What do you miss when you’re home working?
There are two big things. One is a sense of space and volume because in the office the ceilings are 4.5 metres high and the windows are huge. I think you feel more calm and relaxed when you’re in a space with high ceilings and natural light.
The other thing is perspective. When you’re in a small room you're never looking at anything more than about 2.5 metres away – 3.0 metres at most – and that sense of confinement, that lack of depth of field, somehow isn’t cognitively healthy.
Houses haven’t traditionally been designed with eight hours of sitting at a desk in mind. So there often isn’t enough continuous natural light throughout the day, and I think everybody has probably suffered a little bit from trying to figure out where to put the computer in relation to windows so you can see out, see to work and don’t have light behind you for zoom calls.
How can architects help raise the bar for residential projects so that working from home becomes easier and more comfortable?
This is something my practice has been working on since 2007, starting with Newhall Be. Every home in that scheme has a home office facing the street, a kind of shopfront. In virtually all our higher-density residential projects we’ve been convincing our clients to conceive of foyers as co-working spaces. Ornamental foyers are a complete waste of space. When working remotely you don’t always want to work in your flat – you want to have access to a different kind of space with more volume, different perspectives. You can achieve that with the ground floor of an apartment block. It’s a relatively neutral territory where people can hold meetings, activating the street and enjoying a shared space with natural surveillance.
It’s about leaving behind the mindset that a residential building is only for residential uses. It’s actually not, it’s now an office building with people living in it or it's a building containing the potential of tons of start-ups. Economic and cultural life can be nurtured within urban, residential buildings – but it’s unacknowledged at the moment.
So, what you’re saying is that the property industry needs to shift. Do you see this happening?
We’re in the midst of several high-density projects. Although all of them include our concept of ‘working foyers’ we’re still thinking, ‘Shouldn’t we be planning these homes differently?’ Everything is still based on the historic standards of space, market value and all the conventions of developer housing – whether it’s affordable or for market rent or sale. With the current London housing design standards, there’s just not enough space for new homes to have workspace that is amenable and professional looking.
But I think the market will shift and people will demand more space, more volume, better light and more communal spaces. People want active spaces and places where they feel they’re participating – as well as a neighbourhood life that’s local and people feel they belong to. The Victorians had it right in so many ways. They had a much more diverse approach on how to make a neighbourhood work.
Yes, it’s interesting that home working isn't really new at all!
I think people forget that we’ve really only had mass mobility for 100 years tops. The industrialised city as we know it has only been in existence for around 150 years, and before industrialisation people’s work and their communities and neighbourhoods were much more tightly knit and integrated. This idea of commuting and driving and segregating domestic life from work life – from productive life – is a relatively recent model, and it comes with many costs in terms of time, carbon, alienation. In a way the pandemic has focused everybody on this situation we’ve got ourselves into through intense urbanisation and strict segregation of activities.
People are demanding change, not just in terms of the workplace but generally. Does this make you optimistic about the future?
The best thing to come out of the pandemic is just seeing that mass change is possible and that actually we can break old habits. We don’t have to do things we thought were absolutely essential, and we can do things we never thought we’d do. I’m a huge advocate of change. I think breaking out of our conventions is something that everybody acknowledges is a result of the pandemic. It has also, of course, highlighted inequity of wealth and health, the environment, ecology and all of these patterns of behaviour that we’ve been a part of for the last 150 years. We have to change on so many different levels, and I think there’s an optimism that’s bubbling under the surface where maybe everybody’s starting to think, ‘Okay, we can look forward to the future because we are going to make changes’.
The Davidson Prize chose home/work at its inaugural theme because we think the working from home revolution will endure long after the pandemic has receded. How would you approach the WFH challenge?
I don’t think of the home in isolation. For me housing is always related to urban design – you can’t design housing without also designing the public space or the street. How housing relates to the street is a very important type of civic gesture. I’d like to think about the way homes contribute to the life of the street, the public realm, the way new homes can help create the sense of a working neighbourhood.
If we’re all going to be working from home a lot more, which I think we are (and which is a good thing in many ways), we have to think about the whole urban condition. Does this work-from-home space contribute to the life of the street, or is it only about escape to a garden? How does the home as workplace set up a relationship to the context around it? I think volume is a really important question, and how volumetric space connects to other spaces in the home. Is the workspace near the front door for deliveries or meetings, do you make the front hall into a co-working meeting space with an office beside it and position living spaces at the back? I think it's a super interesting question.
Alison Brooks is an award-winning architect and a judge of The Davidson Prize.