In late October, industry professionals convened at RIBA for a design charette to explore what the office of the next decade might be like. How will it work? Where will it be? Will we need offices anyway?
The office landscape of 2009 bears little resemblance to that of 60 years ago – particularly because of the gradual shift from a service economy to a knowledge economy. Taylorist offices of the 1950s and 60s, which catered to hierarchy and clerks pushing paper, have steadily given way to the more democratic and flexible work environments of the 90s and 00s, where ideas and collaboration are king.
These changes reflect updated values and technological progress in and out of the workplace – women’s liberation in the 60s and 70s, the launch of the desktop computer in the early 80s, and the internet and dot-com boom of the 90s, to name a few. In the 00s, with sustainability at the top of the agenda and an increasingly mobile and aging workforce, the office is poised to change again. W
ith that in mind, onoffice probed the industry for trends and solutions that will shape the way we work over the next decade.
During a one-day design charette, held on 23 October at the RIBA headquarters and co-hosted with the BCO NextGen and Pringle Brandon, four teams of entrants from varying disciplines attempted to give us some answers.
The brief: to produce visionary concepts for the ‘Office of the Teenies’. At the close of the day, each team gave a ten-minute presentation, Dragon’s Den-style, to a panel of industry experts made up of Jack Pringle, Gary Wingrove and Paul Edwards. Here is what they came up with…
“Open-plan offices have led to an individual’s loss of identity, leading them to create online identities through things like Facebook,” according to Team 1. They illustrated this with a balloon, a metaphor to show how people carried their identities around with them throughout the working day. The team proposed bringing these identities together by connecting them to a computer database. Employees would plug in, tell the database what time they were going into the office and the system would provide the information needed to plan out the working day – for example, what time train to catch and how many seats were free.
“The database will feed people into the workplace in the most efficient way possible,” they explained. The working day was broken down into three overlapping spheres: structured work, personal leisure time and interaction. “One-to-one interaction tends to coexist with personal leisure time and also the traditional form of working,” the team pointed out. This is illustrated by colour-coding the cycle of the day, with the office hub as the central core. In the work sphere, employees load their profile and the desk adjusts to suit their preferences, everything from chair heights to having their favourite picture on the wall. “It’s about creating a home environment at work,” says the team.
A series of solar-powered pods provide space for interaction and meetings. The pods can be branded with corporate logos and once booked, the climate and computer equipment adapts to suit the needs of the individual.
“Who is the Office of the Teenies for and how will it serve that demographic?” asked Team 2. To answer to their own question the team attempted to create an adaptable workspace that would fulfil the different needs of generations X, Y and the baby boomers. To do so, the working day was presented as a journey, which begins at the entrance to the building. The entrance is the ‘pathfinder’ for all staff and clients. As people enter the building, fingerprint technology scans them in and activates the workspace. Workers log in to individual pods, which adapt to the user’s preferred settings. “There is a tension between the flexibility that the worker would like and the disciplined structure needed for the productive running of a business,” the team explained. In recognition of this, the pods remain in fixed positions. The pod is heated and cooled by low-level vents and the sides draw up to enclose the user if more privacy is required. Projects can be sent to meeting rooms with interactive walls, which move backwards and forwards to accommodate the people using it. Furniture can be lifted out from the wall as needed. The project can then be sent over to the ‘interface zone’, where it can be presented to clients. “Rather than the individual working for the building, the building works for the individual,” is how the team summed it up.
‘Back to the towns’ was Team 3’s mantra. Instead of designing an office, they came up with a strategy: reusing existing buildings in towns. The team felt the current trend of commuting to city centres and business parks was sucking the lifeblood from local industry. They calculated the average car journey to a business park is eight miles, which is “inefficient with current technology”, and stated that 24-hour working practices were currently limited by the availability of public transport in city centres. “We see the Office of the Teenies as a relocation to town centres,” said the team – and by reusing existing stock we could regenerate city centres, cut travel costs and improve quality of life. “Large corporations will always want big-square-foot offices. But with environmental concerns we think you will no longer be able to justify having this in a city centre,” they explained. Team 3 identified high demand for office space of between 500-1,000 sq m and outlined a plan to ‘decant’ this space back into the town. Local councils would identify buildings – such as bingo halls, churches and libraries – that could be rented out at an hourly rate, with three or four companies sharing the same office space.‘Teenies Towns’ would eventually develop into transport hubs, well-connected to cities, and in turn this would encourage capital investment in them.
Team 4 – The winners
Team 4 called on their specialist knowledge to explore the way that creative intelligence had freed people to work remotely, but with a continuing need for social interaction. They saw the push for sustainability as precipitating a need for smaller buildings – a need that could be met by making use of surrounding places such as cafés and hotels. “We are interested in not just the building, but the spaces between the building and how they can be used,” the team explained. Their proposed office combined traditional and innovative sustainable methods, including a parabolic solar-energy roof and an algae-covered facade, which absorbs CO2 from the building and surrounding area and converts it into biofuel. Employees cycling to work on electricity-generating bicycles ‘plug in’ on arrival and transfer energy back to the building. A lake freezes at weekends to provide the community with an ice rink; during the week, the ice melts to cool the building. Inside, ‘surface computer’ technology is used, with computers responding to both touch and gesture and interacting with objects such as mobile phones. Things are multifunctional: desks double as ping-pong tables and window ledges can be used as breakout spaces. “It is about really stripping everything back so it’s as functional and flexible as possible,” the team concluded.