Recently I’ve attended a lot of meetings with clients who are interested in knowing what they should develop to not just attract the current wave of tenants but future waves of tenants as well. There seems to be uniform consensus that we’ve shifted from spatial or program need evaluation criteria to a much more intangible experiential evaluation process because there is now greater opportunity to choose where we want to work. The conversation has shifted from fitting the perfectly proportioned conference room into a floor plan to “Do we even need a conference room? Why don’t we just have a big empty space for a hack-a-thon, that we can customize ourselves, and have some coffee to keep us up all night?” I’m relieved to know that amid all this change, coffee is still a workplace staple.
At these meetings, several rounds of discussion on the future of workplace and the future of cities and the future of future generations are generally followed by a brief pause … and then the question, “What does this all look like?” One thought was of The Matrix science fiction/action film trilogy. Here’s the parallel: In the movies, “the matrix” is an artificial reality, a construct rendered in real time as the participants move about its cities and spaces. The “architect” in charge simply adapts spaces on the fly to continue the expected illusion of civilization.
How does this correlate with office real estate’s brave new world? We’re in The Matrix, for sure: our increasingly mobile workforce is creating a new reality, where work happens, on the fly. Today’s workers are both the programmers and the inhabitants of workspaces they can now orchestrate and shape. The traditional boundaries of live, work, and play are dissolving into highly networked communities. Silos don’t work any more, and decades of typology-based organizational strategies—for urban districts as well as for office buildings and the businesses they house—no longer apply.
This means that the traditional role of office buildings to facilitate work activities and to house them is no longer a valid or attractive solution for an increasing number of tenants. Renewal is on the upswing for all building types and scales—especially those not traditionally designed for office use. Their popularity with start-ups and companies with millennial workers is giving a boost to Class B and C office properties that offer an authentic sense of place, a connection to an urban core, and large and flexible floor plates. People have a new appreciation for the evolutionary quality of urban life, because its imperfections remind them that our matrix is real. Single-use districts of perfect, smooth, efficient office towers are sterile in comparison. (See Gensler’s entry to the NAIOP Workplace of the Future competition below for our take on this new reality)
This new culture of work encourages individual expression and requires places that offer a level of customization often referred to as “hackable space.” It’s no coincidence the term “hackable” or “hacking” comes right from the source code of the irreverent pioneers of our on-demand information culture. Millennial workers want culturally rich, diverse environments that offer an active and real social network. The newest part of the tech sector, in particular, thrives on social interaction to stimulate creativity. As they run out of older buildings to fix up, these companies are pressing for office building “products” offering build-to-suit flexibility. Office towers are being rethought to place less emphasis on multi-tenant flexibility and more on customizable work environments that allow occupants to engage with their coworkers and their community. They want more vertical and horizontal circulation options and fewer trips to the elevator. They want freedom to hack. (See Gensler’s C3 for an apt example.)
Old isn’t for everyone. For those who crave the new, bear in mind that the convergence of workplace and demographic trends toward urban centers requires the next generation of office towers to respond with less footprint, which means going vertical. These towers need to respond with tenant space that is more adaptable, supports greater density, facilitates interaction with more loft-like spaciousness, and has better inter-floor connectivity and gathering places. Prior best practices are being challenged in a number of ways: increasing lease spans, raising floor-to-floor heights, dispensing with the traditional central core surrounded by a race track of lease space, and providing new ventilation strategies that improve indoor air quality in direct response to end user interest in sustainability, health, and productivity. People want true fresh air. (See Gensler’s breathable PNC Tower in Pittsburgh.)
As Neo says at the conclusion of first Matrix film, “Where we go … is a choice I leave to you.” It’s time to recognize that our matrix is changing the game for office building owners, developers, and their architects—and the politicians and planners that make the rules. Our matrix is telling us that those who live and work there are shaping our cities, and that the patina of use is what defines their character. People want real urbanity.
Peter Weingarten is passionate about making great places for people. A native New Yorker living in San Francisco, Peter thrives on dialogue and through his extraverted personality is constantly studying the human condition and how society ticks. His practice as a leader in the development of cities and their architecture allows him to passionately pursue sustainability, urbanity, and the evolution of how people live, work, and play. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.