Sometimes the best information comes from off-topic sources. When I was painting, I read the New York Review of Books more often than Art Forum. The principles of creative work are the same across the arts, but also different. Enough the same to transfer back and forth and enough off-topic to provide an intriguing side view. I came across a research study today in Fast Company that raised a side view about what is important in constructing living and working spaces—windows.
The study was done to advise investors in huge office buildings, not cohousing or neighborhood developments, but the principles are the same. The number one answer was “Can you see outside?” Any question that addresses the experience of a single person, the desired resident, will also be relevant to cohousing and neighborhood developments.
Taking Huge Risks
The study reported in Fast Company was conducted by the largest commercial real estate services company in the world. They advise investors on multi-billion-dollar office buildings so they have to be able to identify what makes an office building profitable. Office buildings house successful businesses. And successful businesses are dependent on happy employees, ones that stick around long-term. “What keeps employees around?” became the most important question they could ask.
The largest office and residential buildings in the world are now over 18 million square feet of floor space. Even unambitious buildings are approaching 100,000 square feet. An average construction cost is hard to calculate because it varies widely depending on location, quality, and detail. It can be $225 per square foot or $1,000 per square foot. But 18 million square feet of anything is very expensive and requires risking a lot of money. (Calculating the investment and finance charges just fried my calculator and I got lost in the zeros doing on paper.)
Let’s just accept the argument that financing a large building is a big deal. First, you have to invest all your capital or all the capital you can borrow—or both. And then find a large number of other investors who will do the same thing. Then everyone has to hold their breath to see if anyone will buy or rent space, or enough space. Even if the office market remains strong with enough jobs and a busy economy the occupants have to be happy to remain in the building. Once the employers have made a commitment, the employees have to stay around long enough for the investors to be paid back or they lose their money.
So if you want to invest in big buildings, it is vitally important to understand what makes people happy. It’s the one thing you can control: the design.
Can you see outside?
Fifty-five percent of employees rated windows, the ability to see outside as the most important feature of a workplace. This was above the 44% for onsite food. Since employees spend the whole day in the office, it is reasonable to assume that the same desire applies to a living space. This is particularly true now during the pandemic when people are spending more time working from home.
In my cohousing community of 43 households, almost all are occupied by adults working at home for most of the day, most days of the week. Others are occupied by children and childcare workers. Adults are in their homes for far more daylight hours than they would be in their offices. Since the 1970s when countries began rescinding laws that required a husband’s permission for a woman to work outside the home, ~75-80% of all adults between the ages of 25 and 55 have been working outside the home for portions of the day.
The Effect of Windows in Home Design
Many jurisdictions require at least one window for a room to be classified as a room and most people take windows for granted in their homes. The size of the window or the quality of the view become points of comparison.
An example of the importance of windows I found in a documentary on apartments in Scandinavia. In one, the bedroom for two boys was slightly larger than their bunk beds. There was just enough space to walk into the room between the beds and a narrow window seat across from them. But the entire wall above the narrow seat was a window. The room was bright and airy. The experience was like that of a room as large as the open space you could see. The design maximized the enjoyment of the space with unusually large windows.
In Japan, the kitchen is often separate from the rest of the house in order to contain the steam that results from cooking rice and vegetables. Increasingly the separation is formed with glass— a window or a door or even a wall.
The ability to see outside can guide the placement of corners and be considered in creating sightlines. What about in the bathroom? The sleeping area? For entertaining?
What is the most important?
With limited resources, even if you have deliberately chosen to live with limited resources, the best design will result from understanding what is most important. What is most important can be forgotten even with unlimited resources.
Reference: “The one thing employees really want in a workspace” by Even Nicole Brown in Fast Company, January 2020.