The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically transformed our perceptions of “office space”. From box-rooms and kitchen tables to that one stair by the landing which gets the best Wi-Fi connection, the last year and a half has thrown our work environment into sharp focus.
Now as we tentatively step back into the office – and embrace a new era of hybrid working – it’s time to think about how professional life could evolve to enhance our well-being and become more planet-friendly.
“The social impact of Covid-19 has put a rocket under the idea of sustainable architecture,” says James Taylor, London studio chair of Woods Bagot, a global architecture practice.
From cutting carbon and reusing materials to creating collaborative communities with fresh air, innovative lighting and great acoustics – we asked some of London’s top architects to describe their visions of our working future.
1) Offices could double up as drone port parking
“Office buildings have typically existed as hermetically-sealed boxes. We’re moving away from that,” says Craig Robertson, Head of Sustainability at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, an architecture firm based in Clerkenwell.
Creating multi-functional spaces that can adapt through time is at the top of the architectural agenda, as it extends the life-span of a building. By adapting to different uses and trends over time, the need to construct a new build and burn lots of carbon in the process is vastly diminished.
“We can’t predict the future, so incorporating features like increased floor to ceiling height not only allows for better daylight penetration but gives us much greater flexibility for functions that we don’t know about yet,” he says.
For James Taylor, the use of timber is the key to unlocking this flexible approach to workspaces.
“I think timber is the future. We’re doing some work with the idea of a timber chassis that could evolve from office use to drone port space, or some other future use we don’t yet know about,” he says.
2) A rise in the art of retrofitting
Retrofitting refers to using older systems in novel ways – in architecture, this can mean reusing components from older buildings.
“We’re acutely aware of the impact of waste in projects,” says Matthew Driscoll, founder and director of the Threefold architectural firm.
One of Threefold’s clients, Airbnb, recently decommissioned a working space.
3) Creating celebratory, collaborative communities
Buildings are constructed to best suit the needs of the people in them. For all three architects, people are at the core of a sustainable working future.
Modern technology means that there’s no need to be tethered to a particular desk - our laptops offer us the chance to be mobile. Architects are designing work environments that naturally lead to greater interaction between colleagues and break free of the shackles of fixed desks in traditional offices.
One way in which spontaneous meetings or collaborations can happen is through introducing wider staircases running up the middle of a building, says Craig Robertson. The use of landings as offshoots into different departments boosts opportunities to bump into people and generate ideas.
“Through architecture we’re trying to create positive friction in the workplace population,” he says.
“Invisible factors” such as acoustics also contribute to better communication in the workplace.
“Everyone has become aware of how bad acoustics affect the quality of the call that you’re on. It really contributes to the atmosphere of a space,” says Matthew Driscoll.
Soft textured materials can help with acoustic absorption, without compromising on warmth and comfort.
4) Zooming in on well-being
The thought of going into the office shouldn’t fill you with dread. Future office spaces will be hubs of wellbeing, strewn with a range of outdoor spaces to allow people to incorporate nature into their day-to-day work life.
Research suggests that being near plants indoors also drives wellbeing and productivity.
“The building we’re designing in the city has got external space on every floor, so it’s accessible to everyone to refresh themselves,” says Craig Robertson.
Biophilia, or the human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings, forms an integral part of the vision.
James Taylor maps the progression of working life from primary school to the office.
“At primary school, it’s totally normal to take the kids out and have a lesson under a tree. For some reason we forget that as we grow older, and we should try and look back at teaching environments and use them to improve working life,” he says. “There’s no reason you can’t hold outdoor workshops under a tree, as opposed to Room 3.”
Harnessing fresh air to bring us closer to nature is an ever increasing concern for offices, especially in the wake of a pandemic.
Threefold delivered a project called Paddington Works, a co-working space which was long-listed for this year’s Dezeen Awards.
Part of the brief was to deliver 50 per cent more fresh air into the space than required by building regulations, in line with Threefold’s founding principle to design spaces that “do more”.
Another effort to attune offices to our natural rhythms is the design of circadian lighting systems. These modify the intensity of light throughout the day to match our circadian patterns and regulate the levels of melatonin our bodies produce.
“There needs to be different types of lighting for different tasks and different areas. More relaxed environments might have warmer light environments to promote collaboration, and individual workspaces could have cooler lighting to promote alertness,” says Matthew Driscoll, who incorporated this technology into the Paddington Works project.
So there you have it – sustainable workplaces of the future extend far beyond the usual conceptions of populating workplaces with a few pot plants. Soon you may find yourself returning from the 9 am briefing on the balcony to a workspace which transforms into parking for a drone at close of business.
As we start to say goodbye to working from home in our sweatpants, perhaps these new workplaces will promise a return to the office that’s less of an ordeal than we feared.