Rohan Silva is on a mission to change the way we work.
But Silva isn’t an architect, a designer, or an urban planner. He’s a government wonk. He’s spent the last seven years as the senior policy advisor to David Cameron, where he started Tech City in 2010, designed to support the emerging technology cluster in East London. Complementary to the tech city initiative, he worked on increasing the number of entrepreneur visas handed out, while introducing tax breaks for angel investment to help drive growth and unlock capital for young companies. In short, Silva’s been one of the driving forces behind London’s growth in tech.
As Silva worked on policy, he started thinking about “how cities and buildings might support lifestyles, health, and well-being.” This was perhaps inevitable, as he was helping to expand London’s eastern Shoreditch neighborhood, a previously industrial area with a famous fruit and vegetable market, into a new, hip business district.
“The tool set policy makers tend to use are kind of traditional,” he says. “I always thought there were a broader set of tools, one of them being design.”
It was that line of thinking that led Silva to co-found a new kind of work space, Second Home. The way Silva sees it, we generally don’t build nature into our living and work spaces, and it’s detrimental to our lives and our work. Our inorganic designs, he says, have degraded our personal health and productivity. Second Home is Silva’s first attempt at starting a movement to reincorporate the best design our natural world has to offer back into our work and our daily lives.
He’s not alone in his thinking. Harvard runs a program on “integrating wellness and occupational health and safety into the workplace,” citing “emerging evidence suggesting many employee health and safety issues arise from a combination of work-related factors and lifestyle health factors.” The World Health Organization has even come up with five key factors to promote a healthy workplace, focusing on personal health resources, enterprise community involvement, psychosocial work environment, leadership commitment and engagement, and physical work environment. Companies like Google have long seen the benefits of incorporating a gym and healthy food into their campus life.
With London expanding rapidly, developers more often than not ignore design. Silva and Second Home co-founder Sam Aldenton wanted their space to focus on health, wellness, and bringing principles of evolutionary psychology and biophelia to life. The project became real last January when they found a large former carpet factory in Shoreditch, an area already beginning to boom with new tech companies. With their connections—Aldenton has run some of London’s most successful creative food events and venues–they raised over $6 million dollars in less than a month. The duo then quickly hired Spanish architecture firm SelgasCano to bring the project to life. Second Home was, to Silva, a “manifestation of a synthesis of academic thinking and research.” Second Home would ideally become a place where the best principles in design and in nature would come to life, bringing back vitality into our work spaces.
The Second Home team isn’t just keen on having the coolest designs in their space. Rather, Silva has looked to nature for different lessons, especially from fields like biophelia, which hypothesizes an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. One example of a rejection of non-natural design: there are no straight lines in the Second Home building.
There are over 1,000 plants in Second Home, as well as a greenhouse bubble, and a row of fruit trees in the front of the space. The building, all 20,000 square feet of it, is run with 100% green energy, coming from Ecotricity, a company that generates renewable electricity (wind, sun, and tidal power) and “green gas” (from organic material and algae). In addition, Second Home is principally built using methacrylate, which has never been used in a U.K. building before, and which is an extremely green material. Methacrylate only has to be heated to 100 degrees to be bent and manipulated, versus 3,000 degrees for glass, and it has a much lower U-value than glass, meaning it traps thermal energy extremely well.
To further drill in the reverence for nature and smart city development, all of Second Home’s rooms are named after urbanists: Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida are two who get a shout-out. Each chair is mid-century, and no chair is the same as another. To Silva, the notion that we have identical objects is odd; in nature, after all, there are no identical snowflakes.
And with recent backlash against open floor plans in modern offices, Silva thinks Second Home has the right equation of collaborative and communal spaces, along with privacy in its studios. Studio membership, with 24-hour access to your own private studio, surrounded by plants and trees is £650 per person per month, which includes unlimited printing, free 2GB/s broadband network, access to meeting rooms, and free access to all programming, including specific entrepreneur matching lunches to better facilitate collaboration in the space. At this rate, Second Home is lower than many other co-working spaces in London, which can be at least £100 more. Yoga and daily group meditation are available, too (though these cost an extra £5). In other words, Second Home isn’t just any co-working space; Silva recognizes the need to cater to all types of workers.
Before you roll your eyes at all the intense hippifying of the work space, keep in mind that the philosophy behind the space is not as crunchy as all that. To Silva, “the negative externalities of what is cheap in the workplace are vast.” That is to say: If we are to be happy in our work, and at our work, then we need to design the kinds of spaces that fuel that happiness for a range of personalities.
So in a city like London, which can be incessantly gloomy under a perpetual dome of grey skies, introducing not just potted plants, but a full greenhouse into a workplace could help shift one’s approach to work.
Second Home doesn’t just want to happily house its companies and their employees, they want to be a part of the story of a company’s success. And with Google committed to a $1 billion office development in London, Silva set out to help Second Homers have the same kinds of benefits as Google employees, without the corporate tech structure. With yoga, meditation, ample food and cultural events, and a great network of legal, accounting, and other support services coming in to service the companies, Second Home is aiming to provide the same value without the corporate or large company culture.
There are 31 studios at Second Home, each accommodating between 4 and 30 people. As of this writing, all the studios are full. To be accepted into the space, one has to be referred to Silva and his group or head hunted for Second Home. And how did Silva and his team choose the companies that would become members of Second Home? They treated it like a puzzle, meant to fuel growth across all the in-house businesses. They chose one or two companies, like Y Star capital and headhunters Congregation partners, because they could help new companies grow and expand. They also chose unexpected members, like Santander, one of the largest banks in Europe. Silva says Santander, “wouldn’t be allowed into Soho House, but here they are welcome, because we know that sometimes big does need to meet small. The innovation cycle is so fast today, and bridging the corporates with the early stage can be important.” Other Second Home companies include Kovert Designs, a fashion tech startup, and a handful of U.S. startups putting down London roots, including General Assembly, Fueled, and Foursquare.
“Having worked at Facebook and Google, I am aware of how an amazing place to work, surrounded by diverse people can make one more productive,” says Christian Hernandez Gallardo of White Star Capital, which has space inside Second Home. “We learn from each other through structured and unstructured discussions, learn together through the curated events Second Home organizes and occasionally manage to have a drink together at Jago, our in-house restaurant.”
Henry Stuart, the founder of Visualise, a virtual reality collective, says that, “One of the best aspects of working at Second Home is bringing clients here, they don’t want to leave. It’s a stunning place to bring people for meetings, drinks, events.”
When it comes to selecting who will be part of his new community, Silva emphasizes that, “we don’t care what people look like. We’re filtering for creativity, curiosity, and ambition, and folks at the intersection of two industries, like fashion and tech, or education and tech.”
Co-working spaces have emerged in the last few years mainly to service startups. In many places, they are competitive, and cater to a certain type of company culture. A question for the future of these spaces is how co-working spaces can remain inclusive, and encourage diversity, not just of people, but of ideas and businesses. Second Home is tackling this in a few ways.
With themed spaces–architecture and fashion are two of them–they hope to encourage a healthy exchange of ideas and foster innovation by having specific types of talent co-working, enabling them to share perspective and further each other’s businesses. With an apprenticeship program, they will be sourcing talent from community colleges in London and helping place them in Second Home Companies. Additionally, they’ll be partnering with Virgin running competitions, and giving the winners of Virgin’s Young Entrepreneur Competition free space at Second Home. Virgin is also providing fast broadband and hosting a series of special events.
The effort to make Second Home diverse on all fronts extends to the in-house restaurant. There, the staff receives £9.15, (about $14), which is more than the London minimum wage at £6.50 (about $10).
“The environments people seek to work in are no longer confined to a certain time, space, or style,” observes Josef Hargrave, an associate with the built environment consultancy Arup. “This diversification of where and how we work is driving the emergence of workspace concepts that reflect new lifestyles and working patterns. Concepts where the boundaries between private life and work life are almost non-existent. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs and startups, whose dedication and passion for their job can be particularly high.”
To further sweeten the deal for companies looking to relocate, Second Home offers film screenings and talks on a range of topics. One recent talk was given by the originator of the biophelia hypothesis himself, author and scientist E.O. Wilson, Another was on “Cybernetic Serendipity Music,” hosted by Institute of Contemporary Arts and The Vinyl Factory. And last week, they hosted a dinner with Gagosian Gallery to celebrate the Richard Serra exhibit currently in London. In March, they’ll feature a Stella McCartney event, an edition of Creative Mornings, and a talk with a Happiness Guru.
The idea behind the talks and films—currently, they’re screening Oscar nominations each week–is, according to Silva, to “help the community be exposed to new ideas and communities—a diversity of disciplines and opinions and demographics.” In doing this, Silva hopes to increase the amount of collisions between people and businesses (not unlike Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, and the Downtown Project in Las Vegas), fostering innovation and community, and overall happiness.
So what are the plans after Shoreditch’s Second Home is running smoothly? Silva and his team plan to open three more locations in London next year. And after that, they’ll be expanding to other cities in Europe, and, if all goes well, they’ll eventually land in America.