Released today, Deloitte Real Estate’s London Office Crane Survey reports a 50% reduction in the construction of new office space in central London in six months. Yet even such a significant reduction in supply may not be enough to offset a greater reduction in demand. As a result, there is likely to be an oversupply of office space in central London.
Mike Cracknell, director at Deloitte Real Estate, said, “By transforming outdated buildings into COVID-safe, high-quality workspaces, developers are looking to upgrade and futureproof their offices in a market where occupational demand is increasingly discerning.”
Indeed, in a buyers’ market, what matters is quality not quantity. And not only the functional specification of office space in terms of health and safety – such as air quality, general environmental cleanliness and the presence or not of touchless interfaces – but also in terms of organisational performance: is this an office in which my organisation can thrive?
When evaluating their needs, organisations must consider the fundamental purpose of an office.
It is no longer enough – if ever it were – to think of an office as a place that’s big enough to get most people together to give them a place to work from where they can occasionally gather in large rooms for group meetings. That can all be done, to some degree of success, on Zoom. Nor is it about having a desk where everyone can work from. For most, a kitchen table or home office may still be good enough.
No, what matters is everything that doesn’t get programmed into the working day: the incidental, the serendipitous. Sometimes thought only of in terms of ‘the social side of things’, the informal interactions that occur in offices are actually the hard currency of operational effectiveness. Offices that ‘buzz’ are places where ideas are born and shared. Where people not only want to work but want to stay working. And where outsiders want to visit, bringing with them their own ideas, their own colleagues and, in so doing, enhancing the melting pot of creativity.
This is not only the stuff of ad agencies and design studios. It’s also what matters in banks, in legal practices. It’s as important in a barrister’s chambers as it is in a digital startup. New ideas, overheard conversations, unplanned introductions and seemingly random encounters are what drive the productivity of any organisation.
All companies looking to move back to where they were, refit what they had or move to a new office need to think whether the space they’re looking at is fit for purpose. Because going back to the office – any office – won’t automatically bring the buzz. This special and necessary kind of magic dust isn’t sprinkled evenly. Some offices do it better than others. Some don’t seem to do it all.
Our work in the design of buildings and estates at Space Syntax has identified some of the key ingredients. Here are four that recur from project to project:
The importance of corridors and stairs
These seemingly humble parts of the jigsaw aren’t simply the means of getting from A to B. They are where ‘it’ happens: the chance conversations, the introductions between people: the sparks of ideas. These elements of connective tissue need to be ‘dressed’ to encourage and take advantage of the brief encounters that can happen within them: places to sit down and chat so that a passing nod can be extended into a thirty second conversation. In many organisations that we’ve surveyed, we’ve observed that the majority of workplace interactions (outside of formal meetings) last less than a minute – these are the essential communications events of businesses without which information would not be transmitted on.
Corridors and stairs should be places to work in as well as move through, so that someone who does so can maximise their chances of bumping into people. We see people doing this all the time: choosing where they work from so as to anticipate the unpredictable. But only in offices that allow it to happen. That design it in.
The importance of a simple spatial layout
It should go without saying that you don’t want people to get lost in your office because as soon as you start to think about ‘navigation’ you stop thinking about interaction. But so often we carry out spatial audits on existing offices – or review designs for new ones – with cranked corridors that confuse users, or with stairs that can’t be seen from reception, or departments separated from each other by cores and partitions that, for the sake of a nudge, could have opened up glimpsed views to the benefit of wayfinding and occupier awareness. So many conversations in offices begin with a nod from distance. We’ve seen people say ‘hi’ between the floors of an atrium them mouth ‘coffee’ and end up sat next to each other a few minutes later having a conversation that neither had planned but from which both will benefit.
Fortunately, flow modelling tools can describe the difference between a labyrinth in which people lose their way and an open layout in which they don’t. We’ve used these to shape the design of new offices as well as to help clients shortlist candidate new spaces.
The importance of context
While so much that matters happens inside the office itself, what also makes a difference is its location – first, of being easy to get to, especially on foot, by bike and public transport; second, of having nearby places to work from: bars, cafés, parks and public spaces. Work is a continuum and so accessibility, convenience, conviviality and flexibility all matter.
Does the office building itself contribute to its urban setting? How does it meet the ground? In cafés, restaurants and galleries or in faceless slabs of polished stone? Can the public come in to the office to share some common facilities? Is there a common central space or roof terrace?
A great office set in a sterile landscape is unlikely to add up to an appealing work environment. It’s easy to see an existing location and make your mind up as to its likely contribution to organisational effectiveness – are there places that people can go to at lunchtime and, even, are there parks where meetings can be held as an alternative to the office. It’s more difficult to know whether a new development will deliver the ‘urban buzz’ but again spatial analytics help to forecast the likely performance of new urban planning and design proposals.
The importance of ‘common rooms’ & public realm
All offices bring people together but many leave it at that. You step through the front entrance in the rush hour company of dozens of others and then you barely see a soul until lunch. The better ones will bring people together and keep them together in shared spaces where the noise of gentle chatter is expected. And not in rooms filled with seried rows of desks. If anything, desk work will be the minority activity. Conversation will be the principal activity. This is why we need offices. Not to sit on our own – we’re now very good at doing that from home or near home – but to sit together. To socialise and, in doing so, to exchange the ideas that drive projects, drive business relationships, drive industries.
Not even to sit with only our colleagues – we soon get to know each other. But instead to mingle with ‘strangers’ – people from other departments in our organisation. People from outside our office who have been encouraged to drop in and hang out.
So we need to think about the space we need to do this and the management practices that make sure we use it properly – that work against territoriality and that encourage inclusivity.
Cellular offices are a thing of the past. Lines of desks in open space are a thing of the past. Instead creative businesses – which means all businesses – should aim for offices that feel like lounges; club-like spaces with some ‘loud rooms’ where solo phone calls can take place (in the company of other people making calls) and ‘quiet rooms’ for the writing up that needs to be done then and there and can’t wait until you get home or near home. But, aside from these special spaces, the default spaces should have the look and feel of a good café cum bookshop: with people coming and going, with excellent refreshments, with small clusters of human activity, with furniture arrangements that can allow for smaller or larger groups to gather.
As organisations roll out the end of their leases or consider enacting their break clauses, these are the spaces they should be considering. Do they have the buzz where they are or do they need to find it elsewhere? Are they being offered it in the 50% less space that has being constructed? Can they find it elsewhere in an existing building? Or should they wait and support working from/near home until the office market shifts gear to meet the expectations of its discerning client base?
Location – where is the site and what’s around it
Linkage – where are the principal ways into the site (can any new ones be established?)
Layout – the pattern & hierarchy of streets
Land use – more than housing?
Landscape – the look and feel of the place (covers a lot eg materials, blue/green)
Lining – how the buildings meet the street (active or blank frontages)
Longevity – quality construction & operational expectations
SPATIAL LAYOUT ATTRACTION MODELLING
‘Spatial Layout Attraction Modelling’ is a computer modelling technique that calculates the relative importance of each street segment – each piece of street between two intersections – for people moving within towns and cities.
We begin by analysing road the geometry of the street network, using road centreline data.
By finding the simplest routes from all street segment origins to all destinations – the shortest routes that involve the fewest twists and turns – an algorithm calculates how likely it is that movement will pass along any individual route.
Segments that are part of straighter, more connected and more central streets tend to be used more frequently as part of journeys across the urban network.
However, the overall importance of any street segment may vary depending on the scale of the journey. Some segments are more likely to be used as part of longer journeys, some as part of shorter journeys, some at both scales and some at neither.
For this reason, Spatial Layout Attraction modelling is undertaken at two different scales: first, for a catchment of 10km, which typically identifies the movement hierarchy of people making longer journeys in vehicles and on bikes:
First, the ability to walk to the place you buy your food.
Second, the ability to walk to see friends, go to school, visit a doctor or dentist or catch public transport.
‘Walkability’ requires fine-grained spatial connectivity: simple radial routes from edge to centre to get people to the shops from every direction and then orbitals to let friends get to other friends, to work, school, public transport and so on. Combine radials and orbitals and you get a latticework, or a grid. More regular grids, or less.
To be economic, both food shopping & public transport require sufficient density.
Combine 1) a fine-grained spatial latticework with 2) sufficient density and you have the building blocks of sustainable #urbanism.
If you can only have one then start with the connectivity: the radials feeding a centre and the orbitals helping people move around. Then add the density over time, intensifying the grid with more closely spaced and taller buildings as well as an increasingly finer network of routes towards the centre, where there is more pedestrian activity and an increasingly coarser ‘grain’ towards the edge, where there is less.
Cycling & public transport follow on.
This is how sustainable – ie walkable – towns and cities can grow.
1) expect it to be a long run
2) celebrate small victories
3) gather the opinions of local people (local people are local experts)
4) gather the opinions of non-local experts
5) don’t accept “no” as an answer (“no” is an excuse, not an answer)
6) keep a record of everything (because people will come and go and they won’t otherwise know what has gone before)
7) expect setbacks (because nothing is linear and you’ll go in circles from time to time)
8) be patient with the naysayers since they can sometimes become your firmest advocates
9) be active online to promote and rebut
10) hang on to the fact that, however unlikely it may sometimes seem, common sense will prevail!
Urbanism is a long game. The kids grow up for a start.
This morning I met with local town council members & county council officers to discuss a new pedestrian crossing in #Faversham. Only later did I realise this is on exactly the same location as the photo taken 12 years ago for an article by Katie Puckett for Building Magazine!
Here’s the article:
“This junction has been designed for the benefit of cars. At 8.30am it is teeming with kids trying to get to school but there’s nowhere to cross the road.”
This small but significant intervention would build on the recently approved 20mph speed limit in Faversham, something that’s been a long time in coming. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.
We can’t wait another decade.
The question about when we return to work is also a question about how we return to work. For many, remote working has been a revelation. Perhaps not ideal in every respect but certainly helpful in many: the convenience of not commuting, the realisation that Zoom, Teams, Miro, Skype, Whatsapp and other platforms mean it’s possible to stay in touch in ways we hadn’t realised.
So there’s a fair amount of “unlock inertia” going around and a good set of very reasonable questions being asked:
- will anyone want to work 9-5 anymore?
- and on every day of the week?
- can we carry on having those online meetings because they seem, at least for some purposes, to be more efficient than round-table events?
- and how do we stop ourselves drifting back to the Old Normal?
We’ve been discussing the future of work at Space Syntax, both for ourselves and for our clients who we help create workplaces that foster interaction, encourage serendipitous encounters and nurture creativity. I wrote recently about what the office of the future might look like, with no desks and board rooms – a little provocatively for some as it turned out, but deliberately done to stimulate our thinking about why we need offices. Read More
Until a vaccine is found for COVID-19, and perhaps beyond, it will be important to practise physical distancing in towns and cities.
Whether this is possible will come down to the “carrying capacity” of the urban infrastructure: in particular, the relationship between Pedestrian Supply in the form of sufficiently wide footways and Pedestrian Demand in terms of the need for people to walk, whether that is to work, home, school, the shops or for leisure and pleasure.
Both supply and demand are calculable using tools from tape measures to multi-variable modelling algorithms.
Much well-deserved attention has been paid to the Sidewalk Widths NYC project, a digital map that “is intended to give an impression of how sidewalk widths impact the ability of pedestrians to practice social distancing.” By measuring the available width of footways, the map indicates which footways may or may not be suitable for physical distancing.
Sidewalk width provides an important piece of the “Pedestrian Supply” equation. However, it is not on its own capable of answering the central question: is physical distancing possible?
First because it is a one-dimensional measure and physical distancing is at least two-dimensional: it may be possible to keep 6 feet to the side of someone else, but is it possible to keep 6 feet in front and 6 feet behind? Given the length of many streets in New York City it may seem apparent that there is plenty of space to go around but the generously wide sidewalks of Times Square demonstrate that, under normal circumstances it is possible for these to be swamped with human activity and, as a result unsuitable for physical distancing under the new normal. Furthermore, it may be possible to observe distancing while walking mid-block but what happens at street intersections? Is there space to queue? Are the street lights synchronised to let one “platoon” of users cross before the next arrives behind them? Is flow predominantly one-directional (which it may often, but not always, be in the rush hour) or two-directional (as it can be at lunchtime)? One-way flows may have less of the “ordered chaos”, the urban ballet of two-way flows and so one-way flows may be more efficient. Read More
Images of future offices, with physically distanced workstations to separate desk-bound workers, seem to miss the point. Offices aren’t for staying apart – they’re for coming together. But how can that be organised in a post-COVID world?
Offices have desks because we’ve long thought that people couldn’t or shouldn’t work from home. Attitudes were changing slowly, with progressively greater levels of home working in recent years. Now, enforced lockdown has shown, in a short space of time, that for many of us it’s entirely possible to do much of our work from the place we live.
This is especially so when we’ve got the right kit and the right applications, and when we’ve moved sufficiently well along the learning curve to use our tech properly. And home working is likely to be even easier when, for many, the kids are back at school and home is an emptier, quieter and less disruptive place to be.
To continue to be relevant, to be attractive to people who are used to the comforts of home working, offices should no longer be boxes where people sit further apart from each other. Instead, they need to be places for doing what can’t be as easily done at home:
⁃ serendipitous encounter outside of planned meetings
⁃ overheard conversations that prompt interruptions, discussions and, as a result, new ideas
⁃ introductions between the person you’re with and the person you bump into. Read More
Research by Mike Cullen of Urbacity has shown that:
Out-of-town malls generate 0.5 non-retail jobs per retail job created.
Mall-dominated towns generate 1.2.
Street-based retail generates 2.6
Answer = build street-based retail
As if we didn’t know enough already about the social, economic and environmental benefits of connected, mixed-use urbanism, Cullen’s research provides one more good reason to plan towns and cities around beautiful, shaded, slow, thriving streets.
Space Syntax is working with Urbacity in support of Design Urban in its masterplan for Auranga, a new urban settlement to the south of Auckland. Developed by Made, Auranga breaks the mould of car-based sprawl by co-locating residential and employment uses around a tight-knit, walkable town centre and rail station.
Image (c) Design Urban
What can the form of cities tell us about the structure of the brain? And what can the structure of the brain tell us about the form of cities? These are questions that I’d like to address in this talk. In summary, I believe we can learn a good deal about the interaction between the mind and the urban places in which the global majority of people now lives.
After all, the city is the largest intentional product of the human species. We’ve had them for millennia and, in them, we’ve manifested our societies, created our industries and developed our cultures. They are the product of our imaginations, the places where we take decisions – and they are the inspiration for new thought. The link, I want to suggest though, is not just contextual. It’s much deeper than that. Read More
Notes from a talk at the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, University College London, 24th April 2019.
Placemaking is the art and science of planning and designing spaces for human activity, however that is done:
– by a single hand (usually not a good approach) or by multiple hands (usually a good approach)
– by academics, professionals and non-professionals.
But beyond placemaking is “place working”, or “place functioning”, or “place performance”: when the planning, design and construction work is finished and the place becomes operational. When it fills with the mysterious liquid called human behaviour.
And key to which is human transaction: the everyday social and economic exchanges that take place between people – these transactions not only sustain lives but bring about inventions that shape cultures.
Place Performance has many dimensions. Here are seven that I have seen work in practice: Read More
Notes for presentation at Transport & Housing conference:
To understand where we are & where we need to go, we first need to understand where we come from. And where we come from is a relationship with the car that has fragmented cities & damaged lives.
Transport & housing
– mental health
– social unrest.
The irony. The paradox.
We have never been as connected.
We have never been as spatially segregated. Read More
Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be a member of this panel today.
Let me start by describing my organisation’s approach to the creation of cities from scratch.
Space Syntax is an international urban planning and design studio and has been involved in plans for new cities and new city extensions throughout the world, including here in Kazakhstan.
Our approach is built on three key ingredients: Read More
Good afternoon. It’s an honour and a pleasure to be here in Astana today with this distinguished panel.
In speaking about the cities of the future I’d like to speak about three technologies that I think are not only exciting but are also capable of genuinely addressing the “Global Challenges” theme of this Forum.
The first is a mobility technology. The second is a physical transaction technology. The third is a digital technology.
As an architect involved in the design of everything from new buildings and public spaces to entirely new cities, these are three technologies that I’m particularly invested in. Read More
Contribution at workshop on UK-China Future Cities Collaboration Programme, Beijing, China
Organised by the British Embassy, Beijing
20th March 2018
I would like to address the first objective of this workshop, namely a framework for UK-China collaboration on smart, green and sustainable future cities.
Let me begin by saying that our task is helped by the fact that many valuable frameworks already exist:
First, we have many long-established academic networks. Second, we have project-based networks that bring professionals together around planning and construction projects. Third we have professional networks formed around the many conferences that have brought together UK and China experts for many years, and continue to do so. Read More
Good evening. It’s a great honour to have been asked to give this evening’s Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture, and a special honour to be doing so on behalf of Bill Hillier, who is unable to join us. Bill sends his best wishes to the Urban Design Group.
First, I can’t do justice in the time available to the breadth and depth of Bill’s genius. And I use the word genius carefully. I believe, as do many others, that he is a genius.
I may only this evening touch on concepts that each deserve a more lengthy explanation and discussion. And, likewise, on the hundreds of urban planning and building design projects that Bill and Space Syntax have helped create over the past four decades.
But what I hope I will do is paint a picture of Bill’s achievement – albeit a personal one.
I want to talk especially about the future directions that his work is taking. The future is important because Bill is not obviously sentimental. He is far more likely to want to talk about something he is currently working on, or something he doesn’t yet understand, than to dwell on the past. He hasn’t ever, to my knowledge, sought prizes. He’s enjoyed them when they’ve appeared, but he hasn’t gone after them.
And, I suspect like anyone receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, he has wondered why it was being given so soon, before his lifetime is fully achieved. When I spoke with him last weekend he explained that what he’d really like to be talking about is what he’s currently working on. But, as is often the case with emerging theory, he’s not sure he’s right about it yet. In other words there’s always more to be done.
But Bill was keen to shape this evening’s presentation. So let’s begin with some words from him: Read More