Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Patterns in workspace design

With the designer workspace project in progress at KAZ, I was revisiting the principles for achieving the perfect design of workspaces. These patterns as they are formally called were the guiding light when we were planning the Nirvana (our office space). 

Software has patterns. Patterns are tried and tested ways of architecting systems that just work perfectly for a broad set of similar problems. Made famous by the gang of four (GOF) in the early 90s when they published their book Desgin patterns

Interestingly the idea of patterns comes not from software but from architecture. We all have felt that some buildings or houses just feels more comfortable from others. There are some places where an adda is always a good adda. The person who put this into concrete form was Christopher Alexander in his book The Timeless Way of Building.

Since I can’t possibly describe this better than the great guy himself, let me quote from the book itself:

“There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are. ”

As the quote sort of hints, the book was more philosophy than practical hints about the patterns. The next book was the practitioners handbook for the patterns – the analogy of the GOF book in architecture: A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. One of my all time favorites, this book is worth reading just for your soul.

Pattern Language Cover

Before being carried away let me pin down a few patterns that is very relevant to workspaces and that we are definitely consulting during the planning. All of the following are stolen from the great book.

Note that the numbers represent the pattern number used in the book (there were 253 catalogued). You can get a whole list of patterns here.

134 Zen View

If there is a beautiful view, don't spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition- along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms. 

135 Tapestry of Light and Dark

Create alternating areas of light and dark throughout the building, in such a way that people naturally walk towards the light, whenever they are going to important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, places of special beauty, and make other areas darker, to increase the contrast.  

146. Flexible Office Space

Lay out the office space as wings of open space, with free standing columns around their edges, so they define half-private and common spaces opening into one another. Set down enough columns so that people can fill them in over the years, in many different ways- but always in a semipermanent fashion.

152 Half-Private Office

Avoid closed off, separate, or private offices. make every workroom, whether it is for a group of two or three people or for one person, half-open to the other workgroups and the world immediately beyond it. At the front, just inside the door, make comfortable sitting space, with the actual workspace(s) away from the door, and further back.

183 Workspace Enclosures

Build each workspace an area of at least 60 square feet. Build walls and windows round each workspace to such an extent that their total area (counting windows at one-half) is 50 to 75 per cent of the total enclosure that would be there if all four walls around the 60 square feet were solid. Let the front of the workspace be open for at least 8 feet in front, always into a larger space. Place the desk so that the person working at it has a view out either to the front or to the side. If there are other people working nearby, arrange the enclosure so that the person has a sense of connection to two or three others; but never put more than eighth workspaces with view or earshot of one another.  

185 Sitting Circle

Place each sitting space in a position which is protected not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps to suggest the circle- not too strongly- with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many.   

250 Warm Colours

Choose surface colours which, together with the colour of the natural light, reflected light, and artificial lights, create a warm light in the rooms.  

252 Pools of Light

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can't have pools of light without the darker places in between.