance, have a motor projection screen with a projector [and] a presentation sound system. So you need to have that infrastructure ready.”

Predicting the future

But that’s easier said than done if the client is unsure about all of the potential use cases — now and years from now. And even when they think they know, wildcards can disrupt the best laid plans. The pandemic did exactly that by changing workstyles in ways that forced businesses and universities to rethink how they use their buildings and the AV systems in them.

“How do we determine what kind of product we’re going to put in this room?” Jørgensen says. “For instance, we don’t know if the sound system needs to cover 200 people at 103 dBa or if it just needs to be a speech system. It’s very important for us to know these things to plan multi-purpose rooms. These rooms are so difficult to plan because you can easily ‘overcook’ them: put too many features in that cost too much money that nobody will end up using.

One example is Atmos. “It costs a lot of money to put in an Atmos system, but if you’re only using that 2% of the time for doing movie stuff, is that really worth it?” Jørgensen says. “So the planning is really, really important with the client to say, ‘What market are you targeting when you’re doing these rooms?’ That takes a lot of time.”

All those use cases must be deftly balanced, not only in terms of user experiences, but also how users control the technologies.

“The biggest challenge I find certainly in in my role as a designer, is at times catering for all of those use cases without an overcomplicated set up that will spoil the key private use case,” says Cordless’ Halliday. “They don’t want a million buttons to press. They don’t want a Crestron panel with 10 different options so they can get a picture on whatever screen. They just want to walk in and it works. As soon as you introduce multiuse [and] all of these different layouts, you’re going to run into challenges that compromise that key experience.”

Fortunately technology is evolving and advancing to help mitigate those challenges. “We’re lucky that we see technology now come along that can adapt a little bit better, with AI camera tracking, intelligent audio and things that you don’t need to define presets to get them to work indifferent layouts,” Halliday says. “That helps, but we still want to design the spaces to suit specific use cases because if you try to cater for ultimate flexibility, you’re never going to deliver a good experience for any single one of them guys. So we’re always trying to drive that discussion to make people clear about [that] and manage expectations.”

AVconcept wrestled with these kinds of challenges at Unity. “From a technical point of view, the planning must take into account the standardised operating environment of the facilities and equipment,” Kiukas says. “The placement of IP-based devices is more flexible and makes rooms more versatile. For example, the management of audio/video areas of IP-based devices is more versatile and enables the orgnisation of various events. Cabling in IP-based devices is also significantly easier and cheaper.”

Another factor is the video use cases involve video. “In the planning phase of multi-purpose spaces like Unity, we have to start by designing multi-purpose systems that flexibly serve different purposes,” Kiukas says. “For example, the previously commonly used video projectors can now be replaced with LED screen technology. The advantage of LED technology [is] modularity. In other words, the technology can be used to build many different types of display surfaces in auditoriums, meeting rooms or large party spaces. The size or shape of the display surface is no longer a limitation.”

This also is an example of how advances in display technologies are enabling spaces to accommodate additional use cases that weren’t practical or possible.

“The purpose of use in the aforementioned premises can be a hybrid-based meeting,” Kiukas says. “For example, participants can join the event through Teams and other online meeting platforms. With high-quality LED technology, the most natural experience for the participants is achieved. With these means, large hotel lobbies can serve customers as conference rooms or small shared private rooms, depending on the need.”

Main photo credit: hu difeng/Shutterstock.com

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