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Sunday, 23 June 2013 22:00

Outside Work: Designers study role of outdoor workspaces in development, corporate culture

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The Outdoor Office exhibition by Jonathan Olivares examined how outdoor furniture might be used for individual and group work spaces. While companies have a good handle on designing indoor office space for today’s mobile workers, they have not paid much attention to how those same workers might use space outside the walls of their office buildings. Olivares presented on his findings about the Outdoor Office at this year’s NeoCon furniture expo in Chicago. The Outdoor Office exhibition by Jonathan Olivares examined how outdoor furniture might be used for individual and group work spaces. While companies have a good handle on designing indoor office space for today’s mobile workers, they have not paid much attention to how those same workers might use space outside the walls of their office buildings. Olivares presented on his findings about the Outdoor Office at this year’s NeoCon furniture expo in Chicago. COURTESY PHOTO

While developers focus on how the insides of their buildings function, they’ve mostly ignored the premium outdoor space that surrounds their properties.

Luckily, furniture and industrial designers, having spent decades perfecting indoor environments, are starting to show the value proposition of an outdoor office concept.

The topic was addressed at this year’s NeoCon, the annual contract furniture industry exposition in Chicago.

Over the years, companies concentrated on how work is accomplished within an office, but as mobile technology developed, workers today no longer need to be tied down to their offices. But while companies have focused on new office designs to accommodate the mobile workforce, they haven’t paid the same attention to spaces outside of the office buildings.

“The moment you go outdoors, the value proposition of space goes flat on its face,” said Kirt Martin, vice president of design and marketing at Kalamazoo-based Landscape Forms Inc. “Inside, we know what the value proposition of a space is down to the square foot. All this usable space is only inches away, but a lot of times, outdoor space is overlooked and people often shrug their shoulders when looking at how to use it.”

While outdoor spaces have never risen to the same priority as indoor offices, more developers, property owners and building managers are starting to realize the potential in offering a range of compelling work environments, including those outside of their buildings.

“A lot of times, corporate culture doesn’t believe work could be done outside,” Jonathan Olivares, founder of Los Angeles-based Jonathan Olivares Design Research, said during a presentation at NeoCon. “Obviously, not all work can be done outside, but the question is: What kind of work can be, and how can we design to that practice?”

While the idea might not seem practical for a company in Michigan because of the range of seasons, Olivares maintains the outdoor office concept has value and merit. He received a grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts in 2011 to study the subject.

Most outdoor space and furniture is designed around leisure and entertainment, but with rising interest in alternative work environments, increased mobility and a greater emphasis on collaboration, there is a potential in the untapped outdoor office market, he said.

The outdoor environment at office buildings is often simply a gray space that occurs immediately outside the building, and it’s seen as the place where landscape architects take control. Building owners treat landscape furnishings as somewhat of an afterthought and are satisfied by placing simple benches and lighting around the campus, said Martin of Landscape Forms.

“The furniture and space right outside of office buildings is underutilized,” Martin said. “It’s not necessarily about work, but all the things that go with it: concentration, communicating, collaborating or just taking a break.”

An effective outdoor office concept is more than a single product or furniture system, Martin said. It must take into account the company’s ultimate goals for the space, he said.

“To me, there has to be more to the story,” he said. “What’s really the higher level of thinking here? As an employer, it would be nice to provide more options to employees. The modern day office has to be a place where you go to find best resources and best accommodations. This (concept) may be more about how to treat employees.”

This type of thinking lends itself directly to how companies can look at their talent attraction and retention goals and has a great deal to do with the culture of a company, he said.

“It goes back to offering variety,” Martin said. “For (Landscape Forms), it’s about creating new meaning and not necessarily taking the old typology and placing it outdoors.”
Olivares is aware there are a number of holes when it comes to addressing the practicality and viability of the outdoor office concept. Inevitable bad weather, safety, time of use, IP security and distinguishing between what’s considered public and private infrastructure are all challenges to the idea.

“Green space in a corporate setting is almost never used,” Olivares said, noting that he’d like to see designers develop outdoor spaces that fit into the growing trend for collaboration and coworking. “What was considered fringe (thinking) can quickly become mainstream.”

The concept of the outdoor office, while focusing on work, is likely more about behaviors and developing product solutions that encourage a multitude of behaviors, Martin said.

Both Knoll and Herman Miller launched new outdoor furniture collections last year, and while they weren’t intended specifically for working, the lines could be adapted for use in an outdoor workspace.

Landscape Forms recently launched a new product, Parallel 42, that’s designed to activate public space through applications that support a range of outdoor activities, including work.

“The product is intended to spark social interactions in both formal and informal and planned and unplanned ways — all in public spaces,” Martin said. “It’s perfect for laying out space that supports work areas that are both individual or collaborative all in the out of doors.”

While there are obvious issues with making the outdoor office viable, Martin said Olivares’ study is integral to keeping the design profession on an innovative path.

“I’m not looking to do more of the same. I’m hoping to create new products not seen yet,” Martin said. “If you’re a good designer, you shouldn’t be compelled by what the last guy did. It’s about finding latent opportunity and advancing the profession. That’s really right and really exciting.”

Read 7304 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:01

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