The Indicator: My Head is in the Cloud Office

  • 15 Dec 2010
  • by
  • Misc
Photo, Guy Horton

Recently, I have been thinking about what would happen if you just removed the physical presence of the office from the profession of architecture. A firm would simply be a network of people scattered all over the place who came together as needed. This is what I call the cloud office.

Given the technology and the economy, there are many start-ups who can’t afford the overhead of a real office. Many of the ones I have heard of operate out of apartments, coffee houses—wherever they can get free wifi. They may not realize it but their economic limitations have placed them on the cutting edge of business culture. In fact, larger, more established firms could learn a lot from recent grads with laptops and smart-phones.

More after the break.

This is on the heels of some forward-thinking strategies that other business industries are adopting. For example, issuing laptops for telecommuting and instituting flex-time are just a few. This saves on wasting money on lease-space, for one. But suggestions such as these to architecture firms seem to cause inordinate reactions. Jaws drop. Heads fly off shoulders.

The idea is not to completely give up the concept of a centralized office. This would still exist, but it would be more like a truck stop or an airport lounge. Personnel would flock there and plug in. This would also be the base for support staff—whom would also enjoy the benefits of telecommuting and flex-time. Because people would cycle in and out, the office could be smaller. People would be in constant contact from remote locations.

Photo, Guy Horton

These strategies can do more than simply introduce cost-saving measures; they raise moral questions. How? Because they are based on a higher degree of autonomy, flexibility, connectivity, and trust. It’s an approach that envisions how employees can most effectively accomplish their goals without micro-managing supervision.

One example that follows this model? The University of California, where one might imagine that the constant presence of staff is a foregone necessity. The truth is that many departments throughout the different campuses not only offer flex-time for their staff (not just the faculty), but also allow telecommuting. Why? Because they understand that effectiveness and efficiency are not place-bound.

The modernist reliance on penning employees within an office has not solved the problems of productivity many architecture firms are so concerned about. People surf the web and they search for distractions around the coffee machine/kitchen, as well as other people’s desks. Surreptitious visits to the bathroom turn into prolonged conversations on cell phones in the corridors. Texting occurs under the not-so-subtle cover of desks.

Indeed, many studies have shown that people cannot concentrate on the same task for more than twenty minutes. That’s right, twenty. After that, the mind needs a break, which it will automatically enforce through a conversation with one’s neighbor or a little furtive web-surfing. Wouldn’t it be better to allow the flexibility of, for example, telecommuting once or twice a week, in an atmosphere one feels comfortable with and enjoys? Those breaks would still be taken, but in a comfortable setting that, counter-intuitively to most management, would actually encourage better work productivity.

Photo, Guy Horton

Because as it is now, about the only things people can do for necessary shifts in attention and productive distraction are look on the internet or go outside. You did read that correctly. Productive distraction. I just coined that term. It’s the necessary distraction that contributes to creativity by allowing the mind to engage in other tasks, before returning to the original task. These moments of turning away facilitate creativity and provide the mind the diversity of activity it requires to maintain a high-level of sharpness. So, it is actually good for your brain to close your CAD window for a few minutes and read an article like this on the web, or listen to music, or get up and do some tai chi in front of your co-workers. In essence, by providing more diversity of experience beyond immediate work tasks, flex-time and telecommuting promote more and better productivity.

Business trips do not excuse one from working, and so why should employees be required to be office-bound the rest of the time? Branding exists as a symbol and image, not in the fixed location of those desolate pods of drab plywood/mdf cubicles many firms seem to favor.

Architects are supposedly more creative. Isn’t it time they embrace different, more flexible approaches that have proven successful in other business sectors? One example of a possible direction is CASE, a practice consultancy based in New York. In partnership with IDEO, SHoP Architects, Arup, The New Building Institute, and Columbia University, they have come up with BLDG 2.0, an open-source platform for mass collaboration to verify design performance. While this “collaborative infrastructure” is focused on sustainability and building performance, it isn’t too far of a stretch to envision something like this working at the level of design or construction documents.

Many firms already have the infrastructure in place to adopt a cloud office model. Again, not totally abandoning a physical space, but being less reliant on it or innovating a new type of space based on more flexibility and movement.

[Many thanks to my #1 editor, Sherin Wing for bringing this piece back from the brink!]


, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: My Head is in the Cloud Office" 15 Dec 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=96696>

16 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    the cloud office tangles architecture and digital interface into a symbiotic system. we need spaces which optimize access to virtual worlds while stimulating productive distractions. the design of public space becomes increasingly important: airports, plazas, malls, parks… and on the flip side, design of web software will evolve in tandem, making use of such spaces more common practice.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    All digital. No paper. No sketches. No pencil. We eventually lose the touch that all the great architects we admire had. And replace it with a mouse or a pad. Dont like it. Its inevitable, but i still dont like it.

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      next generation of architects will admire us for our abilities on the computer… simply a way to translate vision and a tool which enables new discourse within the discipline.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        Next generation of architects will have next generation of computers and with them, next generation skills…Dont think we will be a factor, they will have no need to admire us. Cause what we did, they can do better, which is something we cant boast about to our predecessors. The hand has been rendered useless. By a machine that will constantly evolve and produce better and better, forgetting what was before.

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      No one said you can´t use your preferred mediums to resolve your design issues in the comfort of your own home or anywhere else for that matter. We need to learn to work with current and future technology and not loose touch with our past roots. It is in this balance we find harmony.

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        Without getting to philosophical about this, what Guy is proposing is essentially an architectural firm that can practice in transit. Not really tied down to one spot. But all over, remote. Try moving around with a scanner. See how that works for you. Itll be easier to use the laptop and just plug in at the nearest wifi spot. its tailored for technology. Im just thinking out loud here, i use tech everyday…most days its hand though.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    The other day I was on site, had a look at a detail junction, went to the cafe next door and did a freehand pencil sketch on a bit of paper, went back and gave it to the builder who then built it.

    Does that count as futuristic working?

  4. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    The major problem I see with this type of approach is based in the need of design employees to interact with one another. Most lunches include some discussion of the problems that arise from the project that the designer is currently working on. While these discussions may not be on company time, they are an integral part of the work done by designers. Even detailing needs this interaction. Every well-designed, large project has some detail that the designer working on the project may not have seen before. Discussions with other employees quite often provide a solution where none previously existed.

    Also, architecture firms have varying levels of experience. While the most experienced employee may not need creative interaction as much as the least experienced employee – an intern or a recent graduate – that most experienced employee will provide the instruction that is not provided prior to work experience. After all, architecture is a field that is still learned with an apprenticeship type of structure. Before a graduate or intern can take the NCARB and become an architect they must be supervised by licensed architects.

    This does not even touch of the vast physical resources required for our profession, such as reference books and the ability to print, or the need to hold client and consultant meetings.

    This idea does not work for any architecture firm beyond a start-up.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Our firm, solus4, is formed to the principals that you have pointed out. In the current architectural paradigm, it is what have you done for me lately — so we are organized to bring maximum expertise to each project based on a collective of what we call “key collaborators.” We are a collaborative model on a global platform and our partners have been working together in one form or another for 40 years or more. It makes for great adventures and great projects.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Realizing that my previous response will more than likely not make the responses, here is a more thorough response to why this idea will not work.

    Yes, technology is getting better, but with that software is improving and the cost of this equipment is also rising. I don’t know of many firms that will be issuing $1200-$2000 laptops to drafting (the bottom of the barrel) employees with $5000 CAD software with $1200 Adobe suites to do production from random locations without being able to monitor progress and quality. This investment alone will deter most start ups from evening attempting to take advantage free wifi, which would be the lowest cost in their expense budget.

    Also, there is the difference in how laptop and desktop architecture handles taxing software such as CAD programs. Having freelanced for a while, my laptop at the time was top of the line, and it still couldn’t compete with older desktop computers. With that alone, the amount of production time lost in opening files makes working in an office atmosphere with the costs if the principals are looking to be efficient and continue to go after large and prestigious clients.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Telecommuting was a hot topic in the nineties before the burst of the IT bubble. Back then it was more talk, more drafting of futuristic scenarios like the “24-hour office” than any real, business-oriented proposals. The ideas were there, the technology – not yet. What’s happening now is the formation of the technological environment that will allow ‘remote collaboration’ to become a widely accepted strategy. We all know about the current outsourcing of drafting and rendering work. There are less and less reasons why design work shouldn’t follow. What telecommuting will do is to redefine the term “employee”.

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