From the archive: A new approach to office design is redefining property 0

office design At the end of the 18th Century it was becoming apparent that overpopulation was something the human race would need to address for perhaps the first time. Advances in technology and the urbanisation that followed the Industrial Revolution had created a new set of challenges. These were most famously laid out in a 1798 book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, written by an English cleric called Thomas Malthus.

The book helped to influence the nascent discipline of economics and informed the thinking of Charles Darwin when he wrote On The Origin of Species some sixty years later. The term Malthusian remains in use to this day when describing the central paradox laid out in the book. This paradox suggests that because population increases geometrically (doubling every 25 years by multiplication), while food production only grows arithmetically (by addition), the end result can only be depressed wages and ultimately starvation.

The book was hugely influential in its time and led to the introduction by a startled Government of the regular censuses we take to this day. The problem was that Malthus had made a fundamental error in his reasoning. He had overlooked the ingenuity of the human race in framing such challenges in new ways and developing the ideas and technology that would help to overcome them. He had assumed that the future was an extension of the present, rather than a deviation from it. So his doom laden forecasts proved wrong as new agricultural technology and practices made it possible to feed not only the population he foresaw, but one that far exceeded it. We even worry more nowadays about the amount of food we waste, rather than how we produce enough of it to feed ourselves.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Malthus for this because it is a trap we all fall into. Indeed, we continue to do so when it comes to the way we design offices and the space we allocate to them. For example, there is a Malthusian paradox in the way that we consider the development of commercial property and this presents challenges for planners, developers and occupiers.

In the past, it has always been possible to equate employment levels with office space. Both have traditionally grown arithmetically in parallel to each other. So, if you employ x more people, you’ll need x amount of extra space to accommodate them. This linear thinking is codified to some extent in guidance such as the British Council for Office’s Specification Guide which was last updated in 2014 and sets out guidelines for the amount of space to be allocated for each workspace, in this case somewhere in the range of 8-13 square metres of a building’s net internal area per workstation.

Yet, as BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze acknowledged at the time of the Guide’s publication, this linearity is no longer the whole story for occupiers. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and the guide includes invaluable advice for occupiers and the latest thinking on how to make the most of offices,” said Kauntze. “Property is a significant expense for businesses, but if it is understood properly and used efficiently it is a resource that can be optimised to deliver real benefits in employee performance through increased productivity and wellbeing.”

He is acknowledging that we are witnessing a new era for office design, not a continuation of what has gone before. At the heart of this new era is a conception of the office that does away with the old linearity that applies a simple arithmetical equation to link the number of people employed by an organisation with the amount of space they need. This is an inherently inflexible way of looking at space and one that does not always lend itself to the agility demanded of modern organisations. Instead, we are witnessing the widespread application of a new conception of the office that serves a population of workers but is not based on the allocation of a rigidly determined amount of space based on their numbers.

This article was originally published in 2015