The design and delivery of AgResearch's new $98m HQ and research centre on Lincoln University's campus had to take place within various constraints, including occupants with very clear ideas of what they do and do not want in a building. Director of Infrastructure John O’Dea explains: “For this building, we had the added consideration of users who had a long list of requirements which had to fit into a finite budget. And many of those needs were based on old ways of doing things, such as individual offices and workspaces, which simply wouldn’t be possible for the new building.”

Research scientists employed at AgResearch are a highly select group of specialists and leaders. The workspace created needed to be fit-for-purpose, but also satisfying. “This plays an important role in staff retention and attracting the very best new recruits. Our people tend to have lengthy tenures and they aren’t easily replaced, so getting the workspace right is crucial.” Having worked with Assurity in the past, he approached the company with an unusual brief – to help design a new building by putting the occupants first.


Assurity took a human-centred design approach to the challenge, engaging deeply with AgResearch scientists and other staff, shadowing them through their workdays and drawing on their insights, observations, likes and dislikes. This was supported with multiple workshopping sessions with a focus group and then iterative sprints guiding in design of the eventual workspaces.

Those familiar with software development and change programmes will recognise these methods as aligned with the Design Thinking methodology – which was Assurity’s intention.

And, says John, the approach taken by the firm in terms of engagement is very unlike one typically expected from consultants. “This was a fundamental factor in the value created. By gaining the trust and cooperation of our people, Assurity's consultants were able to draw out insights which you wouldn’t ordinarily expect. By studying how people actually work, rather than simply discussing how they perceived their workdays, the consultants achieved a true view of the situation – which, in many instances, came as something of a surprise to the participants.”

The application of tact meant an initially reluctant staff contingent soon warmed to the process, adds John. “Enthusiasm quickly built as ideas were shared and views and inputs acknowledged and applied. It became clear that the consultants were genuinely interested in drawing out the needs of the users and they felt their input was valued and valuable.”

An estimated 70 hours went into shadowing and workshops, with the results of each initiative presented the very next day informing and guiding iterative design sprints. “We’d see detailed summaries pulled together as an initial report, referencing real rather than theoretical examples presented in an enlightening way. And the pace of delivery spoke to a rigorous work ethic,” comments John.


While the new AgResearch building will commence soon, Assurity’s work has concluded with the main output being a relevant design brief for the project’s architects. This brief explicitly represents the preferences, design principles and inputs of the study group, including open plan working environments and a 'serviced apartment’ approach. For the latter concept, science groups which previously had under-utilised facilities occupied perhaps 20 or 40 percent of the time, are now rapidly-configurable generic spaces, booked and equipped to specific needs as they arise.

“Getting to this point saw a lot of detail and iteration with mockups where the team put together ideas and presented them to their colleagues, utilising low-fidelity mock-ups,” explains John.

Confronted with this innovative approach to building design, he says the architects reacted positively, particularly as the guidance contributes to a highly-functional building. “A detailed brief always results in better outcomes while limiting scope creep.”

A further benefit is the confidence the AgResearch board of directors has in the return expected from the nearly $100m investment in the new building. “Involving key stakeholders and end users is very powerful. The work which went into the design brief confirms that we’re moving in the right direction and creating ideal spaces for professional productivity.”

While acknowledging difficultly in putting hard numbers to the value of the work delivered by Assurity, he says there is an indication of quantifiable benefit in the final budget agreed upon for the building. “When the project started, the initial scope was valued at $140 million. With Assurity’s assistance, we’ve developed a highly-functional building for our people for $98.6 million.”

Finally, asked if all buildings should follow a similar design process, John points out that AgResearch has a specific ‘user base’ and unusual requirements for its real estate assets. “Standard buildings are well-understood by architects and owners. But where you need to create highly-technical facilities with demanding requirements, I think you can only benefit by adopting an approach to design which better captures the needs of the end users.”

Involving key stakeholders and end users is very powerful. The work which went into the design brief confirms that we’re moving in the right direction and creating ideal spaces for professional productivity”

John O'Dea, Director of Infrastructure, AgResearch