The Astute Architect

Coworkers of the world, unite! Better architecture for co-work

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As coworking starts to overtake the work world, SmartPlanet columnist C.C. Sullivan admonishes U.S. architects to take on the challenge and design better workplaces for tomorrow's collaborative facilities.

Architects! This coworking thing could mean new business for you. Courtesy Deskmag

Architects, did you miss the Global Coworking Unconference Conference? No doubt you missed this all-day event in Austin earlier this month. But if you're unsure what coworking actually is -- and if your client base includes owners of office buildings or workplaces or tenants -- it's time to play catch-up.

Fast.

The backstory on co-work

According to the coworking magazine Deskmag, the coworking movement has roughly doubled in size each year since 2006. Worldwide, there are at least 1,100 of these shared workplaces, and 80% of them are run by private companies. Only 13% are nonprofits, and even fewer are run by the public sector. So coworking is a new form of capitalistic officing, not some commie plot.

One of America's best-designed cowork spaces: Buro Miami, by Fanny Haim Associates, with architect Adriano Garcia.

Buro Miami's delightful interior.

Most coworking facilities are driven by rising ranks of self-employed and consultants, who prefer a nice shared office to the humble ho-hum of home office. But corporations are buying in at a rapid clip.

A Wall St. Journal item yesterday tells of how Plantronics Inc. bought into NextSpace, a chain of hipster coworking joints from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. The main sell: Keeping employees happy by cutting commute times and providing instant community with smaller tech companies. Other companies mentioned that are renting coworkplaces -- check that, they are buying memberships -- include Wolverine, Amway Corp., Pennant Health, Meijer, and Steelcase, which sees the trend as part of "distributed collaboration." (They are are ganged together at GRid70 in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Another important market force is that developers are scrambling to convert slow-moving office properties into coworking hives. A Deskmag survey shows that while most coworking spaces opened in 2011 were in cities of 1 million or more, the second fastest segment was small cities of 50,000 or fewer.

Coworking is ubiquitous. It's tomorrow's distributed workforce. And it's happening today.

What you need to know

The average cost to open a coworking space is modest -- about $58,000 in the United States, says Deskmag. Yet start-up capital is the owners' biggest challenge. Few of these entrpreneurs work with architects.

That must change.

I'd work here: The cowork zen, courtesy the maestro Bjarke Ingels.

The few successful architects and interior designers who create create co-workplaces focus on making these spaces sing. For coworking hubs, "it's more important than ever to create a sense of community and a common language," according to the coworking Unconference organizers.

One such success is in Miami, called Büro Miami, a delightful example: Set in a high-profile, sun-drenched Midtown rotunda space, the cowork locale has single desks, suites, pods, and stations. It's modern and minimal, and could work anywhere; the designers were Fanny Haim & Associates with architect Adriano Garcia.

Coworking is growing so fast that buildings are now being planned and built to house coworkers. The Journal article described GRid70 in Grand Rapids, Mich., which was developed with the corporate co-tenants in mind. And the group Arquideas sponsored a design competition a few weeks ago for a coworking building, or COB, in Madrid, Spain.

Couches, coffee and computers?

It takes more than a few couches, high-speed internet and the espresso maker to compete in coworking.

For architects, it's a huge opportunity to bring novel workplace technologies and a livable aesthetic to these dynamic, changeable and often very messy environments. The winner of the Unconference video contest suggests the overarching vibe -- energetic community -- while tenant needs are listed in articles like PC Magazine's "10 best" list, which at least shows what geeks favor in coworking.

Geeks love it: A cowork "top 10" as selected by PC Magazine. (I'm not quite as impressed.)

For a good primer on the subject, check out Seattle architectural designer Cassie Hibbert's Forecasting Coworking: Architectural Strategies For Your Coworking Space, which she co-wrote with Ted Kimble, Justin White. It's basically a how-to manual manual for facility owners on how "to get the most out of your space."

Today there are only 500 or so cowork locations nationally. But today's headlines include new coworking buildings or installations in Iowa City, Albany, Washington, D.C., and in Torrance, Calif. That's just one day of 2012.

And the tidal wave is coming, folks. It's said that in less than a decade about two-thirds of all U.S. workers will be consultants or self-employed. The demographics for coworking, therefore, are just as big and compelling as those for assisted-living facilities, which architects compete for bitterly.

If you're an architect who's expert in coworking, please send me a message here. Let's plan the next primer on how to make cowork spaces sing.

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure