Measure What We Value: New Metrics for Commercial Office Building Design

The War of the Roses, Nash Hurley Architecture Studio, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles
Building Lobby -- Open Air Office Building

By Nash Hurley

Humans tend to measure what we value. For many of us that means money. We equate more money to increased autonomy and greater happiness. For others it is time. Time spent on what we want to do versus time spent on what others want us to do. We measure the first as “vacation time” and account for the second as “work time.” We will give up money for “vacation time” but expect to receive money for “work time.”

What about us architects? What do we measure? For commercial office buildings, it has historically been square footage, and for good reason. From acreage in agriculture to square feet of factory floors, the size of a workspace has been directly and positively correlated to the productive capacity of that workspace. More square feet meant more capacity to produce and therefore more opportunity to make money. For the better part of the 20th century it also meant greater ability to accumulate and share information in the form of paper documents. So, it made sense to measure square feet as a proxy for value. But as the pandemic swept across the globe last year, people quickly left the square feet of their offices to seek the safety of their dining room tables and living room couches – and throughout this diaspora many companies continued to produce and even prosper. The takeaway was clear. Productive capacity (i.e. value) was no longer measurable simply as an aggregation of square feet. It needed a new metric.

Workspace Interior — Open Air Office Building

To get our arms around this change and what it means for workspace, we can look to a new, more powerful metric for value creation: value measured in users. We are not alone. Counting users has become so attractive that many companies, both mature and startup alike, will give out all kinds of goods and services, all kinds of money and time to gain more. More users means more value. And much as the value of a consuming user follows him as he moves from his Instagram browsing to shopping on Amazon, to buying a coffee in a Starbucks, his value as a producing user follows him as he leaves his traditional office building and settles onto his couch for a day of remote work.

The number of users (as opposed to money, time or square footage) becomes the more reliable metric for the value of a workspace. This introduces an interesting challenge for us architects. We know how to be contracted to design for a certain square footage of traditional office space, but what would it mean if we were contracted to design an office building that would be measured in users? Would it change what we design?

Change in architecture tends to be incremental and slow – reflecting both the established social structures of the last business cycle(s) as well as the social pressures of the current cycle. Where we were and where we are going. Where we were was clear. In the years leading up to the pandemic, studies showed that the number of users in any given office building were only a fraction (around 40%-60%)1 of that building’s designed occupancy. Said another way, they were between 1⁄2 to 1⁄3 empty on any given day across many different market sectors. Their construction systems were equally consistent. Facades were sealed and indoor air systems were centralized. Where we are today is less clear. Our world is waking up from a global health shock – resuming more and more pre-pandemic activities – but the heightened dangers of indoor air are not over. They will be either a persistent or periodic issue.2 Those of us who design and construct buildings are not the only ones who know this. The producing users of the buildings also know it, and they are going to be looking for buildings that make them not only feel safe but actually excited to come into a shared workspace.

An office building valued in users will seek to maximize the number of those users over its lifespan by making itself the most attractive and reliable place to connect with coworkers. While there is no crystal ball, a hypothetical 10-year period that includes one epidemic of respiratory disease is enough to tell the story about the change that is on the horizon for our office buildings.

When we were looking at the architecture of our traditional office buildings through these fresh eyes, we identified the biggest opportunity for change as the building’s primary circulation system – its hallways, elevators, lobbies and stairs. Obviously, changes to filtration and mechanical systems makes more sense for existing buildings, but for new construction rethinking circulation is a real opportunity. In this system, we saw a chance to empower a user to get from the public realm to her group’s own workspace, what someone in the 1980s might call their office-suite or today we would call their cohort, without having to share the air of another cohort.

Circulation systems of traditional office buildings work, much like a tree, through a one trunk solution. This single trunk draws up nutrients from the ground level. It is the most efficient, but there is a major downside. It funnels all the users through a series of constrained check points – bottlenecks where users are in close proximity to one another. If another user poses a health risk, the efficient funnelling action of a traditional office building short-circuits the whole system – and all of a sudden the living room couch is once again the preferred workspace for our much sought after user.

Here’s where metrics matter: if you are maximizing for users over time, circulation systems are no longer a cost to be efficiently minimized; they can become a fundamental driver of value to attract users. Resiliency, rather than efficiency, becomes the model for architectural decision making. It is through this mindset that we arrived at our 2021 concept for an urban Open Air Office Building (OAOB) shown below.

Image: Primary Circulation Diagrams — Traditional v. Open Air Office Building

While we enjoy research, we love building our ideas and resilient ideas can be expensive because they require a certain amount of redundancy. For this reason, instead of having one lobby, one hallway and one elevator pathway for daily use and two independent exit stairs for episodic emergency use, we chose to integrate all five of these elements into one unified open air circulation system that wrapped the outside of the building. The cost savings that could be gained through this integration required a study of the code ramifications of a number of sizes and heights for our open air concept. In the end, we found that six stories was really the sweet spot of both performance and economics. Enough density for many commercial contexts, but short enough to allow us to integrate the primary circulation system with the exit stairs.3 At six stories, we also found ourselves in the good company of the urban fabric of historic Paris, Barcelona and SoHo’s Flatiron district. Potentially more importantly, unlike suburban office parks, six-story developments such as our Open Air Office Building still provide enough density of human activity to get the most out of the workspace. The OAOB is an urban building typology meant for dense neighborhoods where people want to connect. Because ultimately users come into their office building to connect with other users.

With that, I leave you with some words of wisdom from the 1989 classic film The War of the Roses. In it, Michael Douglas’s character is frantically trying to hold onto his wife and failed marriage by maintaining control of the house where they raised their kids. Danny Devito, his best friend and (conveniently) his divorce lawyer, pleads with him to let the house go. Unfortunately Devito’s wisdom is not enough to carry the day. After a particularly pregnant pause, Douglas looks at his friend with pure madness in his eyes and conclusively proclaims “I got more square footage.” It is then that we know Douglas’s character is lost. His end will be tragic. He is measuring what doesn’t matter and has lost sight of the humans who had made his life whole. Let’s learn from the Roses and measure what we value.

1Workplace studies show that typically at least 40% of the design occupancy is not in the building and up to another 20% is working in a non-designated location and may or may not be in the building. Sources JLL Occupancy and Planning Trend Report 2019-2020 page 5, DEGW Report The Impact of Change 2010, page 4

2Mandavilli, Apoorva “Experts Urge Strict Workplace Air Quality Standards, in Wake of Pandemic” The New York Times, May 17 2021 – link

3 Per California Building Code, CBC 2019 1027.2, exterior exit stairs are not permitted in buildings that are more than 6 stories above grade plane even if they don’t fall into high-rise territory due to height.

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