Nick Atkin of Yorkshire Housing & Jenny Hill of Ingo Interiors on Leeds’ first net zero carbon workspace.

When it comes to the social housing sector, no name is more synonymous than Nick Atkin's.

CEO of Yorkshire Housing - the biggest housing association based solely in Yorkshire - Nick is a big believer in innovation and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. He uses the power of digital to drive change and he’s also a disruptor in the ‘future of work’ debate. This might go someway in explaining his motivation behind creating Leeds’ first net zero carbon workspace.

Enlisting the creative support of Jenny Hill of Ingo Interiors, Nick engaged employees to develop a work place that truly worked for them, while being sustainably exemplary too. Doing away with static desk spaces in favour of more flexibility - "The space is not designed for the 9-5" - the improved Yorkshire Housing HQ is a shining example of how a contemporary office could, and arguably should, operate.

We recently caught up with Nick and Jenny to chat in more detail about their inspiration and creative approach to designing and developing the Yorkshire Housing Hub.

When did the ball begin rolling on the Yorkshire Housing Hub project at The Place?

Nick: "The pandemic supercharged our existing ambition to be a true employer of choice and to offer colleagues one of the most innovative, dynamic and forward-thinking collaboration spaces in the country. This also linked with our move to offer all colleagues home based working contracts and rethink the whole approach to how and why we came together."

You worked with Ingo Interiors on the project, how did you go about choosing a designer to bring the project to fruition?

Nick: "I’d worked with Jenny on a previous project elsewhere and was blown away by her vision and ability to link the culture and future direction of the business with workspace design. I love the way she spends time understanding what we want the business to look and feel like and then applies these in the design features she introduces. My brief to her was to be as radical as possible and to see if she could get us to say 'no' to any of the ideas she came back with. It’s fair to say 'no' was never uttered and that has enabled us to push the boundaries and have the impact that’s been created."

Jenny: "Nick had a clear vision of their future with regards to anytime, anyplace working and began implementing agile working from day 1 at YH – again, well before the Pandemic. The brief was to create a Hub that would take Yorkshire Housing into a way of working that would be ground-breaking, exciting, inspiring and fun whilst being capable of fulfilling the needs of YH colleagues when not at home – a truly unique workspace option that attracts the best, retains the best and allows colleagues to give their best to their customers."

The project is Leeds’ first net zero carbon workspace – an amazing achievement. Was sustainability key from the outset?

Nick: "Absolutely yes! We searched extensively for the right space that aligned with our strategic ambition to offer low carbon homes and minimise our impact as a business on the environment. The vision that Citu had for the Climate Innovation District and the workspace they had created was a perfect fit."

Jenny: "Ingo Interiors has tried to be inherently sustainable and environmentally aware with its approach and design specifications from the company's inception. Research and avoiding companies that 'green wash' to impress is key. We didn't just look at 'the story of the product', but also where the companies specified/made products, if they were based near the project and if they employed local people. The space had to have environmental awareness integral to its design - no token feature moss walls were used in the making of this project!!!"

Artwork: 'Expanse III', Janine Baldwin, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and graphite collage, 30 x 90cm

Artwork: 'Expanse III', Janine Baldwin, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and graphite collage, 30 x 90cm

How did you involve employees in the process?

Nick: "We took colleagues on a journey of helping them to rethink what many of us have been hard wired to believe are the fundamentals of any workspace. This started with why people come together in a shared space – mainly to collaborate and also have a bit of fun! We also applied the principle that if 95+% of meetings don’t need to be held in a meeting room then how could the space be used for a range of different collaboration activities. We visited a few other workspaces that had gone on a similar journey to learn from them on what had worked and also to see a few things we knew we could do even better!"

What were the main things employees wanted from the space?

Nick: "Colleagues wanted a variety of spaces to suit different tasks and purposes of coming together. They wanted a light and airy space that offered collaboration, fun and also areas where they could hold meetings/take calls. They also wanted us to be true to our stated ambition to be a low carbon business that supported Yorkshire based businesses and suppliers."

How did you then incorporate that feedback into your designs, Jenny?

Jenny: "Yorkshire Housing took their colleagues on a journey to rethink the workspace. So many of us have got used to formal office spaces so it was important for Yorkshire Housing to find out what colleagues really wanted. There were some common themes. Informal seating areas, quiet spaces as well as those that bring people together and a focus on wellbeing. This feedback helped to create meaningful spaces. We incorporated a wellbeing room, solo working pods and other spaces to give colleagues everything they need."

There are many standout design features – which are your favourites?

Jenny: "Did someone mention swings, waterfalls, and sheep? Generally, what I think stands out is the layout. It has been purposefully developed to help create a space that feels positive and welcoming, warm, and functional, fun, and professional, clean and safe. The design intends to improve mental health and wellbeing for ALL people, whether considered neurodiverse or neurotypical alike."

How did the pandemic impact your design choices – if at all?

Jenny: "I was lucky in that I have a proven track record of delivering innovative solutions to facilitate an agile/hybrid working approach to the workplace - well before the pandemic. Thankfully both I & Yorkshire Housing were ready to take the plunge with an even more radical approach to design following the pandemic with what we both perceive as the 'Future of Workspaces'. Hubs not Offices!"

How do you hope the space will be used day-to-day?

Nick: "The space has been deliberately created to be completely flexible, everything is moveable and will be moved around to suit the changing needs of the business. We have sensors throughout the building so we know which spaces are used more than others and so we can flex accordingly. The space isn’t designed for people to come and sit and work in the same seat for 7 hours.

"It’s about moving around to use the different spaces for the purpose they were designed for and then move on. The aim is that people are energised and invigorated by the time they spend at The Place that then continues to have a positive impact long after they’ve left the building."

Jenny: "We designed the space to be flexible and able to adapt to meet the needs of colleagues. As Nick said, Yorkshire Housing has also installed smart sensors to monitor the usage of different areas. The space is not designed for the 9-5. It’s a space where people come together with a sense of purpose. There’s no hierarchal plan and no pen pots on desks so we want people from across Yorkshire Housing to feel welcome and at home."

What’s the feedback been like since completion?

Nick: "It’s far exceeded even what we’d hoped for! We had expected some colleagues to be sceptical or even resistant to what we’d created. But far from it! People experienced a real wow factor from the moment the doors opened in front of them that lasted as they walked around and discovered a whole range of different spaces and features.

"This wow factor is great to see even now on the faces of people who are joining YH or those just visiting. It is funny to see the reactions when people first walk in, and you meet them at the waterfall – yes really!"