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Life Inside out: How today’s architects and designers are creating offices in the great outdoors

Inside a treehouse in a London park, important work is being done. Erected for the London Festival of Architecture, TreeXOffice is a co-working space available for bookings through December, rent payable to the tree at its centre. You read that correctly: the deep-rooted landlord collects tenant fees and pours the money into maintaining its park, Hoxton Square, and surrounding green spaces in the borough of Hackney.

Australian-American artist Natalie Jeremijenko created the project in collaboration with artists Shuster + Moseley and architecture firm Tate Harmer. The temporary structure, commissioned by Artsadmin and Groundwork London, has a frame made of compressed paper and timber, kitted out with transparent plastic louvres that can be lifted open to let in the full glory of the sun’s rays, or pulled down to diffuse glare. Individuals or groups can book space – for £15 or £120 ($29.50 or $235) for a half-day Monday to Friday, respectively; local community groups have free rein on weekends – at the wraparound desks, with access to a power supply and WiFi.

In this park in London, individuals or groups can book space in the TreeXOffice. (Courtesy London Festival of Architecture 2015)

It’s playful, literally a treehugger solution to a real problem: How to monetize the true value of nature. And as a beautiful piece of micro-architecture, it also encourages us to think outside of the box in creating offices out of doors.

“People work in synthesized spaces cut off from the natural environment and mediated by screens, lenses and other technological and architectural mediums, which frame and in some ways generate our experience of the world,” Edward Shuster says. His studio, Shuster + Moseley, has created many biophilic pavilions that saturate people in nature.

Changing our views, literally and figuratively, are what these projects are all about. As he says: “We believe that by manipulating and reframing, or collapsing, these interfaces and transparencies we can produce lasting psychological and social effects that will have a positive influence and broaden our ideas about well-being and productivity – to think qualitatively rather than quantitatively.”

The salubrious effects of nature on our minds are well documented. Study after study show that we are buoyed by spending time outdoors, whether it’s backpackers who find themselves 50 per cent more creative after a few days’ hike or undergrads with improved memory and mood after a stroll through an arboretum.

Creating office space in an outdoor setting today involves taking the designs well beyond all-weather furniture. Perhaps the most audacious example is that of Google’s futuristic vision for a biodome-like complex proposed for its Mountain View, Calif., home base.

While there are no studies that measure the benefits of working outside, per se, science has shown that office dwellers react positively to natural stimuli. Exposure to windows, plants, even nature photography, elevates mood, alertness and metabolism – and decreases stress. If sunlight, fresh air and ambient sounds make us feel more with it – and probably more likely to brim with innovative ideas – why aren’t we all working outside?

Jonathan Olivares wondered the same thing. Years ago, the Los Angeles-based furniture designer turned down a manufacturer’s request to design an outdoor collection. Patio and poolside seating and tables come in every style and set-up imaginable; why add to an overstuffed market? Which got Olivares thinking about the dearth of task-oriented outdoor furniture. In 2012, he introduced three ideas for taking the industriousness of work and classroom culture to the courtyard; they included elements such as a round pavilion that could provide shade for a conference, a desk integrated with a mesh screen that blocks distracting views and recycled rubber flooring for supporting blackboards and the like. In The Outdoor Office, an exhibit of his concepts as collages, he also drew from pop culture and included images from film and television, such as a brainstorming session in the woods in Twin Peaks. It was staged at the Art Institute of Chicago and praised in Domus and Fast Company. And that was the end of it.

The terrace-filled École Polytechnique will be built at Paris-Saclay University

But, as the nine-to-five (and the line between work and life) becomes more flexible, ideas for the outdoor office continue to percolate. Three years after Olivares’s project, the Belgian brand BuzziSpace has introduced what it calls “the first outdoor workspace” – a minimal shed furnished with a handsome picnic table. Other high-end specialists in outdoor furniture, such as Extremis (also in Belgium) and Spain’s Gandia Blasco, make modern, clean-lined picnic tables and crisp, plastic, fabric-enclosed cabanas that can be customized by the user.

Obviously, there are no rules against opening your laptop or making a business call in an outdoor setting. We can hunch over our work just about anywhere, from café counters to park benches. There’s the rub. Imagine if we had ergonomic options for the outdoors. That’s not yet a top priority in the world of office furniture – the same sector that has delivered a constantly updated supply of height-adjustable tables, treadmill desks and perfectly calibrated task chairs.

Which is why when most people think of the outdoor office, they picture a small, crafty piece of architecture in a backyard. If Pinterest boards and design blogs are any indication, inventive sheds, pavilions and pergolas are as popular with DIYers as with architects. The office of

Inside a TreeXOffice.

SelgasCano, the Spanish architecture studio behind this summer’s rainbow-hued Serpentine Pavilion in London, is a prime example of a unique, indoor-outdoor office building. An elongated capsule nestled into the ground in the woods outside Madrid, it’s sheathed in 20-millimetre-thick acrylic on its north-facing side. Even bolder are the futuristic visions – such as the biodome-like Googleplex proposed for Mountain View, Calif., and the terrace-filled École Polytechnique that will be built at Paris-Saclay University – that wrap interior spaces in transparent membranes, and plant trees right into the architecture.

Not everyone can work at Google. But the traditional office has also continuously changed according to employees’ needs. From hermetically sealed cubical farms, offices long ago moved to open plans with communal tables. Now – as open layouts are earning as bad a reputation as cubicles for dulling productivity – the office landscape is again in flux. The new and improved office houses a mix of collaborative work areas and private nooks, glazed meeting rooms and energetic breakout zones – and all types of mobile, modular and mutable furniture that facilitates this flexible landscape. If anything, transforming an office’s terraces and courtyards into stimulating places for working and conferencing is the next logical step. If we can’t all fit in the treehouse, the treehouse should be made to fit into the office.

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