In his book How Buildings Learn, the author Stewart Brand outlines the process whereby buildings evolve over time to meet the changing needs of their occupants. He describes each building as consisting of six layers, each of which functions on a different timescale. These range from the site itself which has a life cycle measured in centuries, through to the building (decades), interior fit out (years), technology (months), to stuff (days). The effectiveness of a design will depend on how well it resolves the tensions that exist between these layers of the building, and this is one of the benefits of coworking that isn’t discussed enough.
The principles behind this complex situation have been known to us for a long time, at least since the 1970s when Frank Duffy first introduced the world to his ideas about the physical and temporal layers of the building – in his terminology the ‘shell, services, scenery and sets’ which anticipates Stewart Brand’s own take on the interplay of building layers.
The ability to respond to change and the tensions that exist between these layers are perhaps the most important facets of an effective office design. Creating this level of responsiveness is described in the Facilities Design and Management Handbook by its author Eric Teichholz as ‘the basic driver of the facilities management workload.’
However, it looks like things may be changing fundamentally because of the uptake of coworking and its influence on mainstream office design. This is a genuinely disruptive phenomenon because it marks a fundamental shift in the way office space is used. It may even be more accurate to suggest that the space is not occupied but rather consumed.
It is based on a business model that does not see the people who use the space as occupiers in the traditional sense but as members. In that regard at least it is the most advanced form of flexible or agile working space, unless you count the hotel lobbies and terraces, private members clubs and coffee shops that are its most obvious aesthetic and functional progenitors.
Coworking thrives particularly where there are clusters of start up businesses and especially where these are active in the key creative and digital sectors, such as those in India and Bali (main picture) which is by all accounts a hotbed of freelancers. That is just one of the reasons why the new world capital of coworking may well be London, which is why the seemingly unstoppable global coworking juggernaut that is WeWork is so focussed on becoming the major player in London’s commercial property market and others are already nipping at its heels.
A perfect storm
The other main reason London is such a hotbed of coworking is because of its current perfect storm of conflicting market forces that are making it both an attractive and problematic location for the sorts of businesses drawn to coworking space. For all that workstation sizes are shrinking, firms are reducing and divesting the space they occupy, demand for commercial property in the capital is consistently outstripping supply, driving up rents and forcing firms to make harsh decisions about where and how they work. The problem is exacerbated by the new office to residential planning freedoms which are further depleting the availability of office space in key locations.
These disruptive forces were encapsulated in a CoreNet global study. The report claims that coworking spaces are having a major disruptive effect on local property markets and are particularly attractive to occupiers from specific sectors such as those in digital fields where flexibility and an ability to network with like-minded businesses are key drivers of success.