Our office air is toxic, and people are more stressed when they’re surrounded by cubicles and carpet instead of grass and trees. Many architects were beginning to have a reckoning that we’ve designed our workspaces wrong—and then COVID-19 hit. Now, as we have to share spaces filled with dangerous airborne pathogens, the verdict is in: Typical offices as we know them are not fit for our health.
But that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of offices altogether. And the boutique coworking startup Second Home, which has six locations around the world, offers a great example of how instead of ditching offices, we can actually redesign them.
Second Home’s Los Angeles location opened in late 2019. And the company took a unique approach to building 60 separate office spaces for its members. “What we could have done is go into a high-rise, corporate, soulless building, bought out a floor and put in some cubes,” says Rohan Silva, founder and CEO of Second Home. “That’s a cheap way of creating space.”
Instead, the company renovated a historic building by the country’s first certified Black architect, Paul Williams. The healthy twist, however, is in the backyard, where it leased 50,000 square feet of parking lot space, then tore up the asphalt and laid down 700 tons of soil and vegetation, including 115 species of plants and trees. Amid all this greenery, the company built 60 “garden offices,” which are bean-shaped workspaces designed for a few workers apiece. This design allows individuals, or work groups, to each have their own dedicated space, quarantined from other people.
Acrylic walls allow in plenty of light. The units have ventilation on each side (in addition to air-conditioning), pulling fresh instead of recirculated air into each office. It’s not quite the same as working outdoors, but it’s close, offering the comforts of shelter with the sensation—and air quality—of nature. The L.A. mayor’s office has said that the former parking lot is the densest urban forest in the city. And, of course, you don’t need to take a cramped elevator ride to get to work.
The space was designed for health, right down to the curving Corian countertops that allowed desks to be cut without straight lines (because there are no straight lines in nature). It just so happens that Corian is also popular in hospital contexts for its nonporous surface that’s easy to sterilize. But just because it was designed for general wellness doesn’t mean it was designed for a pandemic.
“Really what our architects think about is how to embrace fields like evolutionary psychology, and biophilia. We didn’t evolve over millions of years in environments that look like gray homogeneous buildings. We want plants, seasonality, and natural light,” Silva says. “It turns out having that emphasis on health stands up in good stead in these moments.”
As for how Second Home is doing, Silva admits that membership dipped at the L.A. location during the pandemic as people were laid off, but those numbers have been recovering in the last month. One insight he’s found in talking to large companies is that they want to be able to lease room sizes in the future that Silva never thought they’d need, with spaces to gather work-from-home teams for employee onboarding and brainstorming sessions.
“We have a meeting room for 200 people and rooms for 20 people—nothing in between,” says Silva of Second Home’s main building area. “I think going forward . . . we’re going to need to see much more flexibility—space [where] you can remove a partition and move some plants so it becomes a place for 60 people.”