Service design in the castle of Westerlo


Photo: Pars pro toto

What was the problem?

Westerlo has a town hall not every municipality can boast. It uses a hundred-year-old castle as its location for weddings, receptions and exhibitions. But the building is not always that practical for providing modern services and receiving customers and visitors. Installing network cables in walls of a meter thick, and improving the accessibility via the twenty step staircase are only two examples thereof. The entrance hall is enormous, making its acoustics terrible and the climate humid and draughty. This is why the information desk was well-concealed behind Plexiglas in a corner. Just moving this information desk however, would meet no fewer than seventeen preconditions. As the castle is a historical listed and protected building there are inherent limitations towards its renovation and close collaboration with the Flemish Department of Immovable Heritage was needed. This is why Westerlo decided to research the reception point with the help of customers, staff and local authority officials, to be sure the new service would not miss its effect.

What did they do?

Westerlo did not have any experience with service design at that point. With the support of Design Flanders, they launched a procurement process to find a service design agency. Pars Pro Toto agency from Ghent was selected, as their passionate and systematic approach was found particularly appealing. The service design process itself consisted of several successive steps, each with a different focus. The objective of the first analysis (a tour of the building) and the on-site observations was to identify the information desk’s operations and related functions. This led to a list comprising a number of problems that were discussed again by the project group. The team consisted of approximately ten different members of staff from the various departments.

Also, on four separate occasions, Pars Pro Toto performed on-site observations to effectively assess the perception and the weight of each of the problems cited. During these sessions, the number of visitors were counted, the route they took was mapped out and the duration of their visit was recorded. Visitors to the town hall were briefly interviewed at the end of their visit during two out of the four observation sessions. The questionnaire included factual (What was the reason for your visit?) as well as subjective questions (Did you have to wait long before you were helped?), which were rated between one and five. This was then used to provide a transparent overview and was presented in several graphic illustrations.

Staff from the Reception and Civil Affairs department were also observed in their workplace. The most difficult exercise would take place in these departments at a later stage, as this was where they experienced most of the disadvantages of the atypical building. All employees also received a questionnaire, asking for a description of their job and workstation, the advantages and disadvantages of the current situation and the possible options for improvements in the future. These analyses resulted in a concise report that served as the input for a creative session. It highlighted the main problems and several possible solutions.

Then the project group went on a study tour of two other local authorities: Turnhout and Zoersel. The totally different approach and infrastructure of both these practical examples provided considerable inspiration for the project group.

The objective of the subsequent creative session was to devise conceptual spatial solutions with the project group. The latter was spilt into two smaller groups and guided step by step to convert a spatial scenario into a scale drawing: where should each service be located, how much space does it need and how should it look. Each of the scenarios and plans were presented to the other group and discussed. The resulting compromise (achieved at the end of this long half-day of cooperation) was used as the basis for a synthesis report, jointly created with and including contributions from employees from the various departments. The most valuable components and proposals were highlighted and the priorities were effectively listed.

What was the result?

The entire process lasted three months, and Pars Pro Toto delivered a final report. It clarified the “journey” taken by visitors to the town hall to obtain their desired product and also presented proposals for the town hall’s spatial organisation and operations. This document could be employed as the basis for compiling the specifications necessary for finding a designer. Design Flanders published the call for tender and we involved the employees in the decision on what agency to go on with. Alinea Interior Architects from Geel got our preference as their design corresponded the closest to the requirements in the final service design report by Pars Pro Toto.

The results is an oval-shaped information desk, positioned in the centre of the town hall’s entrance. The Civil Affairs department is spilt between a front and back office. The intention is eventually for all brief visits to the town hall to be handled by the information desk. These relate not only to traditional administrative services, but also, for example, the purchase of tickets for the cultural centre. A waiting room will be constructed in the former chapel that opens on to the entrance hall. This means that visitors will be able to wait their turn in comfort. A number system should provide order, especially during particularly busy moments. Signaling in the building will be improved and access to the building will be optimised.

Considerable attention was devoted, in all of the above, to improving working conditions for employees. The area is no longer draughty, the temperature and lighting have been optimally adjusted and the acoustics have been significantly improved. The entire service design process and experience Westerlo we acquired motivated them in further renovating their historical town hall in accordance with the principles of service design.

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