The Ideal Office: Concentric?

On twitter (thanks, Colin!) I recently stumbled upon a wonderful video produced by ARTE, in which the German designer Erik Spiekermann sketches his ideal office.

It is fantastic to see someone sketch their ideas live (and funny as well to see Spiekermann struggle to draw a cool looking espresso machine – he later admits it looks crap…), so watch the video first. This is what the sketch looks like after 8 minutes:

Erik Spiekermann's idea for the office of the future

Spiekermann has an office for around 100 people in the design industry in mind. The concept places a social hub at the heart of the building, directly accessible from the entrance: a reception, break out spaces, central facilities like photocopiers and of course the coffee machine. This is where everyone will meet. In concentric circles layers of different activities and spaces are arranged. The first layer around the hub accommodates production spaces – cutting paper, printing, building models and prototypes. The second layer houses workstations with big screens (roughly half of the staff), while the third layer provides quiet spaces and flexible work areas for people with laptops, but also round tables for meetings and collaborative work. From the inside to the outside, spaces become quieter and less social. Spiekermann insists that the links between layers are limited, so that everyone needs to interact with everyone else on their way from A to B, specifically when entering or leaving the building.

Spiekermann himself points out on his blog that this is an idea, not a floor plan. Therefore he doesn’t want to bother with the question of daylight in the centre of the building or the right place for the toilets. Fair enough! It’s an idea, and a striking one, too.

I like the fact that the whole idea is based on people and their work activities. Not often do you find architectural ideas that allow people and space usage to take centre stage. I also like the inside-out approach. Spiekermann doesn’t consider facades, shapes or iconic building characters for one second. It is all about the people inside and what can be done to enhance their collaboration, creativity and interactive work cultures.

As I watched the video and saw Spiekermann’s idea unfold, I was fascinated and burning to see how this concept would look in a Space Syntax analysis. Space Syntax is a method to investigate configuration, i.e. the way parts of a layout (rooms, corridors, etc.) are put together. This is done to understand the potential for the emergence of social life and usage. Space Syntax research has found that integrated spaces (i.e. centrally located and easily accessible) are generally more intensively used than segregated spaces. This can be shown in a visualisation of the floor plan. Similarly to a heat diagram, areas with a high potential for usage are shown in red, orange and yellow, while areas with a low potential for usage are marked in cooler colours of green, turquoise and blue.

And voilà, here it is: Spiekermann’s idea for the office of the future in a Space Syntax analysis.

The ideal office according to Erik Spiekermann in a Space Syntax analysis

When I first looked at this, I thought this can’t be true: the social hub devised by Spiekermann and placed in the centre of the building is not highlighted as most integrated. Instead the areas with the highest potential for intensive usage are in the outermost ring and generally in the areas, where the layers are connected. The hub in the middle is rather segregated and as such would not work very well as social centre. It is very likely that most people would meet in the integrated areas of the outer rings and the transition areas between the layers.

But of course it all makes sense when you think about this layout for a little longer. The hub in the middle is only in the centre from a geographical point of view, but it is not central to the majority of possible trips from any point A to any other point B. In fact, most shortest paths do not connect via the hub in the middle, but via the outer layers. Overall, the layout appears quite labyrinthine and creates a fair amount of distances to be covered (though not as blatant as the layout for the new Apple HQ, which I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post). Of course placing central facilities in the hub will shift people’s space usage behaviours towards those attractors, and generally people are willing to go quite a distance for good coffee.

Still, I think Spiekermann overestimates the impact of the entrance (which most people will not use very often during their working day) and underestimates the importance of short paths (which translates to: general human laziness). Therefore, I believe the ideal office might look very much like the one Spiekermann sketched, but it needs to be more permeable. This will give people more choices where to go and what to do, and might mean weakening the aspect of everyone having to see everyone else every day, but it would place more importance on the social hub in the centre.

As can be seen in the syntax analysis of alternative versions of Spiekermann’s ideal office, levels of overall integration increase with increasing degrees of permeability, and the geographical centre attracts more integration, too, which will increase the likelihood of intensive social usage of the space.

Variations on the theme of the ideal office

So my ideal office would work with Spiekermann’s idea of concentric layers, but offer more permeability and more choices for movement, while still organising the flow of all visitors and inhabitants of the office through the central hub upon arrival.

So what does your ideal office configuration look like? And do you like the idea of concentric layers of activities around a central hub? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ideal office layout, so please leave comments below.

3 thoughts on “The Ideal Office: Concentric?

  1. Thanks for this analysis. My sketch was very improvised and not based on any deep research at all, but simply on my experience with my studios over the past 30 or so years. Once you plan a proper space with toilets et al, access and circulation will be the most important considerations, but they’ll have to be seen against the need for quiet spaces and totally closed-off (i.e.confidential) offices as well.

    • Erik, I definitely agree that the details of a space plan will have an impact on movement and usage. As soon as you place partitions (for quiet spaces, cellular offices, meeting rooms, toilets, etc.), the configuration changes and therefore, a Space Syntax analysis would look different as well. But then we would argue that partitions can only increase segregation and not increase integration. Additionally, the overall structure of visibility and permeability would not be affected that much by partitions either, so a rather segregated central hub would most likely remain segregated in a fully detailed space plan that includes all partitions and furniture.
      Of course, this could only be verified with a detailed analysis of the full plan. And I should add another caveat: a Space Syntax analysis highlights likely effects on usage, but it is never fully predictive. And of course space is not prescriptive either, so people can choose to behave differently.
      Maybe some day someone will actually design, plan and build such an office, and then we can have a look at how it is actually used.
      Anyway, this is a fascinating discussion, thanks for your contribution.

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