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Office 2.0: Big Data is changing the design of our workplaces

Companies such as WeWork and NBBJ are using computer modeling and data analysis to make our offices work as hard as we do.

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It’s not an uncommon experience as an office worker to feel like a cog in the machine, a single cell in a much bigger spreadsheet. According to architects and designers working on new ways to create office space and shared working environments, you might not be far off. It’s not that they’re creating impersonal designs; quite the opposite. It’s that in an era of computer analysis and algorithms, workers are the data that is helping inform workplace design that is more efficient, connected, and comfortable.

In an era of big data design, architects want to make your workspace work as hard as you do. As design trends swing back and forth from open plans to private offices, and new layouts seemingly leave at least a few coworkers unsatisfied with the space they work in every day, the notion that there's a better, smarter, and more informed option sounds very compelling.

"Buildings equal data isn’t a standard premise in our industry," says David Fano, the Chief Product Officer at WeWork, the multi-billion dollar global coworking giant that’s embracing an intensely data-driven model for designing. "People often crank out one type of building, and then it’s on to the next one. Since we have some many similar projects, and get this opportunity to build and run spaces, it’s an amazing opportunity for us as practitioners."

Space as software

Fano was speaking at a "beta space" on the 6th floor of WeWork’s Times Square location during the company’s first Product Innovation Roundtable. During that morning meeting earlier this week, Fano and the company’s product research team discussed their vision for a data-first, iterative design process, laying out methodology and explaining how different sensors positioned around the room would inform their work going forward. To drive the point home, a slide showcasing a heat map of the seating area around us was discussed as a tool to determine seating arrangements.

It’s all part of a move to increase satisfaction and profit by introducing the product development methodologies of the startup world into architecture and design.

"We think of each space as a product," says Fano. "We could create a phone booth for our space, the phone booth 3.0, and see how it works in one of our locations. We measure the impact, and if it’s high enough, we can retrofit entire buildings. It’s not as easy as pushing out a software update, but it works in the same way."

WeWork, boasting 110 locations in about 30 cities and constantly growing, has a unique opportunity to gather data and rollout new product, even new walls and dividers, rather quickly. But they’re far from the only firm making big bets on the cost effectiveness of data-driven office design.

The Edge, a cutting-edge office space in Amsterdam designed by PLP Architecture, features a seamless app and sensor system that lets workers check in with their phone and register their preferences, so the building can react and even adjust climate systems. NBBJ has created a suite of conceptual design tools described as a "human experience toolkit" that evaluate floor plans utilizing conclusions from the latest sociological and physiological research. According to Fano, the historically intuitive profession of architecture and interior design is now starting to discover the value of a real-time, actionable feedback loop.

"We can take the abstract notion of a square foot in commercial real estate, and its perceived value, and reduce it to a much simpler unit to understand—a desk," he says. "For office workers, it doesn’t matter if the floor is shaped like a parallelogram, or if it has an atrium, as long as it has the amenities you want, and helps you be as efficient as you can be. People just want to be able to be effective. Nobody likes going to work and being ineffective."

Maximizing value down to the millimeter

Rating an open office floor plan based on some algorithm measuring performance (and profitability) might seem like something from retail design, but WeWork views it differently.

Much of the philosophy informing the in-house design team comes from CASE, a building consultancy focused on Building Information Modeling (BIM) that was recently acquired by WeWork.

The philosophy elevates holistic and adaptable design. By factoring in data about space utilization and traffic patterns drawn from check-ins and even heat sensors, the company can help come up with the right mixture of conference space and shared space, helping maximize every square inch to help boost their revenue. And they truly mean every square inch; before any work starts, every new location WeWork moves into is captured with LIDAR, a surveying system utilizing lasers, so there’s a precise measure of dimensions down to the millimeter.

New experiments with climate and environmental sensors—WeWork is trying a variety of Arduino and Raspberry Pi-based devices to measure temperature, light, and other factors—can add more data to the mix and help improve user satisfaction. A recent study looked at the placement of phones within WeWork locations, analyzing traffic usage patterns to cut the number of phones and free up space for more desks. Tracking sunlight and glare throughout the day may inform the placement of desks and seating. Computer vision can help track conference room usage. The team could even design congestion zones to encourage interaction between members.

Big Data designs for people

WeWork’s position as designer, owner, and operator, give it a unique ability to collect and apply its own data. Other design firms are taking a different approach, designing their own proprietary software systems and algorithms to evaluate building designs.

"Architects love waving their hands around about delivering a great experience," says Marc Syp, the Product Manager and Design Computation Leader at NBBJ Architects "But with Big Data, we can show how a certain design will be definitively, measurably better. It’s not designing things, but it’s helping you prove things, helping you design for people and really focus on your goals."

Syp is walking through a demo of some of the in-house tools he’s helped design for NBBJ architects to allow them to take better advantage of the power of data. The "human experience toolkit," a series of visualization and analysis tools, let designers evaluate and even generate floor plans based on numerous factors; natural light, circulation paths, the distance to the kitchens.

The real value of this software, he says, is how it can help architects focus on their end goals and workplace satisfaction. Available to all employees, these tools allow designers to analyze and create custom floorplans. These aren’t just feel-good factors or buzzwords; peer-reviewed research, as well as data gathered by the company’s neuroscience research fellow, John Medina, a Professor of Bioenginering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, help inform the program’s outcomes.

Research shows that interior visibility, specifically how many other coworkers one worker can see from their desk, and how much space you can see in the 25 feet surrounding you, improves their ability to make connections and collaborate. The NBBJ program lets architects design with maximum visibility in mind, in effect democratizing the office. By utilizing these modeling programs, the design conversation focuses on the experience of the space, not just the form.

Syp says all the data and design really adds up to more informed choices.

"The client has traditionally picked what gets positioned as the most efficient option," he says. "But now, you can choose between metrics that matter, such as creativity and innovation. Option A and B aren’t necessarily better or worse, but one may offer more what the particular client is looking for; this way, you can really drill down into what a client wants."

Shared model of success

With designers creating more efficient workplaces, it follows that they’d find more efficient ways to present their work; more information means more informed choices are required from clients and stakeholders.

To help speed up the feedback process, NBBJ and other firms have started to use virtual reality as a tool to improve client communication. As real estate agents who have used the technology can attest, it’s a powerful tool to helps users understand the reality of a proposal. NBBJ partnered with Visual Vocal to develop a 3D presentation tool that lets clients experience 3D models of projects in development.

"Every company is a tech company now," says Syp.

Another global firm, Gensler, has partnered with Microsoft to create a proprietary app utilizing the Hololens Augmented reality platform, part of a firm-wide suite of advanced visualization tools and techniques, according to Scott DeWoody, head of visualization.

During a trial of the G-VR, I examined a model for a college campus, and a vision of how executives and business owners may evaluate the data-derived office of tomorrow. After slipping on the Hololens headset, a once empty conference table suddenly contained the outlines of a blue building model, hovering above the conference phone. DeWoody says he sees this as a game-changer for the industry; architects and clients in two different cities can literally take a virtual walkthrough.

As DeWoody walked me through the model, I circled the holographic model, taking a long glance at the impressive grand front entryway, noticing how the walkways crisscrossed through the atrium. Even more impressive, I was able to actually tour the space. Clicking an item on the menu of the head’s-up display suddenly placed me "inside" any point on the model; after choosing a point on the front lawn, I was then able to enter a virtual reality view from that specific point on the map and see how the facade looked from street level.