Work is Changing And Taking Architecture Right Along With It

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Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, a former Marshall Field’s Warehouse and a tech darling.

Any of us who’ve spent time in an office know that work is changing. We hear about new ways to work and all the technologies that aim to serve. But what about the actual physical spaces we work in?  Sure, everyone talks about mobility and the ubiquity of the cloud, but what about when the butt hits the Aeron chair? That’s changing, too.

A recent survey by commercial real estate broker CBRE reported that 45 percent of respondents “anticipate migrating to an activity-based workspace,” while 52 percent “anticipate implementing some level of unassigned seating.”

Back in January 2018, the Chicago Tribune posted a story about how older, enormous buildings — typically the stuff of real estate white elephantry — were suddenly tech company darlings. And not for manufacturing, but carpeted office space. These are buildings like the disused Old Main Post Office, Merchandise Mart, and a number of 100-year-old catalog warehouses (remember Monty Wards?). Each of these relics have 50,000 to 260,000 square feet per floor. Put in perspective, that something up to six acres per floor.

The reason these spaces are now hot is because as commercial broker Matt Ward of Newmark Knight Frank said, “This thinking of different floor, different planet is finding its way into every boardroom. The idea of us getting out of our offices and being together is seen as a necessity in today’s business.”

In a word, collaboration.

And while these buildings are attracting techie companies like Motorola Mobility, Google, and Groupon, more traditional businesses are taking notice. On June 18, Walgreens became the first signed tenant for the in-process Old Main Post Office renovation which will bring over 2,000 jobs from its current suburban facilities.

Of course, part of this is the urbanization of a younger workforce. McDonald’s abandoned its sprawling suburban campus HQ for downtown Chicago this year, and Allstate Insurance is moving 400 tech jobs downtown onto a single floor. Each has said a big driver was the availability of younger talent in urban cores versus the ‘burbs. Younger talent also soaks up the type of collaboration technologies our marketplace produces. Lead paint and asbestos are replaced by fiber, WiFi, and ubiquitous screens.

But the scarcity of land for such large buildings in urban cores means newer versions are unlikely and making renovating the century-old buildings attractive. But within more modest footprints, multi-floor office buildings are being renovated or built to embrace collaboration. Regardless of the size of individual floors, this drive for collaborative spaces is only beginning – like many of the technologies underpinning their enablement.

Building New, Collaborative Environments

In May I sat in on a lecture delivered by Christian Veddeler, a partner with Amsterdam-based architecture firm United Network Studio (UNS). One of the projects featured was a proposal for a European tech company’s headquarters. While not a single floor, it vividly illustrated that workspaces are evolving along with technology. The building is still in planning, so the firm was reluctant to share interior blueprints. You’ll have to imagine a bit.

That building is to be a multi-use building with 700,000 square feet of single-tenant office space housing 4,500 workers. A scattering of apartments and restaurants creates the multi-use environment. What made the project so striking were the office floor plans where different work patterns flowed seamlessly into one another. Assigned seating space bled into “nomad workspaces” that all led through to common, open meeting areas capped by a centralized café all overlooking a multi-story atrium. The nomad spaces range from artfully-arranged sofas to more structured desktops. A workspace finder app will guide workers to free spaces.

Throughout the floors will be spaces of differing sizes and technology enablement for planned and ad-hoc meetings. “Collab and meet” spaces are almost living room-like instead of a traditional table/chair/screen setup. Being a multinational operation, a significant portion of these spaces will be technology enabled.

If you think of collaboration technologies as enabling uninterrupted flow between fixed and mobile and up-revving communications from text to audio/video to groups, this building achieves that progression within bricks and mortar. In fact, one of the taglines for this project is “move through the day effortlessly.”

In another project, UNS designed an office building for collaboration. The Rabobank offices were recently completed, and while Rabobank is in the often-staid field of international banking, they, too, have embraced collaborative workspaces nicknamed “Rabobank Unplugged.”  Unlike the prior example, targeting a perhaps more youthful tech operation, the regulated world of banking isn’t all about collaboration. The Rabobank project’s motto might be “collaboration and concentration” where there are harder lines drawn.

The multi-story Eindhoven offices draw on the large-floor concept with individual floors of 30,000 square feet surrounding a central atrium. Not a murky 1970s Hyatt Hotel atrium, this large open space brings daylight into the center of the building and offers workers open-air collaboration space while remaining internal to the building.

The building is grouped by three-floor blocks for “concentration” separated by “identity” floors on the fourth and eighth floors. These are the collaboration floors for formal and casual meetings. Because the three concentration floors are offset from each other, outdoor spaces are produced adding another collaborative area.

I would be remiss in not noting that bundled in with all the sexy messages touting collaboration and productivity, there are the cost savings. Office layouts with “no fixed abode” seating take up less real estate and therefore cost less.  This cost-saving ties into the continuing trend of remote workers trading a fixed office for flexibility while using their own home workspace (something I’ve happily done for 10 years).

Selling Collaboration to Architects

These few examples show how organizations, either building from scratch or reinventing older spaces, are embracing the collaborative working concepts espoused in boardrooms. Dollars to donuts, wherever Amazon bestows their HQ2 project, you can bet collaboration will drive form.

However, it’s rare for technology makers to work with a client and their architect from a project’s inception. Worker technologies always seem to be the light bulb screwed in after the work is done.

But I wonder if end-user customers brought in technology vendors to work with the architects, these spaces would the outcome be more satisfying? I mean beyond today’s typical recipe of shoehorning “a screen here, a phone there … while WiFi-ing the bejesus out of it all.”


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.


Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

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