Office designs sometimes try to imitate nature to make workers more productive. Loads of research says that daylight, plants, and even pictures of the outdoors can help people get more done. But the newest co-working space in London goes a little farther: It’s actually outside, in a tree. And every time you pay rent, the tree takes the proceeds.
“As a place to work, I can’t think of a better office,” says artist, engineer, and New York University professor Natalie Jeremijenko, who designed TreeXOffice, along with artists Shuster + Moseley and architects Tate Harmer, in an East London park called Hoxton Square. “It’s a beautiful, airy, delicious space in amongst the chaos of public space.”
Six to eight people can work in the tree at any given time, using the tree’s new Wi-Fi and power supply. And while it’s arguably a better workspace for freelancers than the typical office in a high-rise, the art project is equally beneficial for the park. Legally, the tree acts as the landlord, and all of the membership fees will be reinvested to make the tree and its surroundings healthier.
“The profits from the tree are spent in the interest of the tree,” says Jeremijenko. “By making it specifically about the tree, and the kind of revenue that the tree can generate, we’re really exploring a larger political discussion of what are the rights of nature.”
The usual way of calculating the value of a tree is to add up its environmental “services,” such as improving air quality, sequestering carbon, and saving energy in buildings by offering shade. But by this kind of pencil pusher calculation the resulting numbers are actually fairly low. In New York City, for example, a tree is valued at $400 for 80 years of service.
“They’re very low-paid service workers,” says Jeremijenko. “And that isn’t consistent with my sense of value. That doesn’t sound right.” When she created a similar temporary coworking “tree office” in New York a few years ago, 25 people each paid $40 membership fees, so the tree was suddenly generating $1,000 a month.
“That’s a significant difference,” she says. “Positioning the tree as landlord is really to debate how do we constitute value.”
In the project in New York, the profits were spent partly on augmenting the soil around the tree, and “sending three saplings off to college”–planting the tree’s offshoots at NYU and Columbia. In a similar way, the project in London will directly benefit the host tree.
Jeremijenko sees the project as a translation of the Rights of Nature movement, which argues that ecosystems should have legal rights. The Bolivian ambassador plans to stop by the tree office to talk about his own country’s historic law that gives nature equal rights as humans.
“The real work is making these connections,” Jeremijenko says. “How do we work together, and what kind of mutualistic relationships do we construct, in order to produce a desirable future?”
“It’s the grand challenge of the century–redesigning our relationship to natural systems,” she says. “The Tree Office is exploring that.”