A building may be intended for its occupants, but the design of the structure and spaces within often suggests otherwise, with elements of functionality and flexibility that enhance the user experience often value-engineered out. This is a problem particularly in office environments, where employees' comfort can directly impact their work. Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, founder and CEO of New York–based design consultancy Plastarc, recently spoke with ARCHITECT about how a growing number of architects and clients are choosing to explore the social aspects of design, and how Plastarc's research for New York-based co-working startup WeWork reveals the importance of location and user-experience.
What is Plastarc?
Plastarc is a social research and design consultancy. The word "plastarc" is a contraction—or a portmanteau—of "plastic" and "architecture," and it plays on the definition of plastic, which is about flexibility. We believe that architecture can use social research to be flexible, dynamic, and better-suited to people. It all hinges on the intersection of social research and the built environment.
Why did you decide to start Plastarc?
The idea for Plastarc came about more than 10 years ago when I was completing my M.Arch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially it was a website, a digital portfolio, and a placeholder for research, my thesis, and other ideas. Working in architecture, engineering and business consulting in London and New York before and following graduation, I found my way to workplace strategy, which allowed me to pair my understanding of the physical environment and my interest in the design of organizations. I realized that my work in occupant experience, user research, and environmental design was not a piece or a subset of architecture interiors; it was a distinct discipline. In 2012, I saw a gap in the marketplace for independent and research-based advising, with a focus on social data and analytics—often-considered as being the softer side of design, or, the "people" side. That's when Plastarc became a company.
How do you determine what
makes a workspace user-friendly?
In a word: occupancy. We find that the most desirable places to work are the ones that are most highly occupied. This is more clearly the case in urban and public environments; it gets complicated in corporate environments, where you might say that people are paid to be at their desk, or at least to come to the office. However, this has started to change.
We have a kindergarten-science-project approach to things. First you make an observation—you see something in the world and wonder why it's happening that way. Could it happen differently? Often a client has already made that observation, but they haven’t figured out what to do about it. So the next thing we do is make some hypotheses and work with the client to think about what interventions might be used to change it. We sometimes borrow from the thinking of engineering or technology [companies] to consider what would be a fail-fast solution: How might we experiment with the current situation without embarking on a more elaborate architectural project? How might we simply reconfigure and reuse established social protocols or change the technology within the physical environment? We use social-research tools and architectural analytics. We also use data from within the client organization that might exist but the client doesn’t think of as information that would be useful to architecture.
How does WeWork fit into this?
The intersection of social, digital, and physical space is a topic of interest for us. WeWork, too, is about the social power of space. Their co-founder has referred to it as a “physical social network.” You have this social network that’s very powerful; it helps you sell your business; it’s very interconnected. There’s incredible opportunity in reinforcing that through physical space. In late 2012, we began research in WeWork's then-headquarters. A single WeWork location contains hundreds of companies, so from a research perspective, we saw the opportunity to prove the value of space and colocation. When we talk to business leaders about why they value WeWork and why they occupy space there, it includes things like knowing that their employee group has a social context when [the leadership is] out of the office. WeWork is also very smart about the locations they've selected. It lets many entrepreneurs find an address that they couldn’t afford otherwise. This power of location appears more significant to very small businesses than the real-estate market previously understood.
What companies are you working with?
We do work on both the East and West coasts, and the work we do with each is very different. On the East Coast, older, more mature companies are looking to change how they operate and are trying to find new ways of thinking but either don't know how or are trying and not getting it right. On the West Coast, we have fast-growing companies whose relationship between the space and their culture is more natural and the leaders think about space as critical. Maybe they don’t have standards, or tracking mechanisms, or ways to scale and organize the way they’re thinking about real-estate—or they have it right in one office, but now they need to expand [their presence]. So we serve clients at different stages in their own business development, and what you might consider opposite business problems on these two coasts.
What are the key aspects of traditional office layouts?
The design of the physical environment is very important. However, the social or human requirements are often overlooked. When you’re sitting at a desk in an architecture office drawing a built space, it’s easy to get disconnected from the whole social system in which that space operates. We're putting those pieces back together and recognizing that the physical environment, the digital environment, and the social environment can't operate independently. Thus, they can't be redesigned independently.
This interview has been edited and condensed.