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The ‘space-time office’ offers a radical idea for a future working environment

Paul Finch
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Research presented at last week’s BCO conference makes the case for reconfigurable office space, writes Paul Finch

In 1982, space planning consultant Andrew Chadwick won a competition, judged by Norman Foster, to design the ‘office of the future’ – the future being the year 2000. His winning proposal was the ‘Office in a briefcase’, which opened up to reveal a screen and keyboard. You would be able to work from anywhere and the idea of the office would be transformed.

This idea still looks radical, but now Chadwick and co-researcher Jeremy Melvin have been pondering different sorts of futures for the physical space that we continue to develop and occupy. They presented their first findings at the British Council for Offices in Copenhagen last week, and these are equally radical.

‘The space you need for the time you need it’ is the mantra, with ‘square foot hours’ the currency that defines the relationship between owner/controllers and users

Their proposal is the ‘space-time office’, which provides a theoretical basis for the multiple approaches now being taken to office life, from conventional use to co-working, multi-location networking and back to that individual requiring serviced space by the hour.

‘The space you need for the time you need it’ is the mantra, with ‘square foot hours’ the currency that defines the relationship between owner/controllers and users – a notion Chadwick explored in work for Andersen Consulting’s London office in 1991. That led to a Parisian project where a relocated Accenture operated out of an office run by ex-hotel management, where space was reconfigurable overnight to accommodate changes in requirement for offices/meeting rooms/events/presentations.

Commissions exploring these ideas kept coming, including a 1999 proposal for 3,000m² of unoccupied space above the lobby of the Grosvenor House hotel, to be turned into real space-time offices. More recently, Chadwick has completed a networking project for a Balkans bank where technology has been used to allow different branches to seamlessly communicate almost as though they are in the same room.

As Jeremy Melvin noted, space-time has been the province either of philosophers (Kant, Hegel, Einstein) or, in the case of offices, a commercial market with little interest in maximising the potential benefits of an office building beyond conventional leasing arrangements.

One of the principles of the ‘space-time office’ is that, in the same way that individuals have been liberated from being tied to a particular building, the office itself should be liberated from the ghetto of exclusively commercial use: offices, in fact, should integrate into the wider fabric of urban life and become an ‘urban good’, taking up the ideas of thinkers like Richard Sennett.

So all those ‘square foot hours’ that are not being used by conventional users might be made available to community or other groups requiring certain sorts of facilities (choir, drama group, wellbeing club, children’s activities and so on). These might be paid for, or they might be donated or discounted by owners interested in the provision of social benefits as part of their own contribution to wider society.

Who knows, perhaps such groups could trade their square-foot hours if they didn’t need them. Talking of which, one further radical idea was to link the new square-foot hours ‘currency’ to blockchain systems of space reservation management, providing additional levels of programme certainty to those owners or head leaseholders.

This sounds revolutionary, but is it any more so than the idea of the briefcase laptop back in 1982? Interestingly the research being done is supported not just by the BCO, but by Zurich Insurance – an organisation, like any other insurer, with a profound interest in how the future might look. In principle, if the space-time office evolves, it should mean higher returns, lower occupation costs, and opportunities for offices to offer real social benefit.

The question will be how the development and investment markets view, and of course value, the concept of non-traditional uses at non-traditional times. Space-time architecture provides a conceptual framework within which those discussions can take place.

Let’s hear it for Bjarke

It was a great pleasure to chair Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG, at the conference. He gave a tour-de-force presentation which put workspace design into the wider context of life and living. The practice is enjoying a golden year, with its waste-to-energy power station due to finish soon, complete with a ski-slope covering the entire roof. And in New York, work will start soon on its ‘Big U’ environmental mega-project providing new resilience in the event of flood or hurricane.

On the more domestic front, Bjarke mentioned the financial drain of living on a houseboat in Copenhagen Harbour; not entirely surprising, since the houseboat in question is a decommissioned car ferry. 

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