Human Spaces

Spaces designed with the human in mind

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Human Spaces Report

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History of office design

Over the past century, it’s not just our relationship with work that has changed; the spaces we inhabit have been in constant evolution too. What started out, in the early 20th century, as a design exercise in extracting maximum efficiency from an organisation and its staff has now become a much more cultured process – one that takes into account our inherent motivations and preferences as people, not resources.

So, how did we end up getting back to nature? We picked out some highlights from a century of workspace evolution…

1900s: steeled for a revolution
A time of ‘Scientific Management’ and offices like production lines, but it was the humble steel girder that set work on the road to what we know as the modern open plan. The material allowed for much bigger internal spaces to be opened up, a key feature of the Larkin Administration building – considered by many to be the first purpose-designed environment for a specific business.

1960s: Bürolandschaft and the dawn of office landscapes
The sixties were a time when the workplace went political. The challenge was to get away from topdown power to a more socially democratic layout, encouraging interaction and more human behaviour. The answer was Bürolandschaft. A concept from Germany, translated as ‘office-landscape’, it used organic groupings of desks and plants as partitions, in an effort to move away from the blunting regimen of scientific management. Many of the architect Quickborner’s plans bear a resemblance to cell structures under a microscope, something which wasn’t accidental and hinted at what was to come in the future.

1980s: Into the box
The twentieth century wasn’t a straight procession towards biophilic design and office space enlightenment, there were some bumps along the way. The ubiquitous cubicle is one such example. Whilst open plan, organic spaces had emerged by the 1960s, many organisations eventually reacted to this new model by looking to gain back a degree of privacy on the office floor. The cubicle was implemented across many businesses – a way to stay open but also to have some personal space. It became widespread, particularly in the US, although now is increasingly looked on as an anachronism which provides neither open space nor privacy.

2000s: Coffee shops and fun
With the new millennium came a realisation that, perhaps, nobody needs to be in the office at all. The rise of coffee shops and wireless technology were just two of the ways in which employees felt freed from their cubicles, with over 95% of UK employers offering flexible working. The reaction inside the office was to make things more fun, appeal to our non-work self and gamify the environment to create work and leisure time in one space. So came the stereotypes of creative companies filled with pinball machines, beanbags and pool tables.

2010s: Biophilia and collaboration
Employers and their staff realised quite quickly that there’s more to well-designed offices than a games room. The most modern workplaces are high concept, encouraging a sense of community, collective problem solving and well-being. And it’s biophilic design that can complement all of these ideas – not just because nature has an impact on our health and performance, but it encourages a ‘whole person’ view of people at work. Increasingly, workplaces are being designed with nature in mind. From some of the most impressive vertical gardens in Singapore to the green campuses at leading companies like Google and Apple, the benefits have been embraced across the working world. High performance is becoming synonymous with environments that are well connected with nature, and allow us to connect with each other.

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