True ABW Environments

I was fortunate to speak at the CUREM conference at the University of Zurich a couple of weeks ago – I love mixing travel with work, perhaps the topic of a future blog. One of my co-presenters, Itai Palti of UCL and Hume, made a point that struck a chord.


Itai basically said that workplace design is not just about providing the right spaces to facilitate the required work activities, but also about providing the right environmental conditions. I immediately thought of Activity Based Working (ABW) environments and realised I had not quite appreciated their design is much broader than the look of the different types of work settings in the space. And that is despite my research on psychoacoustics, highlighting how different tasks (and people) require different levels/types of sound.

I have occasionally criticised architects of “designing with their eyes” and not their ears etc but I have kind of fallen into the “ignoring the senses” trap myself. Obviously when recommending quiet booths/pods/rooms I specify that they need to have good acoustic screening, but I had not considered the other environmental factors. I realised my oversight when Itai suggested that in the eighties we focussed on providing good artificial light and in the naughties on natural light (which ties in nicely with the current wellbeing agenda and flooding offices with daylight), but he suggests in future we will focus on task related dosage, an alias for activity based dosage. In extreme cases, like air traffic control, the different light requirement is obvious but what about for more typical office work with spaces that need to facilitate screen activities versus more paper-based activities.


So, when designing ABW environments we need to provide a range of spaces to support and promote the required activities in the organisation. But we also need to ensure they have the appropriate environmental conditions (sound, light, temperature, air quality, colour etc) as well as looking great and having the right technology.

In most office feedback surveys, the two biggest causes of dissatisfaction are temperature and sound – or more specifically thermal comfort and noise. Rather than blame the engineers and architects for poor design, I propose that the real issue is that these two environmental conditions are the two psychophysicalfactors most sensitive to personal differences. The range of preferences by different occupants is exasperated in poorly designed (i.e. dense/crowded) open plan environments where there is less individual control. 

As a young researcher I explored adaptive comfort, particularly in the field of thermal comfort. Part of our innate survival instinct, and one reason for the success of our species, is that we can adapt to our surroundings or we can adapt our surroundings to us. For example, regarding thermal comfort, when too hot and given the choice we may i) change our clothing, ii) change our activities or reduce their vigour, iii) drink cold fluids, iv) move to a cooler spot, v) use a fan or window to increase create a breeze, vi) design the building to have cross-ventilation or passive stack cooling, vii) install or bring in air-conditioning etc. As intelligent animas, we are less likely to sit still and over-heat, unless of course we are prevented to implement the previous adaptive options. In and outside the office, we all have our favourite spots, ones that make us feel comfortable as well as supporting our activities and reflecting our mood. Unfortunately in many offices, we do not provide a range of spaces with different environmental parameters but design for the assumed average (often based on flawed data or assumptions) and we do not allow our workforce to select their workspace based on comfort (and the associated productivity).   

As mentioned in previous blogs, the answer is not to “ban” open plan because many organisations need to minimise their space costs, especially in central London and other European cities where the rent is ridiculously high. So, some quick solutions are as follows:
  • Acknowledge that office occupants have a wide range of comfort requirements and design for that range not the average. 
  • Zone the open plan into areas that better support specific activities, this may include areas that are cooler, warmer, quieter, buzzier, lighter, dimmer.
  • Provide the right proportion of spaces (and zones) that support different activities and empower/encourage staff to use those spaces as and when required.
  • Offer some personal control (or rather adaptation), for example headphones for noise and relaxed dress code for thermal comfort.
  • Introduce office protocols around temperature and noise etc, for example how the room temperature is agreed and selected, and acceptable noise levels from colleagues.
The last point could be supported through technology. Many years ago I helped to develop a system, called Democratic User Control of Zonal Temperature (DUCOZT), which determined the right temperature in open plan offices. Each time one occupant wanted to change the temperature a PC pop-up (dialogue box) would be sent to their immediate neighbours in that part of the office asking if they agreed to increasing or decreasing the temperature. If the majority wanted a change then a signal was automatically sent to the BMS and the temperature in that area of the building was changed accordingly. The occupants then received a feedback pop-up on the current and predicted temperature. 

Whilst a laudable idea, we didn’t get much uptake on DUCOZT – maybe the system was too costly and difficult to implement at the time, or maybe it was just a rubbish acronym! Perhaps it is time to revisit such a system for sound and light as well as temperature.

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