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Designing high-performance workplaces with algorithms

Designing high-performance workplaces with algorithms

Ulrich Blum, associate architect and co-head of Workplace at Zaha Hadid Architects, reveals the procedures and processes the firm follows to design high-performance workplaces

High-performance workspace, Workspace design, Designing with algorithms, Zaha Hadid Architects, Ulrich Blum, Mega-floors, Large scale office floors


Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and the practice’s work has been iconic for their design approach. Its adeptness in integrating technology at every stage and process involved in the design and executions of projects, has catapulted the practice as one of the best in the world today. Ulrich Blum, associate architect and co-head of Workplace at ZHA, sheds light on how the firm modulates and designs workplaces as well as deploys algorithms to create high-performance working environments.


Ulrich Blum, associate architect and co-head of Workplace at ZHA.

Changing phase
Giving a context to designing efficient workspaces, Blum explains the changing nature of work and businesses across the world. He emphasises that this transformation has been occurring in the past decade driven by the war for talent and the start-up culture. He states that it is not productive anymore to be working in 2mx2m boxes along triste corridors. Given that data exchange and cross-pollination of information is imperative for businesses today, the reach and the stipulated working zone for every employee has grown multifold; the workplace it no longer limited to just the desk. Blum asserts, “It’s time to shed away the cubicle and the notion of a uniform work style and embrace the age of diversity and connectivity.”

Companies would initially consider employees interacting away from their desks as nonobservance of the disciplinary norm. However, today, in complete contrast, breakout spaces, informal zones, etc, are considered essential within the office landscape to encourage such interactions. “Socialising is now established as the new productive medium of exchanging and processing information. Imbibed with diversity and different work cultures, offices in themselves have become a thriving ecosystem,” states Blum.

The advent of ‘super-floors’
Technology has entirely changed the way contemporary workplaces function. Bringing down physical barriers, office building floors today are getting larger and larger. Majority of office buildings around the world constitute a typical 60mx60m tower with 2,500sqm usable area per floor. “We see a worldwide tendency that organisations are looking at larger floor plate sizes. We currently work on office structures with ‘mega-floors’ that scale up to 20,000sqm to 50,000sqm. These super floors contain anywhere between 2,000-5,000 inhabitants. Every single floor is treated and operated like a city in itself,” elaborates Blum, citing the firm’s ongoing Sberbank project in Moscow.


Each floor of the Sberbank Technopark building contains anywhere between 2000 to 5000 inhabitants.

He also states, “There are then the ‘giga-floors’ that scale up from 50,000sqm to 100,000sqm with an occupancy of almost 5,000-10,000 employees per floor. Today workplaces are like organised communities that can enable large-scale operations.”

The firm is working on some massive projects in China, where they have floors that are 400m wide and two kilometres long. Blum quips that it takes almost half an hour to get from one end to another and that employees might have to use electrical scooters to traverse through such expansive floorplates. One such project is the Unicorn Island project in China, which is designed to attract international creative start-ups of all sizes.

The Unicorn Island project in China, which is designed to attract international creative start-ups of all sizes, has floors that are 400m wide and two kilometer long.

Pillars of workplace design
With one of the largest portfolios in the world, designers and architects at ZHA have explored design processes for projects of varying scales and typologies. Through this journey, the practice has realised that when it comes to office building design, visual connectivity is one of the most crucial aspects. “Collaboration and connection are two of the biggest driving forces for the present and the future of workplace design. It’s about visibility that can aid visual connection and shared experiences. Flexibility is another important factor. A stagnant and monotonous workspace drastically hinders productivity in a fast changing world. A successful workspace needs to constantly adapt to the changing work cultures and operations, while providing diversity for today’s organisations. Workspace design has moved away from merely addressing the business aspects of the organisation to becoming more people-centric.”

Putting algorithms to work
With the innumerable factors that go into designing large offices, ZHA has deployed technology at its best to develop various permutations and combinations of work floors that address connectivity, movement, flexibility, etc. The firm has an in-house tool that studies hundreds and thousands of different layouts for viability. This tool analyses parameters like light penetration, views, visibility and movement of people within these spaces and helps identify the best possible solutions for a hyper connected workplace.

The image shows an algorithm that automatically tests thousands of design options to find the best possible solutions for a floor plan in terms of visibility and light penetration.

Research by MIT professor Thomas J Allen found that communication frequency across the office floor rapidly decreases with distance. The ease of conversation between employees next to each other is extremely high. This reduces when it’s with someone on the desk opposite and further diminishes to individuals eight meters away and is completely absent beyond the distance of 24m. Integrating these figures into their work, ZHA measures communication and collaboration statistics of every desk and creates the most efficient layout with the best possible seating positions. Furthermore, in order to facilitate communication between individuals who are seated within a walking distance of 24m, ZHA devises layouts which enable the maximum number of people to be close to each other without being crammed in.


ZHA measures communication and collaboration statistics of every desk to create the most efficient layout with the best possible seating positions.

“Our analysis shows that members of the senior management are often placed in corner offices and are the ones who are the most disconnected. This says a lot about how communication problems in many organisations are caused by spatial configurations. ZHA’s Analytics tools help shape the interior architecture of a space to influence the behaviour and communication channels across the floor. We have been successful in increasing communication ability by 5% in some of our projects, by eliminating the sharp corner of the building cores,” avers Blum.

Linear layouts versus fluid floorplans


The geometry of spaces and furniture have an influence on the way people interact, connect and communicate.

Blum further states that the geometry of spaces and furniture have an influence on the way people interact, connect and communicate. He explains with a simple example of a rectangular dinner table where only the head of the table has a good overview; whereas all the others are limited to talk to the ones next to them or the person sitting opposite. In comparison a circular table enables everyone to visually connect and to communicate equally.The above image show how feasible communication can be increased from 7 to 12 by merely repositioning the desks.

“We found that more organic layouts had a 10% higher communication rate as the distance is 10% shorter, despite the same density. We also looked at the scale of the furniture. We realised that while we could seat seven people within eight metres in one layout, we could get 12 people within the same distance by pulling the desks apart. With our analytical tools, we can study and predict how well a space can be serviced and the potential effects of wrong positioning.”


ZHA found that more organic layouts had a 10% higher communication rate as the distance is 10% shorter, despite the same density.

Other than verbal communication, visual connectivity is another major factor that is considered in the design of a workspace at ZHA. “It’s important how many people one can actually see from a desk. In many centre core towers, the elevator core hinders visibility so much that people can never see more than 50% of their co-workers. People barely know their colleagues on the other side of the core. We often design workspaces around large atriums so that office workers are not only better visually connected to people on their own floor but also see co-workers across the atrium. It is all about the shared experience of working together. We have an algorithm that evaluates the benefits of this. It shows the least optimal to the most visually connected desks on the floorplan — from 25%, 50 % or even 75% visual connectivity rate. We colour code the designed spaces accordingly and if possible the plans are then modulated further.”

ZHA has an algorithm that displays and evaluates the least optimal to the most visually connected desks on the floorplan.

Many employees like to sit beside the window or by the facade, which connects them with the world outside. In order to make sure that a window area is leveraged to the maximum and every desk has the maximum possible view, another tool measures view quality. All these algorithms enable us to determine the quality of the space from every aspect and accordingly relate it to other necessary data. The firm has recently developed density-adjustable furniture that can be adjusted as per necessity, to create flexible workspace.

Equipped with data an algorithm can lay out furniture depending on criteria such as different work tasks, light levels, visibility, distance to the entrance or amenities, etc.

Creating people-centric spaces
The firm’s projects are increasingly equipped with sensors to map the quality of air, light, temperature, occupancy patterns, etc. It’s a common observation in offices that different employees prefer different environmental qualities. Some people feel hot where others freeze, some prefer busy areas while others prefer privacy. To give people the environment that suits their needs, sensor data supports employees with the insights on the quality of their desk space, so that they can find the desk that best suits their preferences. Equipped with data, an algorithm can lay out furniture depending on criteria such as different tasks, light levels, visibility, distance to the entrance or amenities, etc. Increasingly workspaces are not only flexible but also address personal preferences and choices of each employee.


The firm’s projects are increasingly equipped with sensors to map the quality of air, light, temperature, occupancy patterns etc.

“The worldwide web constantly records data on the sites visited by a user, and accordingly charts its advertisements. People are getting used to websites and apps understanding their preferences, likes and dislikes. Platforms like Netflix analyse consumption patterns and past interests of viewers to suggest and predict what they’d like to watch next. The question then is why can’t buildings and work desks do the same? The data from sensors sheds light on how the spaces are used, the activities that happen in and around specific zones, etc. Building managers too can then action out necessary changes accordingly.”

Once a project is completed, the firm undertakes a survey to understand if the employees like the space, their desks, the colours, which areas are more popular and which aren’t. “We then analyse the report and update the data to our systems to continually improve our workplace designs, because it is the spaces that make really the difference,” explains Blum.

Many architects and designers complete a project and never really come back to analyse their performance. ZHA’s vision has been to monitor and study their buildings as time progresses and understand how its design works, if the building is able to adapt to changing work styles, etc.

The firm has recently developed density-adjustable furniture modules that can be adjusted as per necessity, to create flexible workspace.

“Buildings of the future will need the capacity to process data; a building that does not generate and collect data will soon be considered an incomplete structure that doesn’t live up to its full potential. Buildings of the future will need to be more than just the hardware we put together today. They will need to seamlessly integrate with smart software and sensors and be equipped to meet their inhabitants’ preferences and desires and changing requirements.

In order to become high performance workplaces, buildings have to constantly predict, adapt and fine tune themselves. Therefore, office buildings will need to be able to communicate with its users, managers and operators in many ways, and form a complex communication network with all its parts (like furniture, doors, windows). Analysing and monitoring data constantly and accordingly taking necessary action is the only way a one can maximise the potential of a building while simultaneously improving the quality of the workspace and the wellbeing of its inhabitants,” concludes Blum.

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