Talk to David Lessard – The Future is human-centric

The Future is Human-Centric – An Interview with David Lessard

David Lessard is co-Founder and Design Director at H+A, an architecture and interior design firm focused on hospitality, wellness and lifestyle residential design.

Does the incessant pace of digital transformation require regular, wholesale changes to the workspace, or is a slower, continuous evolution more attractive?
In short, neither. Wholesale changes are required in response to humanism, not digitalism. The digital transformations occurring in the workplace are an inevitable step towards technological progress – more pragmatic than innovative; in the same way roads eventually had to evolve from gravel horse carriage ways into high-speed paved surfaces for automobiles. As designers we can do almost nothing, and the digital transformation will nonetheless find a way in. It’s a problem being solved more by CTOs and IT professionals rather than designers.
It is more a product of coincidence than catalysts that in the last few years ‘wellness’ has found its way into the workspace; perhaps in part as a counter-measure to the endless hours of sitting facing a screen. But it also coincides with research on the effects of immobility, stress and lack of natural light. We have known since the 1950’s that such effects are detrimental to our health, but it has taken nearly 50 years for those things to become part of the architectural discourse. Today, they inspire discussions around sustainability and well-being through forums like LEED and WELL building standards. A majority of workplaces are not responding to such transformational needs, and it is essential that digital and human needs and requirements are being given equal attention. While technologies are tools that shape the workplace, they should not be the only medium that defines what the workplace looks like, no matter how ‘transformative’ they seem to be.

What are some of the unique contexts and constraints of an office that make it difficult or easy to manipulate?
When speaking in the context of shell-and-core, one must consider a multitude of constraints whilst also delivering a vision that is creative, innovative, functional, cost effective and efficient. All the while, it must represent the core ethos of the client or tenant. Sometimes this is within a boundary of 100m2 while other times it may be spread across 50,000m2. No matter the size, the workplace should be one of the most thoughtfully conceived environments. Any and all constraints must be balanced and in harmony.
To add another layer of complexity; workplaces are some of the most future-leaning spaces to approach as designers. The workplace is obsessed with the future, whereas other typologies such as hospitality and residential projects are perfectly content with being ‘of the time’ – if not more of the past; these are places where nostalgia is celebrated. Workplaces need to consider the impacts of technology and macroeconomic and societal pressures. The fear of not being able to adapt quickly enough to market demands may make them err on the side of being overly flexible; a context unique to the workplace, and something designers must respond to.

Do you think that designers need to become more specialized, more programmatic in their approach?
There is a need for designers to become more specialized – especially in workplace design – but also in healthcare, hospitality and residential projects. Why? Well, there is an increasing need to innovate in these types of environments, while also being able to deliver quickly and cheaply. There is a steep learning curve in architectural typologies, and when not afforded the time, one inevitably relies on established, proven ideas – minimizing risk while also stifling creativity. This all but ensures a lack of innovation. Only by becoming specialized, with a deep knowledge of the subject matter, can we ensure that the fundamentals of the workplace are addressed. It will also give us the time, space and budget to explore new ideas that set new standards for the future workplace.

Will design eventually become a commodity; a modular rather than turnkey solution?
Design is already a commodity – on many levels. The availability bias in our industry creates the impression that designers are compulsory on all projects, but this could not be further from the truth. Yes, when Apple commissions a new headquarters they seek out the masters of our time. They hope to create an architectural icon, backed by a bottomless budget and driven by a mission to set benchmarks for the future. But what about the vast majority of the world, comprised of small businesses who, statistically speaking, make up the lion’s share of global GDP?
Where designers can truly be relevant and make an impact is with SMEs in emerging markets –the untapped 80% who need to be convinced that a modular, commodity-led approach to workplace design doesn’t work. Finding a way for designers to make their services profitable yet cost-effective for business owners is the key challenge here. The economics around design and construction limit where we currently participate, but the future of the workplace rests on increasing client-designer collaboration while delivering financial returns for both.

Many seem to think that the office of the future will take on a far more transient existence than it does today. How must the spatial narrative adapt to remain relevant?
I would argue that over the last 50 years offices have been designed with the expectation that they will exist only temporarily in any given form. This phenomenon has been compounded by recent discussions around the future of work, centering on multiple careers, automation, high turnover, decentralized methods of production, and co-working trends. I find even some the most celebrated workplaces homogenous, repetitive and uninteresting, using the excuse of flexibility and transience as a way of not committing to specific ideas or innovations; but that’s a low-risk, low-reward approach.
As the fields of genetics, neuroscience and psychology continue to infiltrate the workplace, we designers can no longer take a generic, homogenous approach. Instead, we will need to find ways to design for the individual. The 21st century is a humanist age, charged with a wider understanding of how we work, communicate, socialize, and thrive. This will inspire the biggest change to the workplace narrative – even bigger than technology and automation – and that is why I think it should be dominating discussions on the future of work. The built environment shapes our emotions, behavior, and overall well-being. Equipped with this knowledge, how can we redefine shape, form, and material to promote higher forms of socializing, productivity and health? These are the key questions which at present are largely ignored and will define the character of the office of the future.

What should the office become once it loses its status as a day-to-day centre of business?
I disagree that offices will lose their day-to-day status as the center of business. Such a prediction is rooted in evidence. Companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google are growing, actively constructing new campuses and satellite offices all over the world. More flexible ways of working, combined with the emergence of AI and technology, are not synonymous with the end of the workplace or the central business district – it is quite the opposite. We need to remember that the G7 generates 40% of global GDP with only 10% of the world population. What will happen when the bottom 90% become more socially mobile, educated, and motivated to participate in the global economy? What happens when the UN’s prediction that half the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050 – which by their count will be nearly 5 billion people – becomes a reality?
As new economies are created, so will the demand for more work space – especially if you believe that the future economy will be knowledge-based. With that said, the growing population will inevitably necessitate a rise in manufacturing, transportation and food production. I am fully cognizant of the AI revolution and prediction that half the world’s jobs will be obsolete in the next 30 years. But self-driving cars, trucks, and manufacturing robots never occupied offices in the first place. It is people – not machines – that we will still need to design spaces and places for. The office is a social hub as much as it is commercial. Our innate biological desires will not be superseded by technology. We crave human contact and physical interaction and the workplace is one of the best places to satisfy such in-built desires, not only now, but in the future.

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