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How we produced the British Council for Offices Guide to Specification

In 2019 we delivered the digital version of the British Council for Offices Guide to Specification.

The British Council for Offices (BCO) is a membership organisation concerned with research, development and communication of best practice in all aspects of the office sector. Its members are involved in creating, acquiring or occupying office space, whether architects, lawyers, surveyors, financial institutions or public agencies.

The BCO Guide to Specification documents current best-practices for office design. It covers everything from strategic brief to finishes and fit out. The guide contains recommendations based on legislation and regulations but is much more than a simple rule-book. It’s a qualitative benchmark, too, aimed at organisations that want to produce the highest-quality office buildings and work spaces in the UK.

The printed BCO Guide to Specification is available to buy at £150 for individual BCO members and £210 for non-members. However, the BCO recently introduced a new digital Guide to Specification, which is free to members. The digital Guide was designed and developed by Ten4 in collaboration with the British Council for Offices and many of its contributing members.

Here we talk to John Stewart — a Director at Ten4 — about how we made the Guide, some of the challenges we faced and what we learned along the way.

What experience do you think Ten4 had that differentiated us from other companies tendering for the work?

We were invited to tender after the BCO found us through our work for architects. Sheppard Robson was one of the architects’ websites they found our link on. I think they were impressed with our ability to understand the needs of the project and the complexities in it. We didn’t take anything for granted in our response, we asked the right questions, and made sure we understood the brief before we responded to it. We focussed our proposal on making the digital Guide a really usable tool, and keeping the British Council for Offices’ members at the heart of all the decision making in the project.

How did you go about planning the work? The guide from 2014 has over 300 pages — that’s quite a lot of work to put online. How did you go about planning it and who did you speak to?

When we joined the project it was about a quarter of the way through the production of content. British Council for Offices pulled together a working group. The working group were people who offered their time for free to write content for the Guide.

And these would be professionals working in architecture, development?

Yes so the architects would work on the architects sections, lift engineers would work on the “vertical transport” section. That kind of stuff. That group was already there so I came in with a draft outline of what we were thinking of doing for the structure of the book and transform that into a hierarchical structure for web.

Can you explain the difference between the two?

The book is linear: it goes front to back, chapter after chapter. We wanted to be really clear that the beauty of the online version of the Guide is that you can jump around much more easily. So much of the stuff in the guide is carefully linked together and nothing exists in isolation. Everything refers to something else, because when you’re building an office building you have to consider so many things at the same time. We needed to create a structure that would allow people to easily jump between different bits of content. Equally the guide references a huge amount of external resources published by a number of different bodies. That’s all linkable from the web, versus printed, where it can only be referenced in passing.

Everything refers to something else, because when you’re building an office building you have to consider so many things at the same time. We needed to create a structure that would allow people to easily jump between different bits of content.

Did working with so many people provide any particular challenges, or did it all go quite smoothly?

Once we set out our vision for the project we had monthly meetings with the working group to showcase wireframes and designs, alongside the people who were producing the printed version of the book, because we had to integrate all of their diagrams and that kind of stuff. There were a lot of people to work with but it went pretty well. With any project of this size, the biggest challenge was content, which wasn’t our responsibility. Content came in late and we had to get it all in [the content management system] very quickly in order to launch on time. But getting people on-board with the design and things like that was fine, they were all very happy with what we were doing.

There was a key diversion between the printed version and the digital version — we were adamant that we weren’t just going to create a digital version of the book, so while the content was the same, the designs of them are actually quite different, because it’s the BCO’s ambition that the digital version will outlive the printed version and evolve over time.

What are some key benefits for the British Council for Offices to invest in the digital Guide over the printed book?

I think there’s three main benefits.

One is the presentation of content — we can put in content that's not easy to show in print: big diagrams; large photography and video. In print it can be hard to show all the detail in the images and diagrams can get quite small. They have room to breathe in the digital Guide.

The second is the ability for users to customise the guide. People can annotate the guide and pin pages and curate their own version as they need it. Because the guide is so big, parts of it are only relevant to certain people and so the idea was to make it easy for people to come in and take the bits of it that they need that they can reference in future.

The third benefit is the ability to keep the guide up to date. The book is printed every four years. It’s expensive to produce and if legislation changes, or if there’s an error or whatever, it’s impossible to update quickly. The BCO toyed with a number of ideas — really changing the way that the printed guide functions so people could clip-in and clip-out sections of stuff that’s changed, without having to reprint the whole book, but ultimately they decided that a digital platform was where they would get the best returns for their investment, since it’s so much more flexible.

Is there anything about the printed book that you couldn’t replicate on the digital Guide, like people scribbling notes in the margins? Is there anything you think is lost in the digital format?

Writing notes in the margins was what we really needed to recreate – users can still annotate the guide just as they would a physical copy, and search through their annotations just as they could if they’d bookmarked the physical pages of the book.

The printed guide is really nicely designed. A lot of effort goes into it and it’s kind of seen as a coffee table book in architects and developers offices, so lots of companies like to have a physical copy. There's something quite prestigious about it. Reference books are really nice and you go into lots of architecture practices and they just have books everywhere. People do like looking at and holding books and you lose that with the digital version. I guess you lose the sense of ownership you get with the physical copy.

Before we got involved the BCO did a piece of research to find out what members wanted. They sent out a survey and they asked “Do you want a printed version of the book” — and over 50% of people said they still wanted it. I think that’s partly because the existing digital version was such a poor user experience, which we have spent a lot of time and effort improving for 2019.

How do you content manage all the information in the Guide?

We made sure that content management was really flexible. It’s built on Craft CMS and its structure follows the chapters of the book. We don’t use the numbered chapters, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc. that benefit the printed guide because the digital guide is so much easier to navigate. Each chapter and subchapter are individual entries in the CMS and each entry has variable content blocks. Content blocks allow us to customise every page, so editors can add paragraphs, aside copy (external links, thinks like that), images, videos and so on in whatever order they want, to match the printed guide.

We knew the content was going to be signed off sporadically so we built the CMS ahead of time and were able to populate it bit by bit. If another section comes along in future it can easily be slotted in without messing anything else up.

Considering this is such a departure from the printed book, did the BCO do any extra work to get its members on board?

We had to pull out the stops to develop an early prototype in about two weeks, to share at the the BCO conference in Berlin in 2018. I presented at that conference — it was an opportunity to get people interested in what we were doing, and show that the BCO was investing in making a platform that would really rival the printed book. People at the conference could access the prototype during the presentation and leave feedback.

What was that early feedback like?

People seemed to really like what we were trying to do with the Guide. I think the old digital Guide had fallen very short — it followed the design of the book too closely, which made it hard to use and search, and it was nowhere near good enough to replace the book — so we had to convince people that the new digital Guide was going to be a lot better, and they could see that early on.

Almost a year later I went to the BCO conference in Copenhagen in 2019 and presented the finished version, which was very well received. People were impressed with what they could do with the Guide. The Guide to Specification then went on a roadshow around the UK where we would present what we’d done. Each presentation was to about 70 to 100 BCO members to show what had been achieved with the digital Guide and get them using it, because it’s only going to replace the book if people understand that it’s there and what it does.

The book is expensive to produce and impossible to update quickly, so the BCO decided that a digital platform was where they would get the best returns for their investment.

The Guide to Specification won’t diverge too much from the printed copy and it will be clear when pages have been updated from the original text
The Guide to Specification won’t diverge too much from the printed copy and it will be clear when pages have been updated from the original text

Katrina Kostic Samen (current BCO President) said the digital Guide to specification is a “growing, moving organism” — do you think about it in the same way?

Yes. Every website that we build we evolves over time and this is no different. The Specification is built up with a lot of knowledge and experience and based on current regulations. When regulations change, the Guide can change. The ambition is that the digital Guide will be reviewed annually. The BCO doesn't want it to diverge too much from the printed copy, though — when changes are made it will be clear that it’s been updated from the original text, which people will be able to access easily.

Are we doing any more work for the British Council for Offices?

Yes. People new to the industry see the guide as a great learning resource, so we’re working right now on augmenting the Digital Guide to Specification with an eLearning module. The BCO will be able to sell eLearning modules to people who want it. There will be quizzes for self-assessment and an exam at the end of the process where they’ll get a CPD [Continuing Professional Development] certificate, or something similar.

The eLearning module will be integrated with the guide so people can just log on and if they’ve paid for the eLearning they’ll see it right there in the Guide.

In the future we hope that the platform we designed might be used to publish the BCO’s Guide to Fit Out — the sister publication to the Guide to Specification — The Guide to Fit Out covers everything post-build, so interior designers and occupiers can achieve the same BCO standards as architect and developers can on the build.

Great. Last question — why is this work relevant to other companies?

We’ve built up the particular skills needed to tackle large content-heavy projects and to make these platforms really useful. Understanding users and what their journeys around complicated, integrated content look like is really important. So is providing the tools for users to customise content, annotate, cross-reference, navigate the content easily and so on. Making really easy content management is vital, too — it has to be simple for content producers and content managers, editors and so on to stay on top of everything. All of this is relevant to any company wanting to put large reference-publications or detailed documentation or anything like that online — and we can help.

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Photograph of Owen Matthews

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