How will the working from home experiment impact on the design of houses and workplaces? Marika Neustupny speculates on the future of work environments, and the importance of maintaining space for chance, anticipation and incidental interaction.
The ‘convenience’ of staying at home each day during the COVID-19 lockdown has got me thinking. It feels like the very basis of human interaction and communication is shifting from the spatial to the technological. Instead of using doors and windows in walls as the fundamental way to divide and connect, the pandemic has dramatically increased the use of computer terminals as on/off linkage devices between people. What does this mean for architectural design? What will happen to houses, and what will happen to workplaces?
Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929; Woolf needed her own space because she was ‘Working from Home’. For many, an important side effect of the pandemic is the intensification of desire for ‘a room of one’s own’. Although Woolf’s essay is generally discussed in terms of gender politics, the privilege of claiming space is also a question of class and money. For me, one of the most surprising aspects of Stage 3 restrictions has been how noisy everyone is. If your household has evenly spread access to good internet connection throughout the interior and enough rooms with separating doors, it is ok to converge multiple household members with conflicting Zoom-schedules. If not, you have to work out a constantly shifting timetable of who gets priority, or some household members have to settle for a less than ideal situation. In my case, for example, I had to write a fairly involved email to my son’s teacher explaining that although I certainly agree in principle that it is much more effective to have a Zoom class with students’ cameras on, various factors make this difficult. My son’s PC in his room doesn’t have a camera, and though the laptop does have a camera it can’t be used in his bedroom because of lack of wifi coverage. The living room is also not ideal, as it’s often full of one-way conversations with two working parents and another sibling all vying for screen time. Clearly, this is a middle class problem, and we are lucky to have enough money and enough computers to be able to speak like this. But it is interesting that an apartment that previously seemed relaxed has become so busy, now that nobody goes anywhere.
Changing housing typologies
Experiences during the pandemic are leading many to question one of the core assumptions underlying contemporary housing stock – that is, that residents will travel out of the home for school, work and so on. This questioning will potentially have repercussions for housing typologies.
It is important to remember that our current housing models are an outcome of particular historic circumstances. In the West, the twentieth century saw a cementing of the shift from rural to urban life, which had developed over the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution was the impetus for people travelling each day to come together, largely in cities. This separation of domesticity and commerce set the scene for open plan living (there is no need for separate spaces for noisy machinery or difficult conversations if work is not carried out at home), efficient wet areas (get chores done as quickly as possible to allow more ‘quality time’) and tight bedrooms with lots of storage (bedrooms are for sleeping, and perhaps for studying at a pinch, but not for living, since there are living rooms for that, and certainly not for working, as we are all meant to go off to work for that).
Historian Dolores Hayden has extensively explored how the functional planning of residential units, particularly kitchens, laundries and bathrooms, was affected by Modern lifestyles. One conclusion might be that, despite the well-recorded hardship of pre-industrial/cottage industry ways of life, there were also many advantages, particularly for women. These include the direct experience and satisfaction gained from the results of labour, the ability to freely mix different kinds of activity over a day in accordance with personal priorities, and sharing of childcare and chores between couples, if not several adults in a neighbourhood. These are also the kinds of advantages that people can see in their recent Working from Home experiences. As a result, some people are thinking about modifying their homes to be able to keep these favourable aspects.
There are a number of possible implications for the future design of housing. Clearly, we will start to see more re-instating of separation between spaces – either through solid walls and a return to doors, or through an increase in various forms of partitioning. Open plan might become semi-open plan, or even closed plan living. But further changes can also be imagined to accommodate people spending more time at home.
Wet areas might gain status within the standard hierarchy of rooms – just as cooking has become a pastime for some, bathing and even laundering and cleaning could start to be seen as pleasurable opportunities to engage with the senses and the seasons. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of wet areas per household member – driven by the desire to not have to wait for others – and a sense of luxury in these spaces – created through more expensive fixtures and fittings. But if people are spending more time at home, such priorities could evolve into wishing for an increase in quality of space to these areas – which could be supported through the design of windows, detailing of wall finishes and so on. And all rooms might gain a little in size and outlook to accommodate multi-use scenarios. It would be useful if bedrooms could be configured to be attractive spaces to spend extended periods of time in, with flexible furnishing options that enable inhabitants to feel comfortable letting others ‘enter’ for work or school meetings as well as for private gatherings. Such changes surely have the potential to bring a positive energy to home-life. Much of my own design thinking (and that of NMBW) has already been interested in bringing these sorts of spatial interfaces into play.
Yearning incidental interactions
If working from home places a new importance on the environment of daily life, what does it mean for working life? Right now I am struck by the unexpected flattening effect that working virtually has had on my capacity for effectiveness, despite my embracing of various remote communications platforms. I can’t help feeling that some people are forgetting the more subtle benefits of working at the office.
It is very difficult to have incidental interactions with people when having meetings via the internet. Small architectural offices of two or three people probably haven’t felt this problem so strongly, because platforms like Microsoft Teams can accommodate fairly constant discussions and – if internet is stable and cost-neutral enough – such real-time video-based communication can even be kept on all day to mimic the sensation of sitting next to someone and being able to voice questions and thoughts as they occur. But surely larger numbers of people trying to work together by Teams raises issues such as equality and efficiency – any question that surfaces over a given day can be taken to a particular person by a Teams call, but what if others are actually better placed to deal with the issue, or indeed would benefit from overhearing the discussion? Should I interrupt? Should I send a chat message and wait till later for the whole discussion if a key player is not ready? When people are together in a single physical space, it is easy to either ask in a casual way or simply see whether a certain person is open to discussion or doesn’t want to be disturbed. In the world of Teams, it is a big deal to coordinate casual discussion with more than one person. Time isn’t casual anymore; it becomes official and coordinated.
My practice (NMBW) consists of eight staff and three directors; although we have been managing amazingly well via two- and three-way conversations, it is starting to feel like there is a lack of cohesion to the office overall. We can’t notice and comment on what is up on someone’s screen as we walk past after a visit to the bathroom. We can’t help pick up fallen drawings from the printer and realise that someone is repeating a detailing problem solved more effectively in another project. We can’t give the random thought on a project that we are not directly involved with that ends up changing a scheme significantly. It’s also difficult to maintain concentration when there is no tempo or variation to the day. The culture developed in and supported by shared office space can affect the amount, type and quality of work produced.
Doors and portals
If we agree that the side effects of physical, ‘in-real-life’ interactions in work is still useful to make satisfying, efficient and innovative outcomes, then the pandemic-conscious architectural issue shifts to the question of designing how people relate to each other or separate themselves to concentrate. In this context, it is worth returning to Robin Evans’ famous 1978 essay ‘Figures, Doors and Passages’, which gave support to the idea of re-introducing the sixteenth century circulation type of moving through rooms rather than corridors; this is worth considering again.
The difference between shared physical work spaces and virtual work communications is similar to the difference between Renaissance cellular room planning – lots of doors between spaces – and the nineteenth century emergence of corridors – with lots of doors into passageways, but few doors between rooms. Renaissance circulation from room to room meant all sorts of things; indirect pathways and endless choice of route, the constant potential for remembering little things with other household members when passing each other, and having to go the long way around or tip-toe past the scary person. By contrast, corridors help control human movement, creating shortcuts direct to the relevant person, leaving others alone to concentrate. Corridors are efficient, direct and uphold privacy. Rooms with adjacency require individuals to take care, and allow for incidental encounters to take place.
In the current climate, every computer is a potential portal, offering efficient and direct links to the relevant person/s without interrupting others, while ‘old school’ in-person meetings are full of the possibility of interruptions, side tracking and irrelevancies. While we can be grateful for the reduction of face-to-face meetings without thought-through goals and agendas, it is also more difficult to have casual before- side- and after- discussions. Even within a highly networked society, the full advantages of creative collaboration look to be difficult to achieve through virtual platforms in the foreseeable future. Yet random encounters are important for new ideas to be found; we need to create an actual space for something to be able to happen. This is also similar to the traditional Japanese theatre concept of ba; a kind of pregnant pause in a performance where we know something will happen but we don’t yet know what it will be.
Urban fabric and demographics will continue to change and affect the relationship between domestic and commercial life, whether in real or virtual worlds. As architects, we need to accept and carefully assess how specific modes and aspects of such lifestyle changes and accompanying working methods can intersect with the built environment. The challenge is to give home and work spaces the right kind of doors and portals to avoid succumbing completely to the attraction of ‘convenience’, to let chance and anticipation stay alive.
Evans, Robin. “Figures, Doors and Passages 1978.” In Translations from Drawing to Building. AA Documents, 55-91. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.
Hayden, Dolores. The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods and Cities. Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press, 1981.
Komparu, Kunio. The Noh Theater: Principles and Perspectives. New York: Weatherhill / Tankosha, 1983.
Marika Neustupny is a director of Melbourne-based practice NMBW.
Photo: NMBW office, Darren James.