The International Olympic Committee’s HQ is on top of the podium when it comes to office design.
All hands are on deck at the sparkling HQ of the International Olympic Committee (ioc) in Lausanne. But the mood inside the building is as close to tranquil as you’ll find in an office. This has nothing to do with the fact that the staff here have an extra year to prepare the Tokyo Games in 2021. As one of the 500 or so employees jokes, managing the postponement is closer to having to organise a whole new event in 365 days. The Zen-like calm that resonates within the voluminous glass-and-steel structure occurs because of the very high comfort levels that its architects have forged for staff, making work at Olympic House as enjoyable as possible.
“This building gives a lot back to the people that work here – it helps them behave better,” says Kim Herforth Nielsen, architect and founder of 3xn, the Copenhagen-based firm behind the structure. “It is a sustainable building. Although sustainability for us is a holistic thing, sustainability for an organisation is about having a team who feel good at work, who want to go to work and who don’t get sick so often at work.” While the architecture, from an industry-respected Leed Rating perspective, has created one of the world’s most sustainable offices (it is the Olympics after all – they’re a competitive bunch), the design’s impact is equally meaningful in terms of staff wellbeing. For example, due to the site’s openness and sprawling glass façade, employees spend most of their time in the office in a position where they can enjoy at least two views. These aren’t bad views either. The building is next to Lake Geneva and also offers views of mountains and swimwear-clad residents of Lausanne making their way through a park for a dip. The waters of the lake are pumped into Olympic House to cool and heat the building naturally.
The views of nature, the daylight that workspaces are bathed in, environmentally friendly furniture from Vitra and the clever cooling system, all make for a healthy office. But the architecture takes wellbeing many steps further – 163 to be exact. This is the number of steps in the elegant timber central staircase, Olympic House’s main design draw and one that connects its six storeys and all of its workspaces. “It is the social part, the spine of the building – it connects everyone,” says Jan Ammundsen, head of design at 3xn. Staircases that encourage both foot-traffic and social activity have become something of a signature in the Danish firm’s work, he adds.
Looping through the centre of the office, the design subtly references the Games’ emblematic five-ring symbol and, with two alternative routes to the top, staff are known to race each other to the summit. “If you make the staircase visible, people like to use it,” says Ammundsen. “And if you make it attractive, they use it even more. Here we pushed it as part of the story, drawing upon the five rings. We also ensured that the stairs weren’t continuous; you actually have to step off the stairs and walk along the landing, where most of the social interaction happens, to use them.”
While Danish design philosophies were a key feature, Olympic House was an international effort, with Swiss firm Itten1Brechbühl brought onto the project as local partners. Overseeing the process from idea-inception right through to inauguration in 2019 was Marie Sallois-Dembreville, the Swiss-French ioc director of corporate and sustainable development. Wearing an elegant, miniature gold version of the building’s staircase on a necklace, she explains how she’s lived and breathed Olympic House as the organisation has gone through two presidents, three Olympic Games, and endured a global pandemic and Tokyo’s postponement. “There is no organisation as global as ours,” she says. “There is no other organisation that is present in 206 locations in the world.”
She adds that Olympic House’s design set out to reinforce this international nature in a way that treats everyone with respect. “What was extremely important for us is that anybody – a young person, an athlete, an official, a head of state, a consultant – entering this building would feel welcome, whatever their culture, age or colour,” she says. Drawing on simplicity and transparency, and designating no specific style across the site, proved helpful in achieving this, she adds. “We figured that a real quality of space is that it is something that everyone relates to personally,” she says. “Everyone feels good here: it’s light, there’s quality air and if you look carefully you will only see curved forms; there are no sharp angles. This design is welcoming intuitively.” When monocle visits, staff have ample space to move around and they take advantage of quiet glass-boxed meeting rooms, while the way in which the stairs cascade makes it easy to spot colleagues across floors. Despite being a sporty place, there are thankfully no corny references or table-tennis facilities to be seen. “Surely no one wants to be seen playing ping pong while their colleagues are hard at work,” says Sallois-Dembreville. “I visited a lot of offices as we made this building and everyone is debating closed- or open-space. But that debate will go on forever; like a pendulum. The question is not about whether offices should be open or closed; the question is, ‘how do you provide different types of space and ensure that people can still meet each other?’ The answer is transparency.”
Transparency and sustainability, two aspects that any good organisation should value, are firmly wrapped up in the architecture of Olympic House. It’s the beating heart of a global brand and is representative of the ioc’s far-reaching aspirations. Most importantly right now, it’s a place in which people want to work. While remote working might well become more common, Olympic House shows that there is plenty of legs in the idea of a global HQ.
Ideas around sustainability expand well beyond the walls of the Olympic HQ, with host cities becoming increasingly conscious of the Games’ environmental impact and the opportunity they have to positively transform their urban realms. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s recent re-election for a second term will see the changes to of the French capital in preparation for the 2024 Olympic Games continue. In the past, various Games have put sustainability on the agenda but Paris is set to be the greenest ever. Hidalgo has dubbed it “the green Games” and has been improving bike-lane infrastructure and encouraging citizens and businesses to grow gardens from the streets to the rooftops.