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Trend Group ignites Thungela’s new workplace

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Walk into the reception area of 25 Bath Street in Rosebank, the striking new home of Thungela Resources, and be amazed. Be more than amazed. Be awestruck. After all, this is the head office of a South African thermal coal producer – newly spun off from Anglo American – which is making a name for itself in the mining industry.

A staggered burnt-orange staircase, leading to the top storey of the building, rises out of the ground floor like a mine-shaft. Its under-lit handrails cast a fiery glow into the vastness of the central atrium and beyond the wire-basket-like surrounds. Thungela means ‘ignite’ in Zulu, and the stairwell showstopper certainly sets the entrance ablaze. But it doesn’t end there. Trend Group, a leading design and project implementation company, has made sure of that by rendering an extraordinary workplace for Thungela and its staff.

Asset Magazine spoke to Trend to mine the ‘when, how and why’ of a corporate workplace which has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of Covid-19.

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“25 Bath Street was a more dated building which Thungela selected out of the building options which were proposed,” senior interior designer, Jean Swanepoel says. “Its central atrium housed a huge tree and wooden decking, all of which was removed before the building was completely gutted. It was a complex process in terms of fire, health and safety issues and was still underway when we tendered for the interior design.”

The project was awarded to Trend Group in October 2020. Jean recounts that the client’s brief, while fairly loose, revolved around creating a workplace that was “Covid-conscious”.

“They wanted an environment that would allow for hybrid work, as well as co-working, with flexible parameters. We were presented with an empty space so that we could pitch a concept based on how we experienced that space. Our concept had to take the interior of the building from first fix – once the architect had moved off site – to completion.

The Trend team likens the project path they followed to that of mining, which is essentially a journey of exploration and discovery once initial analyses have been done. Thungela wanted to move away from conventional office layouts but was unsure of what to do.  It was happy to be taken on a journey of discovery by Trend. It was a journey which the client and I thoroughly enjoyed, Jean comments.

“We didn’t dictate to Thungela. We sold them a conceptual experience, whereby we would walk the road together, showing them what we had in mind. Neither party knew exactly what shape a Covid workplace would take so we started with basic ideas which had the potential to grow into something quite different. For example, we created open plan layouts with desk configurations, all within an industrial look and feel which tied in with the mining background. Then we walked them through how these could in fact become collaborative work areas.”

As the concept crystallised, it soon became apparent the space would be so well-utilised that there would be very little dead space. It could accommodate a variety of work-style combinations with ‘breathing space’ always available. Being able to carry the concept throughout an entire building and not just across one floor, for example, was a hugely satisfying experience for the Trend team.

“By the end of the project,” says Jean, “this 3,000m² building was perfect for Thungela. It stands as a showcase for their unique brand identity and aligns the workplace strategy with optimal design. We worked closely with Eris, the landlord, from the outset so that there was complete clarity as to where our scope of work started once they were finished. The solution we offered the client was a full turnkey solution, procuring all furniture and fittings, and working closely with facilities management.”

Trend completed the interior design in seven months, and although they continue to be on hand to adjust the workplace in line which shifting demands, Thungela is fully able to accommodate all 120-plus staff once they all return to the office. The ground floor is dominated by meeting rooms, hot-desk office space and a coffee station. The first and second floors offer hot desking as well as closed offices for the use of teams and managers, while the third floor is utilised by executive staff who are largely office bound. The company’s colour scheme of yellow with accents of green and vermillion  has been cleverly integrated into client-facing areas, collaborative and interactive workspaces, as well as breakaway and downtime zones.

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The central atrium stairway which links all the floors, leads to yet another design element which is “one for the books”, as Bronwyn Pearce, senior project manager, explains. “Thungela was a very exciting project to work on, taking the building from quite a raw finish to a polished end product. The top floor features a cantilevered boardroom, which has become the ‘talking point’ of the space. It presented a tough construction challenge.”

Initially, the top floor had a mesh walkway with timber on top of it. When the client tasked Trend with creating a meeting room that would be a ‘statement’ piece, the team cut out the walkway and built out from there, creating a cantilevered structure with the additional use of glass and plenty of reinforcing. What was supposed to be a meeting room transitioned into such an impressive space that it became the boardroom.

“We’ve never done something like this before,” Bronwyn says. “It involved very close collaboration with the professional team. We were expertly guided by the structural engineer who had worked on the refurbishment of the original building on behalf of the landlord. We had regular meetings with all these parties as well as the steel manufacturing team. With all the necessary guidelines being followed, it was a complex, but smooth process.”

Another interesting challenge, and possible the biggest one, she adds, was the acoustic panelling. Delays with the shipping of the order meant that suspended brackets and lighting which had already been installed out of necessity, had to be removed once the panels finally arrived, and then reinstalled. “These kinds of knock-on challenges come with every project,” Bronwen notes, “but we had a great team and a very supportive client. This ensured that we delivered a successful project.”

The finished product is a skilful combination of both warm and cool surfaces with punchy colour highlights used to distinguish key areas. The use of wood panelling and screeded concrete makes for a surprisingly cohesive design in spite of being tricky to balance. It lends warmth to the cooler tones of this industrial-style building, and is complemented by the carefully curated selection of area-appropriate furniture.

“The Design Lab, which supplied much of the furniture and decor, is our furniture arm,” Gaby explains. “When presenting to our clients, we have always wanted to be able to offer our clients a range of furniture to choose from, and it needed to be at their fingertips when selecting the specific pieces. This desire to give them a furniture shopping experience close at hand led to our establishing The Design Lab. It supplies furniture, fittings, acoustics and decor – basically anything a client needs for an interior. There is also an e-commerce site so clients can familiarise themselves with options and with what is customisable. All the furniture we use on projects is procured through The Design Lab.”

Jean says Trend always specifies their furniture be procured locally and this is by far the predominant practice unless the client specifically requests an import. In the case of Thungela some existing furniture from its previous location was used, but the soft seating, the executive desks and the reception centrepiece were all manufactured locally.

With such an exhilarating project behind you, will it be hard to find future projects that match Thungela for both challenge and creative fulfilment? Asset wondered.

You’d be surprised, Gaby says. “There are a number of similar projects coming up for tender because clients now see that they can introduce a workable hybrid workplace model – and may have to in order to lure staff back to the office! Whether you’re downsizing or growing, space needs to be inspirationally reconfigured. Clients are saying to us: “The office is vital to our business. Tell us what to do to make it exciting and bring our staff back.’”

Can Trend do this? Well, they’ve set Thungela’s workplace ablaze with excitement by all accounts. Is that answer enough for you?