SALife Magazine – Sexy in the City

If you didn’t know better, the CEO’s work station at one of Australia’s largest companies and household names could be your everyday front office enquiry desk. On the other hand, in the corporate equivalent of a showground ride, not too many workers can spend their lunch hour dangling high out over a busy city street.

When Managing director and chief executive John Ellice-Flint and his board committed to moving Santos from the big old State Bank building into something brand spanking new, the view was that the major oil and gas exploration and production company needed a whole fresh approach to the way it went about its business.

Where the Santos people were on King William St seemed closed and compartmentalised, and could even involve two different lift rides, like changing trains, just to get things done. As well, the technical complexity of Santos’ operations in the 21st century meant that 700 odd employees could no longer sit on their own particular proficiency. It was time to bring working knowledge out of confined spaces and into the open. If that quest for shared expertise required some artistic licence, came with a little fun attached, so much the better.

The fulfillment of the vision is the Santos Centre at 60 Flinders St, more than $100 million worth of moving, fitting out and leasing. There are 12 storeys around an atrium, each floor themed for Santos activities around the globe, dedicated to staff familiarity and cohesion, and targeted to be as green as can be.

On the ground floor, a coffee shop is open to anyone, and at the bottom of the atrium Santos’s core values – discovers, cares, collaborates, delivers – are depicted in steel pipe interpretations of down-hole tools by sculptor Trevor Wren. At the other end of the atrium, on the 12th floor, a notional rainforest is the setting for flexible meeting spaces. The CEO’s patch is in the south-west of the 10th floor, limestone themed with colours and layers like fault lines.

John Ellice-Flint’s humble personal space has been known to draw gasps of surprise from politicians for its lack of pretence, because it flies in the face of the perception that the size of the job dictates the size of the office. True, the man in charge has a small lounge room behind his desk for quiet conversations. But for the bigger moments he books the meeting rooms just like anyone else.

With an open kitchen on almost every floor providing a home away from home element, gathering around the watercooler on Monday mornings to discuss the footy is taken to a new level. Santos wants much more than Mondays and the AFL, and says that more advanced interaction already is happening, with people even using the atrium’s stairs to move between floors for work exchanges where once the phone or the lift would have been the go. That’s if there was any human connection at all in the past. Now there is exercise to boot.

There are similar communal or campus style approaches to everyday working life in other parts of Australia, such as the MLC building in Sydney and the NAB branch in Melbourne’s Docklands. But there is nothing quite like it in Adelaide, and according to vice president Martyn James, who managed the move with project director Jo Brennan, the difference “could not be any larger” between the old Santos offices and the new Santos Centre, with exterior design by Hassell and interiors by Bligh Voller Nield Architecture.

Jo says the staired atrium is the “connecting heart” of the building, bringing people closer together and disseminating the message of sharing ideas and experiences. If so, the “crystal boxes” are the brains of the outfit. Glass meeting rooms, with overlays such as Asian patterns, dot paintings, seismic waves and forest trees, are where the conversation moves when privacy is required. After only 14 weeks, already the crystal boxes have proved a hit. Some provide links between floors, and the crystal box on the sixth, or “Ocean”, floor is a deep, calm blue glass.

Not surprisingly, the aquarium in the nearby kitchen is an absolute crowd favourite and talking point that attracts people from other departments on other floors. “People like being near something that is alive,” says Jo, and in support of that there are 2.5 plants to every person in the building. Other floors are themed Discovery, North America, Outback Australia, Contemporary Australia, South-East Asia, Middle East, Central Asia, Asia and Desert. Some are clearly what they claim to be; others are more subtle and require a Santos mind.

The themes extend to materials, furniture, timbers, plantings. The Asia level has black stained wood and a cherry blossom plant. On the Central Australia level, the operations control centre provides a continuous feed from Santos operations around the world, some in real time. This day, the North-West Shelf seemed to be ticking over nicely. Picture the wall size navigation panel of a James Bond submarine. At the Discovery level a working “wet” biostratigraphy laboratory looks into the atrium, visible to the public.

On the ground floor is the core workshop, with real dirt and real rocks. This is where detailed analysis is carried out and again, its purpose is visible to all. “When the building was designed we were conscious of first impressions,” says Martyn. “We wanted people to be drawn to our unpretentious foyer entrance by its energy and vibrancy, and I think we’ve done that with the coffee shop. “But then we wanted to say “Here’s an oil and gas company”. We are not accountants or lawyers. We are a science organisation.”

The themes were decided by a workplace review group made up of Santos staff, who also had a hand in the Centre’s targeting of a Green Building Council of Australia 5-star Green Star rating and a 4.5-star Australian Building Greenhouse rating. Paper has been reduced from the equal of stretching from the front door to Adelaide Airport to only halfway to the airport. “This building is for people, not paper,” says Jo.

Further green cred is earned by the re-use of the timbers of an 80-year-old Queensland bridge around the kitchens, lift landings and bridges, and 95 per cent recycled car tyre flooring with a sprinkling of glitter in utility rooms and corridors. Eco-core, a kind of plywood made from birch, is incorporated in the design of tea areas, meeting rooms and door and window frames. “No old wood has been used,” says Jo, and all paints, carpets, glues, adhesives and sealants have been selected to minimise the use of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

As is to be expected from a company that is both high-tech and aggressively moving away from a desk bound culture to one that promotes human contact, the Santos Centre’s meeting places give the building many focal points. From the ground floor’s massive screen displaying all things Santos and the soundproof room with adjustable light sensitive glass wall opposite it, these spaces are seriously adaptable, and at technology’s leading edge. “You can come in here and just go bam, bam, bam,” Jo says of such rooms’ audio-visual capacity and readiness. The west facing meeting rooms even have automated louvres that help control the heat load on the building without human intervention.

For the building’s design, Santos allowed itself to be pushed in certain directions, says Martyn. But through out the process, from John Ellice-Flint to everyone else involved, the company wanted “this style where collabor- ation and high-tech combined”. One of the outcomes was the gently tapering “pop out” from the fifth level up to the top. This is the glassed section extending from the front of the Santos Centre where the impression of walking on air or swinging in space can be experienced.

In the end, Martyn James says, “it was Santos’s vision that counted” in the creation of the Santos Centre. The sensation of being suspended high over Adelaide is a statement of exactly that.

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