We are in the midst of a work revolution—a major shift in when, where and how we work. With this shift, our needs and expectations of the workplace have evolved, and the typology of the office building is evolving as a result. Although this evolution manifests differently around the world, four common trends can be seen.
First, the need for adaptable spaces to respond to new ways of working; second, a rising demand for design that supports employee health and well-being; third, a parallel shift towards a more holistic approach to sustainability; and fourth, developments that seek to contribute to the quality of the city.
In this article, we look at three innovative offices around the world that illustrate these trends. The new Google headquarters in London, by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Heatherwick Studios, has made headlines, with critics declaring that it heralds the age of the ‘landscraper’ and a future of horizontal cities. Its real innovations, however, are much more subtle. Laisné Roussel’s office proposal for the Nice Meridia Urban Technopolis aspires to redefine the nature of the workplace, while also setting a “new standard for bioclimatic offices”. Finally, Unilever’s new Jakarta headquarters by Aedas emphasises community and collaboration while responding to the unique elements of the Indonesian context.
The typology of the modern office building originated as a white-collar factory, applying the principles of the assembly line to administrative and clerical work. The ‘skeleton frame’ construction of the early skyscrapers enabled open floor plans and glass façades that flooded interiors with daylight. Layouts reinforced the organisational hierarchy of corporations, with closely supervised general staff at rows of identical desks and executives in private offices.
In early offices, windows were often placed at a height to restrict views outside, providing daylight while preventing distractions. Advances in air-conditioning and artificial lighting in the mid 20th century made such architectural stratagems unnecessary, enabling deep-plan office towers where only the privileged few worked near windows, with daylight and views. This freedom from local climatic conditions also gave rise to the archetypal modern office building: the glass-clad towers that dominate central business districts and office parks around the world today.
Spacious atrium and lobby of Unilever’s headquarters
Adaptable spaces for new ways of working
Digital technology has transformed the nature of work—improving speed, efficiency, and connectivity; redefining traditional roles; and upending organisational hierarchies. Wireless technology has made remote working easier than ever, cutting overhead costs, enabling flexible working hours and fuelling the rise of the ‘gig’ economy. This has brought flexibility and independence to careers, but also along with it, instability, uncertainty and introspection, as we search for the best ways to flourish in this new landscape.
Yet, as remote work becomes ubiquitous, there is growing recognition of the value of face-to-face interaction. The growth of co-working spaces, for example, is a response to the isolation of going it alone. Functioning as a new office model, these facilities provide freelancers and start-ups with flexible workspaces, business amenities and networking opportunities, aspiring to be hubs of innovation where businesses can meet and collaborate. The theory behind this is supported by the economist Edward Glaeser, who argues that clustering multiple industries together is crucial for innovation, facilitating the cross-pollination of ideas3. Google’s new London headquarters is designed to do just that—gather employees in an environment that fosters collaboration and innovation. The architecture facilitates interaction between departments through what BIG describes as “continuously cascading work environments”4 connected across multiple floors, and a continuous staircase running the length of the building, where employees can meet and mingle.
Sketch showing the atrium of Unilever’s headquarters (courtesy of Aedas)
While formal collaborative spaces enable groups to work together, informal spaces and casual interactions are equally crucial to creative and effective teamwork. A 2013 study by Cisco Systems5 found that building relationships between colleagues was a key element of effective collaboration, while a Bank of America study found that informal interactions between colleagues increased workplace cohesion by 12 per cent. Unilever’s Jakarta headquarters by Aedas exemplifies this. The architecture is intended to foster cohesion and community, drawing on the organisation of a traditional Indonesian village with a ‘square’ surrounded by ‘streets’. Collaborative work zones, informal breakout spaces and staircases are layered around the central atrium, enabling a range of employee interactions.
Section of Unilever’s headquarters (courtesy of Aedas)
Amidst all the collaboration, quiet spaces are still required for focused work. In today’s busy, transient workplaces, one of the most common hindrances to productivity is distraction. In fact, a World Green Building Council (WGBC) report6 found that distracting noises—common in an open-plan office—decreased productivity by a drastic 66 per cent. Thus, offices have begun incorporating adaptable spaces to accommodate different needs and working styles. The Nice Meridia is designed for flexibility and connectivity, inverting the conventional organisation of an office block by locating the circulation along the façade. This enables greater flexibility in the interior, allowing companies to adapt the spaces to their needs. As a commercial development rather than an owner-occupied office, the Nice Meridia also aspires to be a meeting place, using open-air passages and staircases interspersed with planted balconies to create informal public spaces where workers from different companies can interact. Ultimately, adaptability and informality are essential in meeting the diverse needs of modern work and modern workers.
Supporting employee health and well-being
Beyond the type of spaces in which we work, there is increasing recognition of the impact of the quality of these spaces. Rising cultural interest in wellness and awareness of the effects of sedentary lifestyles have created a demand for workplaces that support healthy living. As an increasing number of studies finds links between the work environment and health and productivity, and assessment tools such as the WELL BuildingStandard develop, employers and architects are also beginning to take note. The WGBC report found that on average, staff costs make up 90 per cent of a business’ operating expenses7. Thus, even small changes to productivity through improvements to the office environment can have major financial implications. The report examines numerous studies to identify nine key environmental factors influencing employee health, well-being and productivity. Of these, indoor air quality, daylighting and biophilic spaces in particular are key influenceson the evolution of the office typology.
Indoor air quality is a common concern in the highly controlled, sealed interior of the office tower. Across multiple studies, improvements in indoor air quality resulted in direct, substantial increases in productivity due to improved concentration and alertness. While many offices implement strategies for better air quality, such as indoor planting, increased air circulation, and so on, the Nice Meridia notably goes further, taking advantage of the site’s Mediterranean climate to blur the boundary between indoor and outdoor. In addition to the open-air circulation passages along the façade, balconies also house meeting areas, providing occupants with access to outdoor workspaces and allowing interior offices to open onto these spaces for natural ventilation.
Daylight is another critical element of a healthy workplace, and one of the most common features of emerging office typologies. In one study8, employees who worked in naturally lit spaces slept an average of of45 minutes longer than their colleagues working in artificial lighting, leading to increased focus and creativity. A 2011 study9 also found that workers with access to daylight and views of greenery took 6.5 per cent less sick leave. Emerging office typologies, like the cases presented here, often ensure natural lighting throughout by using a shallower floor plan than the typical office tower. Beyond this, daylighting strategies vary according to climate. Google’s new London headquarters uses a glass curtain wall to maximise daylight, essential in its northern climate. In sunny Mediterranean surroundings, the Nice Meridia’s design uses its planted balconies as shading devices to limit solar heat gain while still enabling natural lighting. Balconies deepen along the west and south façades where the sun is strongest and become shallower along the north and east to the more diffused light. Similarly, Unilever’s Jakarta headquarters responds to the tropical climate with extensive shading along its glazed façade, supplemented by a day-lit central atriumthat disperses light to inner areas.
External perspective Nice Meridia
Closely related to both air quality and daylighting, biophilic workspaces have been shown to reduce stress and improve overall job satisfaction. Creating biophilic spaces involves a range of strategies including access to views to satisfy our need for prospect and refuge, and physical access to nature. These strategies are most notable in the Nice Meridia, where extensive façade planting shades interior workspaces, outdoor meeting rooms and circulation areas, while floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies provide views of the surrounding valley. Unilever’s Jakarta headquarters uses indentations in the façade to create accessible pockets of planting, while Google’s greenery is concentrated on their landscaped roof, from which occupants can look out over the city. In all cases, the use of greenery benefits not only the building occupants but the surrounding neighbourhood as well, increasing green cover, removing pollutants from the air and providing pleasant views.
A more holistic approach to sustainability
Responding to the need for healthy, biophilic workplaces, the typology of the office building is evolving towards climate responsive designs that take advantage of natural assets to create spaces people actually want to work in. This is apparent in the shift away from technology-driven energy efficiency towards climate-responsive passive design, which inherently supports healthy work environments through the use of natural ventilation, daylight and greenery. This is not isolated to owner-occupied offices but is beginning to influence commercial developments as well, such as the Nice Meridia. As Green building becomes a market necessity, there is growing recognition of the limitations of energy-efficient technologies and the potential of a holistic approach to sustainability. To this point, a study at University College London’s (UCL) Energy Institute7 found that air-conditioned offices had 60 per cent more carbon emissions than natural or mechanically ventilated offices. Similarly, a 2015 study8 comparing active and passive designs strategies found the latter significantly more effective in reducing energy usage.
Beyond climate responsive passive design, a notable shift in the typology is building height. The Nice Meridia has only nine storeys and the Unilever HQ five. One reason for this is that mid-rise buildings make economic
sense, using both space and energy more efficiently. A report from Davis Langdon9 argues that buildings get less efficient as they get taller, due to the amount of space taken up by service cores, elevators, and structure to cope with wind load. The UCL study supports this, finding that electricity and gas use increase with height, with the result that carbon emissions from high-rise buildings are almost double those of low-rise10. While taller buildings have long been assumed to compensate for higher emissions with higher density, city planners now agree that similar densities can often be achieved with well-designed mid-rise buildings. Given these findings, itis just possible we may be looking towards a horizontal, rather than a vertical urban future.
Contributing to the quality of the city
As office developments move away from the tower typology towards mid-rise blocks, they become less isolated and begin to engage with their surroundings. This can be as simple as responding to the height or aesthetics of neighbouring buildings, or as complex as creating a permeable ground plane, enabling public access across the site.
Google’s new London headquarters, for example, has been heralded as an innovative typology that signals the beginning of the “age of the landscraper”11. However, it is not the building’s length, but its height that is notable. Rather than towering above its neighbours, the ‘landscraper’ takes its cue from them, reaching only11 storeys. Additionally, it does not seek to isolate itself and restrict public access to the campus. Instead, ground-floor retail and market halls are used to engage the street, while a glass façade invites views inside the upper floors. The Nice Meridia similarly uses ground-floor retail to add value to the neighbourhood, while outdoor circulation areas visually engage pedestrians and enable occupants to feel connected to the site.
Exterior perspective of Google’s new London headquarters
Strategies to engage with the neighbourhood are often echoed within the site. All three projects use prominent staircases in public spaces to visually and physically connect workspaces, creating areas for spontaneous interaction between employees. These features illustrate a major typological shift from the autonomous, inward-looking towers of the past. Today, even private developments are beginning to look outward, seeking to act as civic amenities and contribute to the neighbourhood quality.
Aerial perspective of Google’s new London headquarters
The key influences on the evolving typology of the office building can be analysed as discrete trends, and itis useful to do so in order to identify the drivers behind them. However, in doing so, it becomes clear that these trends are anything but discrete. Passive sustainable design is healthy design; a building that is connected to its site and climatic context reaches out to its neighbourhood more easily; a community-oriented building engages its employees as well as its neighbours; developing new workspaces requires an understanding of whatinfluences our productivity, and why. It all comes down to the same thing—a move towards connectedness andwellness, challenging accepted workplace values and norms in pursuit of a better way of living.
Interior perspective of Google’s new London headquarters
Having said that, we are not there yet—Google’s landscaper, the Nice Meridia Urban Technopolis and Unilever Jakarta are still the exceptions to the rule. Innovation is more common in owner-occupied offices, where clients have the means to commission tailor-made spaces. It is as yet unclear when these trends will become standard in the commercial market. Perhaps co-working spaces will lead the way through their ever-increasing popularity, becoming the new norm of the workplace in this age of transient employment. Perhaps efficiency-minded urban centres will begin regulating building heights in an effort to see high-consuming high-rises replaced with moderate mid-rises. It remains to be seen how the market will respond to these trends, but one thing seems clear—the days of the generic, climate-controlled office tower are numbered.
1 MacLellan, 2017
2 Laisné Roussel, 2015
3 Glaeser, 2011
4 Bjarke Ingels Group, 2017
5 Kang, 2013
6 World Green Building Council, 2014
7 University College London, 2017
8 Kang, Ahn, Park, & Schuetze, 2014
9 Davis Langdon & Seah, 2010
10 University College London
11 MacLellan, 2017
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Davis Langdon & Seah. (2010, April). Cost Challenges of Tall Buildings. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from DLS Dynamics: file:///Users/heatherbanerd/Desktop/Freelance%20work/FuturArc/18-01_Future%20of%20Office%20Buildings/Sources/dlsdynamics_
Glaeser, E. (2011). The triumph of the city. Pan MacMillan.
Kang, H. (2013, April 9). Why Personal Interaction Drives Innovation and Collaboration. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from Forbes:
Kang, J.-E., Ahn, K.-U., Park, C.-S., & Schuetze, T. (2014). A Case Study on Passive vs. Active Strategies for and Energy-Efficient School Building Design. 8th Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism, (pp. 765-775).
Laisné Roussel. (2015). Office With Terraces – Nice Meridia. Paris: Laisné Roussel.
MacLellan, L. (2017, December 5). Google is ushering in the age of the horizontal skyscraper. Retrieved from Quartz at work:
University College London. (2017, June 28). High-rise buildings much more energy intensive than low-rise. Retrieved 01 16, 2018, from UCL News: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0617/280617_high_rise_low_rise
World Green Building Council. (2014). Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices. World Green Building Council.