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Tower Hamlets Foodbank’s New Lease of Life 

Tower Hamlets Foodbank’s new innovative space. Image © Gensler

With 52% of children living below the poverty line and more than 50% of its residents affected by illness, unemployment and debt, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived areas in the UK. At Gensler we’ve always believed that charity begins at home, especially in the communities where we live, work and play. So, in the summer of 2012, we set out a plan to help better the lives of the borough’s residents by building relationships with local charities that work within their community.

When we came across the charity, First Love Foundation, coordinators of the Tower Hamlets Foodbank, we instantly struck a chord with their vision to “help fight hidden hunger” and support families facing real crisis. Hunger is affecting thousands of people across England. Reasons ranging from family breakdown to receiving an unexpected bill while on low income are leading to a rise in the number of people turning to Foodbanks for help. Along with providing emergency food, Tower Hamlets Foodbank also supports people through advocacy, helping to get them back into work and integrated into wider society. This is something that we, as a firm and individuals, care strongly about and were privileged to be in a position to help. We have been involved in their food drives and also volunteered time to help support the charity’s food collection. But, when the opportunity arose for us to use our design skills to help them create an office space for their growing team, as well as training facilities and food storage, we jumped at it!

Tower Hamlets Foodbank was offered new, larger subsidised office space in Poplar Business Park and seized the opportunity with both hands. This meant they could have all of their services under one roof, but the space was somewhat uninspiring and worse-for-wear. With no budget to fund the new fit out, CEO Denise Bentley approached Gensler to create an environment that was a warm and welcoming open plan work space along with a meeting room, private office and tea point. There were no expectations from the charity in terms of design aesthetic, but naturally, as creative people, our aim was to give them the best possible work setting that was both functional and fun!

Concept plan for the space and the final design solution. Image © Gensler

To accomplish this challenge we needed the support of our network. We began by reaching out to our vast network of suppliers and manufacturers within the industry. The initial response was overwhelming. So many were willing to donate furniture and fittings completely free of charge. The design concept was all about using donations and upcycling, encouraging an eclectic mix of furniture and varying products with juxtaposed finishes. This is best characterised by the central walkway comprised of patchwork carpet tiles from different manufacturers.

We also had the invaluable contribution of Od Groups’ time as managing contractors to oversee all of the subcontractors. Managing Director, Jon Kearney said “CSR is extremely important to Od Group and we like to use our expertise to help where we can. London is where the majority of our work takes place so to be able to give back and assist with such a wonderful project in our home city is very rewarding.” This meant that, with their support and expertise, we were able to realise our design concept into a physical space. Within our own office, we also hosted a ‘bake-off’ style cake sale to raise additional funding to purchase the trestles for the workstations and other accessories to dress the space. The money raised was then matched by our office director!

The great thing about completing such a unique project was the manageable scale and the personal resonance it had. Seeing the gratitude and awe on the client’s face when we initially presented our concept design document was so rewarding and made us thankful that we had the opportunity to help with such a worthwhile cause. As we weren’t designing for a client with pre-existing standards or a bottom line to think about, we were pushing and testing solutions with them to provide a space that, aesthetically and functionally, far surpassed their expectations. We focused on designing an energetic, varied, vibrant and fun workspace which encourages collaboration. We avoided the conventional white desk and, instead, created bespoke wooden tables for a more informal, homely feel that also facilitates quiet focus-based work.

Now, with work on site complete, the dynamic of the team at Tower Hamlets Foodbank has completely changed. “When the design concept was first pitched to us we were so overwhelmed by the time, thought and inspiration that had gone into it already - we literally didn’t know what to say! Having no budget to work with, we were simply amazed at the support they were able to garner and also extremely humbled by the number of people and organisations that were willing to contribute”. Denise also noted “My team are motivated by their desire to help people facing crisis which can sometimes be a lonely and overwhelming task. Having a fun uplifting workplace that really does reflect who we are has not only inspired new creative ways of working – but has shown the team how supportive Gensler and their network are of our work to combat hidden hunger in Tower Hamlets”

Before. Image © Gensler

After. Image © Gensler

It goes to show, a lot can be achieved even when you begin with so little. The generosity and enthusiasm which surrounded this project, and the whole team working in their own time has resulted in a project that we are immensely proud of, and most importantly will make the world of difference to a charity that works to change people’s lives for the better.

Gserve - is an initiative to help inspire, connect and educate employees to make a positive impact in their local community. The space - designed by interior designers Chris Crawford and Becky Spenceley – showcases their high levels of creativity and growing desire to create flexible, adaptable and innovative workspaces. They would like to give a special thank you to; OD projects, Abbey Wood Flooring, Rox Dry Lining, H&S, PIP, Edge, MSK, Howard Bros Joinery, Olympiad Signs, Bisley, Co-Existence, Dulux, Carl Hansen, Mohawk Group, Quadrant carpets, TPS, Optima, Milliken, Interface, Muraspec, Humanscale, Brunner, Herman Miller and Hitch Myliusfor for their invaluable contributions to this project. Chris and Becky can be contacted at chris_crawford@gensler.com and becky_spenceley@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

I am absolutely delighted to see this project completed. This is a project I helped set up when I was at Gensler on the Gserve committee in the London office. Well done team, excellent work!
04.2.2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Panrucker

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