Paragon Group successfully integrates interior architecture and leading workplace design

Discovery Campus is the largest single-tenant building in the Southern Hemisphere.

The fact that the Paragon Group of Johannesburg has been responsible for two of the largest corporate fit-out projects in South Africa to date is testament to the practice’s highly successful integration of interior architecture and leading workplace-design strategies.

The Paragon Group combines architecture, interior architecture, and space planning under a single umbrella, meaning it is capable of offering a complete turnkey service to its clients. “We deliver commercial architecture, master-planning, interior design, and space-planning services to a range of clients in all segments of the property market,” Director Claire D’Adorante elaborates.

At the helm of a team of about 20, Claire oversaw the fit-out of Sasol Place in Sandton, completed in January 2017 (67 000 m2), and the new Discovery Campus in Sandton, with Phase 1 completed in October 2017 (130 000 m2). The largest single-tenant building in the Southern Hemisphere, the sheer scale of the Discovery Campus was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of the consultants who worked on it.

“It presented tremendous opportunities for us in terms of the tenant’s willingness to explore quite a dramatic design, one that incorporated new design strategies that serve to drive significant changes to their dynamic workplace culture,” Claire highlights. “It has been a wonderful experience, and we cannot wait for it to be finished.” Phase 2 is due for completion in April 2018.

Claire adds that working on Sasol Place was a tremendous success for Paragon as a group as it delivered a fully integrated architecture and interior architecture service, as this global petrochemical giant is a homegrown success story. “The building itself is quite exceptional, and we are extremely proud of the outcome,” she adds.

These iconic projects have added exceptional depth to the skill base at Paragon, particularly on the interior architecture side of the business. “The types of skills you acquire as a young designer on projects of that scope cannot possibly be replicated,” Claire points out. In addition, Paragon runs an internship programme in conjunction with the University of Pretoria, whereby it offers a year’s on-the-job training for the top-performing third-year student.

“We do have a young and incredibly talented team. It is one of our defining strengths. Most of our staff have been with us for the duration of these iconic projects, which is testament to our ability to retain our staff and their skills and experience,” Claire stresses. She herself worked in Australia for six years, before returning to South Africa and joining Paragon.

Elaborating on the different working environment in Australia versus South Africa, Claire says Paragon ticks all of the boxes internationally in terms of being a fully integrated practice, offering its clients a turnkey service that optimizes both architecture and interiors. “In South Africa, interior architecture is often seen as a quite separate entity. The architect is responsible for the building itself, whereafter the interior architect then adds the colours and finishes. This is not the ideal way to work, and the Australian market tends to be far more holistic in its approach.”

This is because the design and interior architecture are seen as two sides of the same coin. “Here the architectural design very much takes into account how the interiors will be integrated into the final building itself. It is a different way of looking at a building that essentially promotes a common vision. The end user, developer, and tenant get the best of both worlds, as such an integrated approach is far more efficient in terms of both design practicality, aesthetics, and services integration,” Claire explains.

It also reduces the overall construction timeframe, and the quantity of rework and snagging that have to be done at the conclusion of a project. “Aligning the interior with the architecture is the most efficient process possible, as opposed to coming in at the end and then having to adapt a vision for the building.”

Sasol Place, for example, gives a clear sense that it is the end product of a single solution. Discovery has been delivered in a similar way, where Paragon was responsible for much of the interior architectural design that delivered the tenant’s aspiration for an integrated solution to represent its business ideals.

In terms of her own individual design philosophy, Claire states that she is quite flexible and open to new approaches, which is the underlying ethos of Paragon as a whole. “We aim to give our clients exactly what they want, but encourage them to explore the opportunities that new space can provide. This means we do not have a ‘house style’ as such, as we are constantly adapting and innovating. Our work is varied, due to our broad client base and project diversity.

“In terms of my own personal style, I do favour dramatic spaces that take inspiration from the building architecture, and I like the use of a lot of colour, which are elements that do tend to come through in the end. I like to bring branding into spaces as well, which means using corporate colours and marketing elements, and setting these against a more neutral base,” Claire says.

A key differentiator for Paragon is how quickly it embraces the latest technology and trends. “In terms of interior architecture, we follow the latest thinking in workplace strategy and design so as to stay ahead of the curve, which is critical in this market. Rather than play catch-up all the time, we get our clients to buy into the leading trends so we can introduce them into the local market.”

Buzzwords in this regard are employee ‘well-being’ and ‘engagement’, with Claire pointing to international research revealing how much more productive employees are if their workspaces encourage engagement. “There are numerous strategies in this regard, from offering a variety of posture positions, to specific spaces in which to relax and reflect. This means workers are both healthier and more effective, and naturally more committed to their employers.”

Paragon has also adopted the concept of agile or flexible workspaces, which embraces the latest technology. “Here we look at reducing the amount of time workers spend at their desks, for example, by having different settings and spaces, which drives different ways of working. This has been around for a number of years, and we are finding that the South African market is now finally catching up with this trend,” Claire reveals. These strategies can really drive cultural changes within the organizations that implement them.

However, in terms of an international trend like ‘hot-desking’, Claire feels that the South African market “sits somewhere in the middle. There is a sense of ownership here, whereby employees feel entitled to their own space and desk and leadership supports this way of working currently. It is changing slowly however, with us introducing the ‘third space’, referring to the support spaces around traditional workspace.

“In Europe, nobody gets their own desk anymore, with employees simply arriving and using the first available workstation. This is a great strategy, as it reduces a lot of real-estate costs, and is being adopted by major South African corporates such as Absa and Standard Bank in some areas of their facilities.”

Looking at the local state of the market, Claire says the bulk of the work out there at the moment comprises smaller projects, and especially refurbishments. “There are a lot of empty buildings, meaning a lot of redevelopment, as opposed to Greenfield sites. I think for the next two or three years we will probably see the market move in this direction.” Refurbishment, however, does present its own challenges. “It often means we have to work around existing services and structures, and requires a bit more creativity as a result. It can be quite rewarding, as you are recreating or repurposing a building, as opposed to just demolishing it.”

While the architecture and interior architecture sector is highly competitive and price-driven, Claire thinks that what gives Paragon the leading edge is its level of innovation. “We use the latest technology, we are quite adaptive in our designs, and we do push the boundaries constantly.”

The practice is also diversifying away from the corporate space, where it has played such a huge role to date, to other sectors such as retail, hospitality, and even housing. “This will definitely aid our growth going forward, and help us adapt to a changing market.”

Claire is equally proud of Paragon’s successful forays into Africa, including projects in Tanzania, Botswana, and Mozambique. “It was quiet for a bit, but has really bounced back in the last six months.” Paragon runs such projects from its Johannesburg, head office, with staffing travelling as required.

“Our global corporate clients such as Shell and GE have provided us with some unique opportunities and we have picked up quite a bit of work as a result. We have also completed work for South African companies such as Stanlib, Bowman Gilfillan, and Barclays. This is a major growth area for us,” she concludes.

About the Paragon Group                                                                                
Paragon, established in October 1997, is an internationally-active African design business, based in Johannesburg. It delivers commercial architecture, masterplanning, interior design, and space planning to visionary clients in all property sectors.

We are committed to Africa, and believe in the future of its cities. Our roots are here. We have much to offer. We are able and agile, and actively participate in the continent’s urban and human development. Paragon is flexible and diverse in its approach to design. Each project is unique and not driven by style, but by lifestyle and a response to user needs. Elegant and efficient planning form the core of our designs. We understand the needs of our clients, and know how to generate ever new architectural forms in a competitive property market.

We are known for hands-on engagement with all opportunities present in the modern global building industry. The true measure of our skill is our ability to engage at all levels and with all players that make up the colourful world of construction and property development. Our buildings look forward. We embrace the future, because we will be a part of it – part of its problems and responsibilities, and part of its great freedoms and achievements.

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