Inside ASB's new North Wharf digs

A meringue. A turban. A volcano. Whether you eat it, wear it or run from it as it explodes, ASB’s new headquarters in Auckland’s North Wharf has been compared to an odd variety of objects.

A meringue. A turban.  A volcano. Whether you eat it, wear it or run from it as it explodes, ASB’s new headquarters in Auckland’s North Wharf has been compared to an odd variety of objects.

The workspace has made waves for its approach to the use of its footprint in a measure called ‘activity-based working’, a ‘democratic’ workplace planning methodology involving freedom of choice about where workers sit.

Even chief executive officer Barbara Chapman doesn’t have a set space and is free to roam the wilds of the office.

Set on Jellicoe Street, the new building offers about the same staff per square metre capacity as the old joint on the corner of Albert and Wellesley Sts in Auckland, but it feels radically different, Chapman says.

That’s largely due to how the use of space has been designated; it’s split up into either dense clusters of desk space for worker bees to churn out the goods, or a huge choice of meeting pods and spaces that offer a bit more leg room.

There’s even a cafe, a BBQ deck area and a place to play Xbox and PlayStation games, should the mood strike. (You can apply for a job at ASB at careers.asbgroup.co.nz.)

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An atrium area has been designed with shipping, nautical, wharf and general sea-going references in mind, which can be seen by looking towards the outside: think trawlers with nets, ships with hoists and masts, and cranes unloading cargo.

But while staff are free to choose their desk, the building has been split up into various areas. Public spaces are known as ‘boathouses’, while free working spaces are known as ‘neighbourhoods’, made up of a variety of work settings ranging from quiet rooms (‘cockpits’) to open collaboration lounges.

Teams and business units are based in their various neighbourhoods, where their storage space is also located.

All staff have mobile devices – be it an iPad, laptop or iPhone – and a locker to store a small amount of items. All documents were scanned before leaving the old building, the paper destroyed and everything now sits on servers. It’s a cloud-lover’s dream.

Commonwealth Bank Australia has a couple of similar spaces in Sydney’s Darling Harbour and ASB was in a position to learn a lot from them before the huge shift to the turban-meringue-volcano began in June this year. “They gave us a lot of guidance,”

Chapman says. “They told us, ‘get prepared before you come’. Make sure you’ve done all your scanning and that people are used to living out of a box size of paper.”

Before the shift, people started “practising” moving around, Chapman says.

“I was talking to one of the guys who’s been here forever and said ‘How’s it going?’ and he said ‘it’s liberating’.”

Chapman wasn’t around when the building design was set up but has been involved in the internal fit-out. (Jasmax and Sydney architecture firm BVN were contracted to bring it to life.) Still, the majority of the work has been down to ASB’s property team, which has made the fundamental decisions.

“I think they’ll leave behind a legacy to the business that’s far beyond just this building,” Chapman says. “It’ll be a legacy around how we work as a business.”

ASB has an 18-year lease with Kiwi Income Property Trust.

“It’ll be interesting to project forward in 18 years’ time – I think this is still going to be a pretty special building.”

The building has a particular focus on sustainability, with innovations such as using rainwater to flush the toilets, a temperature control alert for when it’s more efficient to open the windows than have them shut, and a giant funnel that takes heat out when it gets too hot.

“You don’t get involved in a new building without thinking those things through. The sustainability aspects aren’t necessarily there just because it’s the right thing to do, there’s also financial benefits behind it. All those things are lowering our operating costs and that’s important to us.”

Chapman estimates the efficiency will save ASB around 25 percent in annual operating expenses per square metre, compared to the old building.

But for now, it’s all about culture.

“You always hear that environment makes a big difference to the culture of a business, but it’s palpable when you walk into this building,” Chapman says. “You can actually feel the excitement and see the excitement that people have. That whole openness and collegiality it encourages – and is actually designed for.”