Better Buildings Through Data Driven Design. Or: So How Do We Know?

By Hannah Mellow on 1 May 2014

An article in yesterday’s Metro requested organisations to “Take down that slide” and argued that ‘wacky’ office spaces don’t always work. It was suggested that the spatial design of a workplace environment needs to match an organisation’s culture and ethos, and since not everyone is a geeky Googler, slides and table tennis sets are not the right solution for everyone. Engaging office workers into the design process was mentioned as a way to ensure spatial design suits business needs.

So far so good!


But then the article entered slightly murkier waters. It quoted Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the British Council for Offices (BCO), who proposed ‘intelligent spaces’ that ‘maximised the opportunity for serendipity’. Of course, serendipity is important. We know that chance encounters, specifically between members of different teams can lead to innovation and new opportunities, as for instance argued by management professor Thomas Allen at MIT. The American sociologist Mark Granovetter coined the phrase of the importance or ‘Strength of Weak Ties’.


However, the crucial point is: How do we know? What the Metro article suggests is that specific spatial solutions guarantee this serendipity to flourish, for instance the idea of design firm dPop to invite members of the public to temporarily co-work with them into their office spaces. While this is an interesting move, we should not confuse the idea with how it actually works in real life.


Unsolicited claims abound in the workplace community. All too often, designers, consultants and architects, but also journalists and bloggers describe a spatial design and in the same sentence assert how this supposedly enables a variety of phenomena – interaction, collaboration, knowledge sharing, creativity, innovation. I can’t recall how often I’ve read about the office design of Pixar and how the idea of the big atrium, initiated by Steve Jobs himself, allows for collaboration and intermingling of people across different teams. Again: this is a nice idea. But also again: so far we have yet to see any evidence or proof that this solution actually makes a difference.

Richard Kauntze of the BCO argued that “if you put a good business in a better building, it will almost certainly be a better business”. The point is: we need methods and tools to help us understand what a better building actually looks like.


This is where data driven design becomes important. At Spacelab we only believe in what we have researched and rigorously tested. We aim to look behind empty phrases and with our scientifically driven processes understand what really works and what effects our design interventions have. So how do we know? We go into spaces and have a look; systematically observe; engage with users; map their organisation network; ask them for their opinions; analyse floor plans; and finally use this evidence to drive our design solutions. This is how we know when a building is in fact better for an organisation.


So before we create the next office design fad, how about we as a profession take the time to make sure we actually know what difference a design really makes for its users?

Topics: serendipity, data, design, evidence