Paragon Interface and Trend Group’s collaboration takes 2U’s workplace design to new heights

Victoria Road in Salt River was once populated with some of South Africa’s most well-known textile and clothing factories, employing tens of thousands of people. The advent of cheap imports decimated the area and relegated it to a ghost of its former self.

The decision by 2U, an international company which delivers high-quality digital education online and at scale, to open its new South African base on Victoria Road is a major coup for the suburb. 358 on Victoria is a new A-grade commercial building, developed by Swish, which takes the word ‘trendsetting’ to a whole new level. Its innovative and sensitive design is perfectly attuned to a company whose tech-savvy advancements in the field of tertiary education and its sensitivity to new ways of learning have made it a global name.

Asset spoke to Claire D’Adorante, Director, and Jessica Self, Associate, both of Paragon Interface and Mohamed Okasha, Project Director at Trend Group. Their collaboration has illuminated 2U’s workplace which is built on a site once home to the vibrant and creative House of Monatic Textile Factory. Judging by the finished product, some of that historic and vibrant creative spirit still lingers in the 18,000m² space.

“This is not the first time we’ve collaborated with Trend Group,” Claire says. “We’ve done three WeWork projects together – one in Cape Town and two in Johannesburg in 2019 and 2020. It’s been a good partnership with excellent synergy. On the 2U project we were design lead and Trend managed full fitout, build and project implementation. We know each other’s working methods, and it’s an ideal way to work when you both know how to deliver the best possible solution for the client.”

2U is the parent company of edX, a leading global online learning platform. It works with top-tier partners to offer world-class tertiary courses as well as degree programs. The design of its new space was driven by its strong brand and culture. Having recently bought GetSmarter, a successful South African online education company, integrating GetSmarter’s brand energy and culture into the new workspace was a key focus.

Jessica says: “Due to the nature of their work, we approached the project differently to most corporate offices. The client wanted a new workspace ecosystem which promotes culture and collaboration, focus and fun by providing a diverse collection of spaces. By bringing the pink of GetSmarter into certain spaces, together with the blue tones of 2U, we were recognising the contribution the South African company is making to this global brand. The ‘sweatbox’ at 2U, for example, bears the colour of GetSmarter’s gym which was always pink.”

Employee wellbeing is an integral part of 2U’s approach to work. The client brief called for generous use of natural light and a variety of both active and calm work spaces that would allow for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual support. Paragon located open -plan neighbourhoods against the façade edge to ensure outward-facing views and there is good natural light throughout the various workspaces.

Claire emphasises that different areas of staff wellbeing were a strong element in the design. These spaces included areas such as the wellness centre, a headspace room, prayer rooms and the sweatbox gym. 2U was also keen to infuse a ‘cultural experience’ throughout the building while still maintaining confidentiality in the workspace neighbourhoods. The culture spaces which feed into this experience include a jazz bar, a culture hub with music and games, and pause areas.

“The headspace room was a real innovation. 2U’s idea is that when staff come out of an intense meeting, there are calming spaces they can go into. So this was located centrally for everyone and may only be used by four people at any given time. We also included a contemplation area inside the gym, and we designed a mother’s room as well as a sickroom.”

Phase One of the build comprises 15,000m², all of which has been tenanted by 2U, with the exception of a portion of the ground floor occupied by retail. The company’s growth forecast indicates that the balance of space being designed in Phase Two will also be taken by 2U. Reception is located on the ground floor and is connected to the first floor via a double volume space featuring a giant 2U logo rendered in 3D. Throughout the building there are design interventions which reflect the company’s adherence to leading global workplaces strategies that drive communication and collaboration between all business units.

The double volume area is the heart of the 2U workspace and includes a coffee shop as well as a staff meal service area. The stunningly massive blue logo is made of medium-density fibreboard with plaster applied to it and then coated with marmoran. A Paragon intervention, it is the envy of all the other 2U offices and because it is kitted with a long padded seat, it is the most Instagramable spot in the building, according to Claire.

“We really took the logo to another level and of course, having the double volume – which was Paragon’s biggest intervention as far as the build was concerned – allowed us to be innovative. In addition we added a tangible representation of actually living in the brand by building a desk into the logo and we also have a collaborative space integrated into it. In essence staff are interacting with the brand in its built form.”

The project took 18 months to complete. Jessica points out that the bulk of the design was completed during Covid on Zoom calls. With 1,283 workstations planned, Paragon asked the client if anything should be changed because of the impact of Covid on the workplace, but no changes were wanted, perhaps indicating a near-perfect design. Individual workspaces as well as collaborative areas are all represented in a comprehensive and cohesive design.

The building is neither a client- nor a student-facing business so the experience which Paragon has created is solely for the staff, with each element designed to enhance the staff culture. An amphitheatre with padded seats and drop-down screens is used as a ‘town hall’ when Cape Town staff connect to 2U offices globally in order to meet colleagues in other cities.

With 15,000m² of space to fit out, Mohamed and the Trend Group team had their hands full but managed to complete an expert job in four months. Trend had a permanent project manager on site throughout the construction and credits the developer with fast and decisive decision-making throughout.

“It was an interesting, exciting and challenging project from start to finish. It made a huge difference that the client knew exactly what they wanted to achieve. Swish in turn was very accommodating and the entire team was a pleasure to work with. There was a good dynamic between everyone,” he says.

One of the elements Trend appreciated enormously was that 2U was fully supportive of using local products and materials wherever possible. As a result Trend sourced and manufactured as much of the fitout as they could in South Africa. Their furniture arm, Design Lab, procured all the furniture designed by Paragon and Trend with at least 90% of it locally manufactured and delivered in 12 weeks

“It was very gratifying to see that the South African products met the required standards,” comments Mohamed, “and that the client was alert to the benefits of supporting the local economy. When you work to the same goals in this way, it’s really satisfying, with everyone focused in the same direction.”

For Paragon, the experience was professionally fulfilling and “anecdotally fantastic” as Claire says. To provide a cohesive platform for work – both individual and collective, team wellbeing at all levels, and global connectivity while promoting company culture, was a dream project.

“We had an open-minded client who allowed us to be creative and a design partner that we enjoy working with. The final outcome reflects 2U’s openness to what we wanted to explore, and a very good journey together with Trend,” she concludes.