While robots may not be taking the jobs of architects or designers just yet, there is plenty to explore in terms of automation and technology in the office environment – from the use of virtual reality in the design and marketing process to digitally customisable furniture in the building itself.
The British Council for Offices commissioned a report, ‘Virtual Reality and 3D Printing: Reducing waste in office construction through new technology’, written by Dan Dale and Salomé Galjaard and edited by Simon Swietochowski from Arup Associates, reviewing the ability of these technologies to streamline the design and construction process. Waste is a big concern for those involved in the construction of office buildings, especially as the government has set a target of cutting delivery times and carbon emissions by half by 2025. This is ambitious, given that in 2012 the UK generated 200 million tonnes of total waste – half of it from construction, refurbishment and demolition. Office schemes must shoulder some of the burden of blame.
Which is where virtual reality (VR) comes in. By enabling visualisation of the final product before it is constructed – as was the case with Neo in Manchester, featured in June’s OnOffice – it can provide more information for architects and engineers at the design stage, allowing them to make better informed decisions, quicker. Stakeholders in the design process can be informed and engaged in a quick and accessible way, reducing design timescales and allowing changes to be identified before things get up and running.
Other advantages include its usefulness as a marketing tool to demonstrate the potential of a space, especially now that systems can more realistically portray how materials look and how the light in a building will feel. In this way it can also be used as a training tool for tomorrow’s architects and builders. Though the BCO’s report does also point out the limitations to a VR experience – that it is a rather isolating one and one that, unless properly managed, could be less collaborative.
Architect NBBJ – now something of a go-to workplace practice for technology firms such as Google, Samsung and Amazon – even has its own tool, Visual Vocal, again demonstrating the productivity and efficiency that can be achieved in the design process as well as aiming towards a more collaborative approach to design where stakeholders immerse themselves in the design.
Says David Lewis, a partner at NBBJ: “Visual Vocal’s interface is simple and portable – all users need is a smartphone, the app and a set of inexpensive viewers that snap onto the phone – and yet the feedback is fast, productive, collaborative and enjoyable.”
He explains how it is working for the practice on site: “As the design of the Sir Henry Royce Institute in Manchester continues to develop, we are experiencing the benefits of Visual Vocal in terms of how it lets us solicit input from the building’s end users. The project will bring nine university and institutional stakeholders and a number of lab typologies under one roof to support advanced materials research, and at this stage of the project meaningful decision-making is crucial.”
Similarly to VR, much has been made of 3D printing in the last few years – although there is still some way to go in terms of processes suited to office construction. In theory, though, because 3D printing involves building up material in layers, it negates the need for tooling, drilling or cutting, and by only printing what is needed, it has the potential to reduce waste by saving millions of tonnes of material.
And as wellness becomes an increasingly hot topic in the world of workplace, so technology can lead the way here too. LinkedIn and Stanford University’s Mind and Body Lab, working with wearable technology expert Spire, have been looking into ways of alleviating stress in a corporate environment through the use of a small Spire tracker that monitors breathing patterns and an accompanying app.
The device lets the user know of any noteworthy changes in their breathing patterns, meaning they are aware of their stress levels and can work on controlling them. LinkedIn’s global wellness manager, Michael Susi, says: “Our employees are our greatest asset, especially their health and minds. They used Spire to make tangible improvements to things that can seem fleeting: focus, distraction and productivity. Lowering stress while increasing productivity is crucial to the success of any business.”
Tech can also keep our task chairs comfortable. Users of Klöber’s Klimastuhl can control their seat temperature, thanks to heating and ventilation functions integrated into the seat and backrest. Powered by a cable-free rechargeable battery, the chair can heat up to a cosy 37 degrees – body temperature – or conversely can conduct excess heat away from the body.
Going one step further than this, Professor Carlo Ratti – who is director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT no less – has come up with the Lift-Bit, working with fabrication lab Opendot. An early version of this was developed with the support of Vitra in 2016, but a more advanced version was shown at Milan this year.
Lift-Bit is essentially a shape-shifting sofa that has an embedded motion-tracking sensor, operated via an app or even by the gesture of a hand. It can turn into a bed, a chaise longue or a group of armchairs as the height of the stools is altered – with flexibility at the heart of the office environment, this product could fit in nicely. There’s even a nod to Cedric Price’s Generator Project from the 1970s, an early investigation into artificial intelligence. As Ratti says: “In the future, we could imagine an architecture that adapts to human need, rather than the other way around: a living, tailored space that is moulded to its inhabitants needs, characteristics and desires.”
Boss Design is another firm that is tapping into technology, says its design director Mark Barrell. “The integration of devices with inductive charging technology now facilitates work settings using soft office products too,” he says, citing Layla by Boss Design and Raft by Komac – part of the Boss Design Group – as examples.
Upholstered modular furniture complete with technology is also on the rise: “Collections such as Myriad by Komac have side tables and arms that accommodate power, so specifiers and designers can create infinite layout configurations that meet the demands of the workplace.” He goes on to explain how collaborative work settings are better enabled: “Portal by Boss Design is supplied fully wired to an internal power block that makes connecting to a screen easy. There are two power sockets and a twin USB fast-charge for powering peripheral hardware, as well as HDMI and USB sockets. The internal housing will also accommodate Apple TV.”
Tecno is another big name exploring this field. Its io.T smart system includes tables with dedicated light sensors that combine users’ lighting preferences with data from sensors determining whether the area is in use. Desks and meeting room tables have USB sockets and there is a smartphone app for meeting-room management, with information picked up by monitors at the door. Facility managers can check exactly how a workstation is being used in real time.
As Barrell neatly sums up: “Technology now serves to make a space more inviting, comfortable and productive.”
From shape-shifting sofas to virtual reality marketing visualisations, a new wave of technology breakthroughs is making an impact on the way we design and work in offices