A new era for office design – architect Mollie Bigley brings zen to the workplace

When London-based speciality reinsurer IQUW launched their Bermuda operation, they needed office space, and quickly. While the location in Waterfront Properties’ Chesney House was ideal, the office interior was less so.

With a layout and décor “stuck in the 90s,” the 4,000-square-foot area needed to be transformed into office space as innovative and forward thinking as the company, but it had to be highly functional, high tech—and completed within a strict budget. To achieve this they turned to architect Mollie Bigley, founder of Mollie Bigley Design and Architecture.

Working in partnership with project manager Will Irvine of Lighthouse Construction, Bigley embarked on a project that not only modernised, opened and brightened up the office space but brought in “a little zen [and] inspiration through the architecture and the wood detailing.” The linear wood detailing is very much a dominant feature throughout the whole workplace, and nowhere is this more so than when you walk from the reception area into the office. And it was here where Bigley met her first big challenge. “One of the biggest challenges was the curved hallway that connects this [entryway] to the main office spaces,” she explains, adding, “We decided we can’t fix it, so we’re going to embrace it and we really made it a feature of the office itself.”

One of the biggest challenges architect Mollie Bigley faced in redesigning IQUW’s office space, was working with the curved hallway that connects the front entrance to the main office. Instead of fighting against it, Bigley chose to work with it and today its a visual feature of the office itseld.

To add to the fun, the curved hallway in question is also on a slope and in embracing this, Bigley turned the corridor into a mesmerising experience of full length, narrow, backlit wooden slats along the wall and ceiling. A creative solution but not as simple as it might seem. Says Bigley, “There was a lot of maths involved!” But the effect was well worth the effort: “I can’t tell you how many people it really resonates with, and I hear ‘oh my gosh, it’s so cool,’ so we’re really happy with it. It definitely leaves an impression on everyone who walks through the office.” There is also a separate side entrance which Bigley was tasked with branding by incorporating the wood features and signage so that IQUW was visible from what is a prominent and busy outside corner. “That was really going to be mostly for employees,” she laughs, “but it turns out most people like to come through the front door.”

The linear wood slats are prominent throughout the rest of the office space and, Bigley explains, “were supposed to look like white oak, but we used poplar with a custom stain.” Because solid wood is heavy and some slats needed to be fixed onto the ceilings, many have a foam core to make them lighter. “We used a foam with a wrapped wood veneer in places we needed to reduce weight,” she says. All the woodwork was done through Convoy, and it has been used, in various forms, as features not just for walls and ceilings, but also behind the company logo, the kitchen and bathroom backsplashes and in some of the fixtures and fittings.

“We had a lot of back and forth, having samples sent, making sure things matched,” continues Bigley. “Everything looks so simple and so cohesive, but it took so much time and effort to make sure those finer details were met and also on budget.”

The main part of the office features open-plan deals and furnishings in neutral colours, which helped to balance the warmth of the woodwork throughout.
The conference room has no windows to the outside, so Bigley used glass walls to maximise the room’s light potential.

As has become the norm with today’s companies, everything is open-plan desks with no individual offices. However, there are meeting rooms of various sizes and a large conference room which can comfortably seat the entire board. In a sign of the times, the conference room space had previously been the server room, but now they only need a glorified cupboard for that purpose. The conference room has no windows to the outside, so Bigley used glass walls, where possible, to maximise the light potential and soundproofed the room by mounting acoustical boarding on a shared internal wall. The custom-designed conference table matches the wooden slats on the ceiling and wall as well as the integrated benches to the side, which have their own overhead lights and provide extra seating when needed. In addition to the meeting rooms, Bigley added a relaxing “break out space” where staff can enjoy less formal conversations or just take a break from their desks.

Bigley creating a relaxing break out space where staff can enjoy downtime away from their desks.
In addition to work spaces, Bigley also designed brand-new bathrooms complete with showers, and a kitchen where staff can brew coffee and enjoy lunch.

While a lot of what the company inherited provided challenges for Bigley and the team—curved corridors, a staircase that hadn’t been on the plans and a column where they didn’t want a column, for example—not everything was detrimental, most notably the raised floor which, says Irvine, “is unusual for Bermuda commercial offices.” Preserving that raised floor meant they didn’t have to reroute the entire network. Instead, all the wiring comes from the floor and up into the desks.

Away from the main office space are brand new bathrooms, which also have showers, and a kitchen with counter seating, all lighter and brighter than their previous iterations. Bigley even brought in some dramatic colour to the kitchen cabinets to give it a “fresh” feeling. She deliberately didn’t want a lot of colour throughout the rest of the office, however, because she felt it wasn’t needed with all the woodwork: “I wanted to make sure it felt zen, and the material gave a lot of play of light. I wanted to inject [character] into the space without it feeling too much. I didn’t want a lot of colour. No one really wants to work in a red room. So, we brought in interest through materiality, but natural materials.”

The way she used those natural materials is one of the many features that won over our judges. They praised the fact that it was “very well-balanced…wasn’t over the top” and “wasn’t flashy,” but still “hit the right notes” and was “very modern.” They also agree that Bigley has achieved the zen she had been going for.

What the judges really enjoyed, however, is the curved corridor: “It’s so interesting as you’re walking down the hallway. You’re going up but don’t realise it. The ceiling is coming down. Compression is happening. It’s like an optical illusion.”