A recent discussion regarding the role sustainability practice can play within the various disciplines in the architecture and design industry got me thinking a little differently about an idea that had been brewing around in my head for some time.
As designers, what can we do to reduce the amount of physical assets (space) used by our clients?
Why would we even do that?
To what end? Less space = less work = less fee = less Mac ‘n Cheese and we know how much we all love Mac ‘n Cheese.
Is less really more?
Or did Robert Browning or better yet Mies van der Rohe have it all wrong? Or did they each mean something completely different?
What should we do as good corporate citizens and as designers to help business reduce the consumption of resources and space?
Here are just some ideas and the genesis of an approach that will hopefully spark some serious thinking toward using less space, raw materials and more specifically energy. After all, isn’t reducing the consumption of energy the driving force behind any effort that a business can make to change its thinking toward its physical assets?
Think about it.
If a business wants to reduce the space it uses to operate a few interesting things come into play; they inherently will use less energy and in supporting that line of thinking the theory is that there will be less energy used to manufacture and transport the product necessary to construct its physical space.
That idea begets a formula that makes some sense to me.
Less space = less energy consumption.
Now stop it.
Yes, I know it’s over simplified and as an example smaller spaces like data centers can also consume vast amounts of energy but all things being equal less will always mean less.
And anomalies will always be anomalies.
Drawing from my professional experiences in working with firms in the corporate office world such as technology firms, financial, accounting, professional services, consulting, marketing, PR or advertising firms all fit into a category that would benefit greatly from the perspective of space reduction. Surely there are others and in other sectors that are not bound immediately by the rigors of regulated practice. Any type of company in the private sector could easily fit into this study. The one thing that is common to this sector is the sophistication of the client (ownership) base, the employee base and the sensitivity asset management (people, space and tools) has as it relates to financial success.
So where do we start?
Simply, we need to gain a clear understanding of the business. Every one of these businesses has an operations model, processes, procedures and values that can be defined and evaluated.
That’s a process we all know as programming.
Traditional space programming involves some simple analysis such as employee count & position, departmental breakdown, hierarchy, primary and tertiary relationships between business units, interdependent relationships between job descriptions and the relationships each plays in the configuration of typical office space. The relationship between how space is utilized and its occupants, their roles in the organization and to each other’s business units can easily be determined and mapped. With this information a design team can fairly quickly and efficiently determine space requirements and develop a utilization strategy that will work for a corporation’s business operations.
No big deal, right?
Sure, we know there is a lot more to it than that but in its simplest form a program is a basic tool to allow a corporation to generally get a sense of space requirements based on interdependent hard data. This methodology has traditionally worked well but does it tell the whole story? Are there other factors that drive a corporation’s day to day business operations that may influence the outcome of program data?
What about the soft skills of the workforce that can affect the outcome of business operations?
Layering on studies such as employee satisfaction to measure how the employee perceive process, culture, working relationships and demographics can help a program to better evaluate the needs of an organization through a more holistic view to the hard data. Not only can an organization determine use per square foot based on the required numbers of offices, meeting spaces, open and ancillary spaces and circulation space needed to operate its business but it can see the impact that its current operations has on the productivity of its workforce.
How does that work (or does it work)?
Here’s an example.
Traditionally as design professional we see the vast disparity between management and its workforce when it comes to space requirements, occupancy and physical location. Can the centralization of management cause productivity issues within a corporation? It is difficult to ascertain without testing but human nature tells us that when people are visible to each other they remain front of mind and relationships develop as a result. Relationships can build trust and trust can drive other benefits such as increased productivity. This is just one example of how happier people, a company’s number one asset, can change the way a corporation might look at its physical assets.
So, how does that soft metric affect energy reduction?
Coupled with industry best practices, a viable strategy may be to decentralize management or break down the silos between senior management and its workforce through decentralization and right sizing space requirements. Does management need to be in close proximity to each other every day or can they be as effective disbursed throughout the office environment? Maybe 30 years ago when technology wasn’t much more than a bat phone on the desk was there a specific need for immediate proximity. Let’s face it; management having to spend a few minutes to walk to boardroom to discuss weekly strategies or make decisions is going to have minimal impact on a corporation’s productivity in relationship to the potential for building better relationships through decentralization.
But what about privacy?
Countering the need for privacy can be augmented by shared private rooms which can be quantified upon evaluation of the frequency of use. There are certainly other functional requirement to consider and data to be gathered to demonstrate how management can continue to remain successful through some subtle shifts in work style and attitude.
A radical concept for a lot of companies but coupled with cost reduction through space reduction this one example alone can tell a powerful story. And this is just one example. When we simply think about technology many, many other ideas come to light that can affect the configuration of a company’s physical assets.
But we need proof that it actually works.
Of course but can well formed questions, interviews, research and precedent necessary to provide validation for a major shift in space allocation not be the catalyst to the success of each similar opportunity exposed by this process?
Sure but I am still not saying anything new here am I?
We all know programming coupled with testing space allocation strategies is essential for any corporation to get a real sense of what its current requirements are. But don’t you agree that what we see do see, more often than not, are very basic studies informing poor test fits being implemented throughout the corporate community?
It’s sad really.
The deeper we can dig into a corporation’s operations, which, incidentally, we all can do as design professionals, the better we can understand the effect of a corporation’s operations on the impact of the space they occupy. At some levels the expertise of a design team to facilitate the gathering and evaluations of data becomes limited. Expertise needs to cross boundaries dependent on the level of evaluation that is engaged.
Expertise such as psychology, engineering, ergonomics and behavioural sciences can, if engaged, bring value that can help inform and develop ideas that can be dovetailed into a standard space analysis study. We can’t do it alone if we want it to evolve.
Here’s another way to look at it.
Scott Stratten in a TedX Oakville presentation gave a talk about keeping going and the value of the people in your life. It is a heartfelt story and the message at the end is powerful. Check it out here.
Value or more specifically value in your life outside of the office is an excellent soft metric to measure productivity in a business.
But how is that measured?
How do we know if expenditures on technology, for example, will be more beneficial to reinforce the idea that we can work from anywhere today compare to the cost of having physical space to support each and every worker all day every day?
We don’t but it is measurable and the lifecycle costs can be determined.
What’s not easily determined though is the impact to business operations therefore wholesale change is difficult to swallow. Strategies such as flexible furniture solutions, reconfigurable spaces coupled with an open minded management approach can drive risk adverse scalable solutions. There is always a way to integrate these ideas but it has to always start with an open mind and open minds are hard to come by.
We all know it makes sense but there is a big, big chasm that needs to be crossed.
Risk is a deterrent and so is wholesale change.
So how do you get a company to accept this type of flexibility?
Data. Facts. Examples. Precedent.
All these ideas need validation through proper research and evaluation. Who has the time for these studies when a lease is up?
Let me answer that one for you. No one.
When should your clients attempt to understand how their workforce will respond to changes in structure, attitude and work styles?
As soon as humanly possible.
Are you considering helping your clients understand the opportunities you can see in reducing, realigning and building efficiency though your expertise?
If you are call me, write something here or get in touch via email because I am deeply interested in this topic and I am only 1 guy who has a lot to learn but who also has a lot to offer.
Can we make a difference together?