As the name implies, WeWork’s Wonder Bread Factory office in Washington, DC, is a former industrial bread production facility, now baking ideas from dozens of local companies that make these offices their home. On the other side of an open area, a small conference hall is filled with a dozen or so people attending a courier training session for Caviar, an application-based meal delivery service. In the communal kitchen, a beer delivery man connects the tap line to a keg and explains how to keep it from going flat while a bespectacled gentleman prepares his lunch on the counter. Garage doors on the southern side of the room open—when the weather allows it—to a sunny patio with an assortment of seating for lounging, dining, or meeting al fresco.
Coworking spaces such as these have been springing up all over the country. In cities where office space rental is prohibitively expensive, coworking affords the opportunity to conduct business within professional environments without taking on the high cost of overhead. Think of it almost like getting a group of friends together to rent a house: With pooled resources and some shared amenities, each person can perhaps pay less for rent while enjoying more overall space as well as a healthy sense of community. And through architect-led redesigns and renovations, that sense of an office as a community can be enhanced even further.
These shared spaces often come with flair specific to each locale; in DC, a graffito by District native Kelly Towles overlooks the third-floor common area, and the caffeine supply comes directly from local roaster La Colombe. A local firm, Georgetown-based R2L:Architects, added three levels to the existing structure, and rehabilitated the existing historic façades. Within the WeWork offices, glass walls and doors enclose variously sized private offices arranged on long corridors, allowing natural light to fill each space.
Many of the companies that play host to coworkers offer workshops and networking happy hours as ways of building community among their members. Some coworking companies, such as London-based Second Home, describe their membership as a curated collection of innovators whose co-location enables “creative collisions,” i.e., chance encounters that result in unexpected collaborations.
For the Spitalfields (East London) location of Second Home, Spanish architecture firm SelgasCano renovated a former carpet factory into a brightly colored series of private studios. A common area enclosed in curved acrylic bulges out toward the sidewalk, allowing passersby to observe the buzz of activity within. SelgasCano has opened another Second Home in Lisbon, also in a converted warehouse, which is now filled with a wide assortment of plants and thrift-store chairs.
What makes coworking facilities work? Many of the most successful examples take existing buildings in fringe locations—still close enough to public transit that they’re both desirable and accessible to their clientele—and create well-designed interiors within oversized, industrial shells. They rely on a balanced mix of collaborative spaces and (more traditional) private offices that provide opportunities for focused work and productive encounters with like-minded, high-energy coworkers. Bringing in an architect to help create that mix can be the difference between providing a unique place to work and just reusing an old factory.
About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.