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Increasing Human Connection Through Architecture

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In architecture, like many things in life, the pendulum swings between designing spaces focused on individual use and those designed for groups. Right now, the pendulum has swung to favor spaces that support collaboration, engagement and socialization. This shift has really changed the way people learn and work. It also presents the questions, “can these spaces can be broken down further? Is there a difference between collaboration and social space, and, if so, are they both necessary?” I would argue yes to both. Although they are similar, they each have their differences and uses, both of which I am a fan of as well as the overarching shift towards human connectivity.

Students and young professionals today have grown up in what I call the, “Starbucks Generation.” By that I mean they are used to environments like coffee shops where people can work alone—together. Spend 30 seconds in just about any coffee shop and you’ll quickly notice a mixture of people talking in small groups, working alone (but aware of the buzz around them), talking on their phones or plugged into their devices with earbuds or headphones. This type of linger-inducing environment has permeated our culture to the point where they are now standard requirements, integrated even in formal settings, such as most updated workplaces, and even schools.

We live in an age where it’s easy to be disconnected from other people. Even with so many communication tools accessible literally at our fingertips, people still have a desire to relate, to be understood and to be heard – all things that a device cannot truly provide, even ones with human names. People are made for community. That’s why we’re seeing less seas of cubicles in workplaces with people being sectioned off into their own little zones. Architecture is helping to bring back the human element through environments that embrace connection and help foster interactions and spontaneity. Because people have different capacities for socialization and different work and learning styles and preferences, a variety of spaces need to be available to people.

Although subtle, there are differences between social and collaborative spaces. Social spaces are more focused on being seen and seeing than intentionally interacting with others (think of the headphone-clad person in the coffee shop who doesn’t want to feel alone but wants to be able to focus, or two students sitting together but each doing their own homework in a university commons). Collaboration spaces are more intentional. They could be more formal, like a conference room where there is a specific reason to collaborate, an adjacent touchdown space or a more casual setting, such as a work café. The lines between these spaces can also be blurred in “collision areas,” like corridors and outside of classrooms. It’s better to plan for unintentional collisions in linger spaces such as these than overly planned interactions that then can feel forced. I think the sweet spot is really having all three types of spaces available to people – social, collaborative and quiet work zones­—to cater to different personalities, needs and preferences.

A recent example of catering towards this more connected, interactive work style is The Spark, an entrepreneurial center for start-up companies and home to American Family Insurance’s Madison office. Within The Spark, we designed formal collaboration spaces in the form of conference rooms that also open up into informal collaboration spaces where seating arrangements can accommodate various sizes of groups. In these areas they can have more informal meetings, socialize or take a break at the nearby coffee area. These interrelated areas allow people to flow back and forth, giving them choice in where they would like to be.

Personally, I think the importance for social and collaborative spaces goes beyond just design ­– they are key elements to building a healthy society. Our human need for connectivity transcends age and industry. I realize this is a generalization, but when watching the news, I can’t help but notice a pattern of people who haven’t really interacted a lot with others, who were isolated. Overall, I think this movement towards an increase in collaborative and social spaces is not so much a trend as more of a movement here to stay. As ideas arise in a collaborative manner, they are pushed forward and refined more quickly through different input and perspectives, making them better. Not everyone is an expert at everything so the more collaboration we can foster, the more I think our ideas and our society will progress with more fulfilled people. Today, I challenge you to be a part of that movement, to reject the temptation to be disconnected and pursue collaboration and connection.

Colleen O'Meara, AIA