Hackable workspaces - our past, present and future

Last year Facebook opened a new 434,000 sf office in Silicon Valley's Menlo Park. Designed by Frank Gehry and dubbed Building 20 it's address is One Hacker Way. That may sound like a pretty normal address, but dig a little deeper into the history of computer science and you'll find that this choice of address is not so arbitrary after all.

Before Facebook's Building 20 there was another 'workplace' of the same name and it was associated with many significant breakthroughs in modern scientific research. The original Building 20 was on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass. Hurriedly built during WWII as a temporary space to foster enhanced scientific discovery, the building was constructed from low cost materials using low cost methods.

It's temporary nature (it was never officially named) meant that it's occupants treated it with a degree of irreverence and felt empowered to modify it as necessary to suit their immediate needs. If cable needed to be run to an adjacent room the occupants would simply drill a hole in the plywood dividing wall themselves.

The space allowed for a degree of scientific creativity and experimentation that is not typically possible in a traditional office building. It was thus an incubator space for rapid technological advancement and would be considered one of the first and most important 'hackable' buildings of the 20th century.

I think it [Building 20] is a place where things start. We started all sorts of aspects of things. ...you not only start things but you also start [them] with a certain independence of mind. It's this attitude that I think you should look for in a place....

Building 20 was demolished in 1998 but it's legacy lives on at One Hacker Way where Mark Zuckerberg has adopted the same flexible layout and utilitarian palette of finishes to create a truly hackable office space (albeit one designed by a celebrity architect).

Casual meeting areas are set off from the open plan by squares of plywood hanging from the ceiling, a visual “under construction” reference meant to reinforce the company’s ethos. Facebook even spent money to expose its networking wires, which dangle along the ceiling.

Staff at Facebook's Building 20 are also used to furniture moving around on a regular basis and without warning - the management believes that this approach stimulates change and innovation.

The hacker movement has recently been extended to the mass market and there are now furniture systems such as Herman Miller's Metaform which allows users to easily modify and customize their workspace with open source 3D printed accessories; and Vitra's Hack that takes the utilitarian look of OSB plywood and combines it with some awesome Swiss engineering to create a foldable modular and mobile workstation with built in sit/stand capability.

Employees are increasingly demanding choice as to how and where they work and with these types of flexible space and furniture it will become easier to personalize workspaces to suit the task or work mode that we are engaged in at any given moment. The workplace will no longer be designed to within an inch of it's life but will become more 'curated' space, with the designer taking the holistic overview while more individual work style choices are left up to the user.

"People didn't love this building for its beauty or its comfort, but for its flexibility. What we learned from Building 20's success was that we would need to provide modern services and technology without being rigid or constraining."

So 70 years after it was built and almost 20 years after it was demolished, Building 20's hacker ethos is alive and well and coming to a (former loft/warehouse/shed/industrial*) space near you.

*delete as applicable

Space at Work are specialists in workplace design. They take the time to understand their client's requirements and by asking the right questions and listening to the responses they provide solutions that incorporate best practices, current and emerging trends to create spaces that are agile, adaptive and ready to accept whatever change is around the corner. If you represent a forward thinking organization that wants to do things differently in your workplace then please get in touch. We're here to help.