Who would have thought that within the trendy badlands of Islington, Hoxton and Shoreditch, the realm of the never ridden Triumph motorcycle, push bikes with no brakes, hopped ales and bespoke fashion lies a solution to the biggest question of 2020 – how to work and survive in the modern office environment post Covid-19.
The modern skyscrapers just down the road in Canary Wharf are being forced to change. The HSBCs and (their little neighbours) Barclays of this world are now waking up to find that their strategy of large office buildings, gaudy corporate foyers and empty business continuity offices dotted around the country could now be nothing more than a Victorian folly – something evocative of a past age but never designed to be able to serve its purpose in the current one.
Yet even as far back as the late nineties the more forward thinking amongst us were placing their trust in a type building which was able to serve dual purposes, true mixed use. Much like the butcher or shop owner who used to live above their high street business or the farmer or stable hands, in the Middle Ages who would live in the rafters of their barns with their animals safely stowed beneath them.
But where this style of domestic life might once have been seen as old fashioned, even as long ago as early January 2020, needs must and it should be embraced once again because the density of population coupled with the urgent need to veer away from vast shared office floors and the daily morning elevator overcrowding (and its accompanying combative culture) which force right thinking individuals to the stair wells.
Welcome to the world of Live/Work. A choice embraced by small numbers of people across the globe. But is it truly a solution?
I am writing this article from a bedroom built into the loft space of my house. I’ve been working from within its plasterboard walls for some time now and the space has everything I need and a ton of fun things I don’t need like my classroom sized whiteboard. It is easy to start thinking, with unconscious biases fully intact, that everyone is in the same boat…or rather room… well maybe some people are in boats but a lot aren’t.
The ability bias kicks in and means it is too easy to forget the thousands of workers, younger and older, still crammed around a dining table or self-isolating in tiny studio flats with a fold down bed acting sofa, table and workspace. It could be that some of these people love being at home despite its restrictions – but that takes a certain type of person.
Whereas the majority are desperate to get back to the office. They may have shaped their lives around never being at home or perhaps like Janan Ganesh, columnist of the FT, pride themselves on their ability to never own cutlery, so easy was it to access restaurants and food 24/7.
Add to the recipe a spoonful of the people struggling to maintain the balance between childcare and work it’s clear there are definitely people out there who would want, or are forced by their circumstances, to work away from home and these workers have to work somewhere. The lesson here is not to presume that everyone is cosied up in their lovely thatched cottage in the Cotswolds. We are all unique and therefore have unique circumstances. Designers and decision makers need to consider everyone in their plans.
Live, Work, Repeat…
So, the vision of staying at home doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of paradise but the urgent need to reduce the number of people heading to the office is critical and will remain for a long time.
After all, if one of us, any where in the world, has Covid-19 then we all do – until we have a vaccine or until the next emerging zoonotic disease arrives and dwarfs Coronaviruses. Which ever comes first.
A lot of housing built today is of substandard quality and design. The argument that they comply to Building Regs is utter rubbish and cannot cut it in the modern world. Cost is still king when it comes to building decision making and thoughtful decision is costed out after planning stages or the by the client during design. Humans directly suffer from these decisions.
But it need not be like that.
Designers have a critical role to play in our life and we will have to work hard on getting design right, until good design simply becomes design. At the moment, design is bad design and good design is still a thing… As buildings are renovated and ‘new builds’ completed we need to reconsider how people use the building – to treat it more like a product and a service not just a number and a unit specification.
Let’s go back to Canary Wharf and the tall HSBC Headquarters building. Now imagine that most of HSBC staff are either redundant, working from home or on site somewhere else and this monolith is standing mostly empty. Its cramped floors and low ceilings remain a constant thorn in the side of the desk planners who need to decide how many people can work in the building – with some staff still rebelling against having to take their mountain of shoes stuffed under their desk home. Thereby losing the permanent desk arrangement in the process. Canary Wharf has lots of facilities, in fact people live in residential towers about as tall as the HSBC building across the canal in South Quay.
But they can only live there, and they have to cross the canals to get to work.
Now imagine that they can also work in their accommodation too, in a purpose built, well designed space with protection from the distractions of family life and as the business or work expands so can the space.
Now imagine a high street made up of terraces of Live/Work spaces. Soundproofed and well-designed but with the artisan or the brewer, the potter’s wheel, the furniture maker’s tools or the agile meeting room for the remote team all located on the ground level floor. Either open to the street, glazed off for light or perhaps closed off to the world. All done adaptably by the click of a button or the add-on bought at purchase.
Welcome to the ancient world of Live/Work.
This isn’t going to work for everyone though. Even I can’t see myself moving back into a flat, surrounded by people but all within my own space. But it will suit lots of people and by making the spaces inclusive, accessible and easily adaptable we can make these empty voids roar with our industry and then close the door on it all at the end of the day.
Harking back again to the innovation around the Islington area, there is an interesting example situated in the Canal Building. Essential a big open space with lots of partitions which was originally designed to be flexible in its use of space. The building was designed to flex around the occupant.
Need a bigger workspace for your desk? Open it up a bit.
Have a kid? Make a bedroom larger.
Have twins? Cut out the squabbles with two tiny box rooms! Expandable on good behaviour and GCSE results… Ok a bit harsh but you get the picture. There are a lot of obvious pluses to having an adaptable space.
So, if we are looking to build from scratch then it makes sense for people to be able to adapt their spaces to suit their needs. This means that the concept of ‘shell and core’ should be explored a lot more than it is. Dwellings still need to have water and be habitable otherwise they won’t pass building regs no matter how hard developers try but once that is installed it creates the core and then putting the roof, walls and floors up produces the shell. In an instant we have created a flexible space for people to start getting creative with. Space to bring their unique living and working requirements into along with that box of random phone and computer cables you never throw away and the kitchen draw of random stuff that you might yet, just, maybe, possibly, need so never put out for recycling.
Inclusive & Adaptable
A positive result of the Covid-19 crisis is that it has rapidly proved that working remotely does actually work for a lot or roles. All the disabled workers who have been refused this over the years have had their point well and truly proven. Live/Workspaces can accelerate workplace equality by providing quality and efficient work spaces for everyone to design in the way they need. Low desk? Easy. Fully accessible toilet facilities? Done!
By changing the way we think about our work and housing requirements we can actually start to solve a huge amount of exclusion, access, usability and mobility issues for most of the population.
Perhaps we can practise on Live/Work spaces and then transfer the learning and evidence into homes across the world by providing the proof that making homes adaptable and fit for life is possible and cheap at the same time.
Brave New Office World
We can’t avoid the fact that we are living in a new world. Yes, this Covid thing did happen to us and the quicker we accept that the quicker we can make sustainable decisions we need to make.
One of those decisions should reflect that there are a lot of people who might be able to live and work in the same space but don’t have the capability and if we are to encourage flexible working within our inclusive environments, then building Live/Work spaces represents an amazing use of space and materials which could be the game changer we need to reduce the density of workers within our offices and thereby restrict transmission and save lives.
- Not every one is happy working from home. Try to design, plan and incorporate as many people as possible and manage your unconscious bias as well as possible.
- Live/Work Spaces should be on the table for every new dwelling, refurb or refitting of commercial space into mixed use.
- We need to make sustainable decisions now; we have the information to put a range of options on the table. Urgent situations are often used as a smokescreen for further inaction.
- Live/Work spaces could be formed by selling new builds as ‘shell & core’ which means people can make them how they need them. No more poor design making all the decisions on how people live and work!
- Inclusive and adaptable – live and work spaces need to be a fit for everyone. We can mitigate a vast amount of social exclusion with this concept.