Architecture’s New Ways of Working

Same as the old ways, toward a new generation of urban factories

If traditional patterns of office work are evaporating, architecture firms are running against the tide: far from abandoning “old ways,” they’re reviving and even expanding on features of the traditional atelier, ushering in a new era of urban manufacturing.

An influential McKinsey & Company report, Independent Work, identified an emerging “gig economy,” specifying three characteristics of a new employment environment: a high degree of autonomy; payment by task, assignment, or sales; and a short-term relationship between worker and client.”

But the imperatives of architectural work require a stable workforce, with fixed offices of familiar character. Even if architects have never kept offices like those of clerical workers, digitized design tools—for better and worse—have ushered in a deskbound era.

And, like many other businesses, architecture firms have had to adapt to new factors affecting office design. Yet, despite the mobility offered by new attitudes, innovative digital technologies, and enhanced communications, two forces bind our profession more than ever to fixed workplaces—and to urban settings.

1. The nature of our work

The challenge for architects who want to be digital nomads lies in the need to manage large, detailed models, complex technical drawings, full-scale component mockups, layers of data-rich construction documents, massive digital archives, product testing labs, and more.

Workspace in the city, Dominique Perrault Architecture DPA office.

Office of Dominique Perrault Architecture DPA, rue Bouvier, Paris. Photo © Tiago Madeira

You can’t do these things in a home office or at a coffee shop—you need specialized spaces and equipment. Like medical and dental practices, architecture firms must have ready access to specialized suppliers, key consultants, and competent support service providers. They need to be near product sales engineers and specialty fabricators.

Also, many firms maintain strong ties with universities, and some projects involve frequent dealings with government authorities. It is good to be near clients, public or private. And, to attract and retain talented personnel, firms must be within easy reach of their employees.

Only cities make all these things possible.

2. The nature of our workforce

With employees demanding workplaces that combined aspects of home, gym, game arcade, rec center, café, and daycare center, Silicon Valley offices emerged with ample recreational outlets, informal collaboration spaces, facilities for kids and pets, all of them loaded with diversions and healthy snacks.

These data-driven corporations also led in adopting policies designed to balance work with the rest of life. They tapped into a genuine current: People seeking a better quality of life both at work and at home, and greater flexibility in daily routines. Some variation of these features is present in workplaces all over the country today.

Dominique Perrault's office has the necessary infrastructure to carry out work effectively.

Office of Dominique Perrault Architecture DPA, rue Bouvier, Paris. Photo © Dominique Perrault Architecture DPA

But a private survey I made three years ago of employees in the San Francisco headquarters of a well-known software giant revealed that many craved private offices with doors they could close, workspaces that were theirs alone, and fewer diversions.

“I can only play so many ping-pong games, eat so many snacks, or join in so many collaborations,” said one young man. “In the end, there’s demanding work I need to complete by a deadline. For that, I need a quiet space that’s mine, where I can leave my stuff out without everyone else seeing it, moving it, losing it, or piling their stuff on top of it.”

For some, the problem with “work” is simply the slog of getting there and back. When employees resist reporting to an office regularly, or balk at a nine-to-five routine, they may be reacting to the soul-killing grind of commuting. Workplaces tend to fare better in employee ratings if they’re close to home or easy to reach.

For at least a decade, many people have experienced working life at hot-desks, short-term coworking spots, flexible team pools, and other “fluid” setups. At the same time, they discovered that conventional workplaces just weren’t as convivial—or as easy—as a den or neighborhood café wired with Wi-Fi.

Dominique Perrault's architecture studio is an example of the ideal workspace for architects.

Office of Dominique Perrault Architecture DPA, rue Bouvier, Paris. Photo © Tiago Madeira

Attitudes toward work have changed, and so have workplaces. Yet even if certain office “amenities” are now common, and even as employers accommodate a wider range of special needs and implement more liberal policies, what has not changed is the need to maintain a fixed place of business.

Imperatives for the workplace

Professional practices need permanent bases of operation—places for employees to use tailored equipment and core services. We also need elevated levels of electrical power, high-speed data, enhanced security, precise climate control, and the flexibility to manage changes in physical space quickly and inexpensively.

Architecture firms now face requirements akin to those of light industries. They conduct operations and use machines that need clear floor spans, loft-height ceilings, and access to large pieces of equipment. The ever-expanding appetite for digital collaboration has led to the need for studio-quality audiovisual gear and sophisticated work-sharing platforms.

Our workplaces will reflect sensitivity to environmental health issues. They will be more responsive to special needs, with more amenities and greater flexibility all around. But we’ll still be reporting for duty to fixed addresses, and we’ll be doing it in cities.

Main image: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, rue des Archives, Paris. Photo © Thomas Vonier