By Ricky Wang - 24th April, 2020
Through its Think Tank speaking series, Metropolis Magazine brings together architecture firms and designers around the country to engage in conversations on the most important questions in design. Ennead Architects hosted a panel on the topic of data and research in workplace design. As passionate advocates for the use of research to create more human-centric workplaces, PLASTARC was honored to join the panel and to share our experience and knowledge.
In opening remarks, Metropolis Editor in Chief Avinash Rajagopal shared a story to illustrate that, although data is getting more abundant, interpretation has not necessarily become easier. He spoke of a WELL-certified company whose sensors sometimes showed elevated levels of formaldehyde in their office. After days of investigation, they could not identify the source before the peak levels of the chemical disappeared. To date, the mystery remains unsolved. Rajagopal noted that, even with the presence of sensors to collect quantitative data about seemingly straightforward metrics such as air chemistry, problems can still be difficult to solve. Decoding human behaviors presents an even greater challenge.
The four panelists brought distinct perspectives. Don Weinreich, Partner of Ennead Architects, shared his firm’s approach to research in the workplace from the designers’ perspective. He emphasized that it is critical to start by asking the right questions. In order to do that, they engage various perspectives with the aid of clients, internal teams, and consultancies like PLASTARC. The goal is to understand who the client is and what they do before attempting to explore what solutions they may need. As part of that investigation, Weinreich mentioned that it is especially challenging to understand workflow in a structurally complex organization that carries out complex tasks. Yet, this understanding is key because it provides insights into how space and human behavior interact.
PLASTARC Founder and Executive Director Melissa Marsh discussed how data extracted from multiple sources can be layered to create meaning. She emphasized that her team is always looking for conflicting data in their research and working to make sense of such conflicts. Often, these represent different perspectives that add meaning to each other, revealing insight that is greater than the sum of its parts. In response to a question about areas of workplace research that need further development, Marsh mentioned data literacy and the relationship between correlation and causation.
Darius Sollohub, author of Millenials in Architecture: Generations, Disruption and the Legacy of a Profession, brought a unique historical perspective. He spent 8 years studying longitudinal data about generational values and how they stack up in the 21st century. He discovered that the tone of a time period is usually set by those who are coming of age, which means that the millennials are influencing a lot of the societal values in the current age. Many trends, such as the popularization of flex spaces, are arguably driven by millennials. We see flex spaces in workplaces and in housing. Sollohub is interested in how academic environments will transform in the future.
Attendees also heard from Cindy Anzel, Associate Vice President, HR & Operations at the New York Stem Cell Foundation. She shared her learnings from a recent workplace transformation., emphasizing the value of experience in guiding the process, and the value of different kinds of data. While surveys are excellent sources, Anzel said, they do not offer the depth of a conversation with an individual.
The conversation closed on an optimistic note, with a focus on customization and the power of data to deliver it. This has applications beyond the workplace as well, including in humanitarian settings such as refugee camps. Building technology offers the means to make buildings that better serve their occupants through the judicious use of data.