There are T-shirts floating around WeWork’s New York City headquarters that say “Buildings equal data.” The nano manifesto hints at a conviction that architecture should be shaped by a methodical study of how people utilize spaces instead of unique aesthetic signatures.
Today data influences WeWork’s real estate deals, construction sequence, design choices, even the way desks are arranged in the offices it manages. Its data-collection methods, employing app-based surveys and room sensors among other tools, are designed to measure the perceived “vibe” of a particular space. In doing so, WeWork is nurturing a cadre of analytics-minded architects who are as interested in databases as they are in drawings.
Data has very much shaped WeWork’s bold growth plan. The start-up has doubled its membership every year for the past five years, now has about 400,000 members in nearly 30 countries, and it is opening two million square feet of office space every month. To support this global expansion, WeWork employs about 900 architects, interior designers, engineers, and builders who screen and rely on analytics at every juncture of their job.
WeWork’s data crunching begins long before a new office opens, or even before a CAD drawing is prepared. By looking at a database containing millions of geographic information points around the world, its real estate analysts can pinpoint which properties are worth considering. From experience, they know that proximity to conveniences such as gyms, coffee shops, and transportation hubs is paramount to WeWork members.
But WeWork’s prowess with data really shines during the design phase. Drawing on aggregated intel from all its properties, WeWork has generated a catalog of pretested design solutions for each room in the office, or its “kit of possibilities,” says Liz Burrow, director of workplace strategy. “The idea there is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A meeting room is a meeting room, and it’s pretty universal…. The ratios of those types of spaces and how you configure the space are actually pretty baked [in].”
Using this “kit of possibilities”—reconfigurable, interlocking spatial modules—WeWork can build out its ideal workspace anywhere on the planet. There are variations on meeting rooms, desks, kitchenettes, wallpaper, bookshelves, reception desks, and bike racks. Designers can spec modifications or embellishments, but one-of-a-kind components are rarely designed. “The word ‘tailor’ is really important and very specific,” explains MIT-trained architect Nicolas Rader, who helms Powered by We’s design team. “It’s not ‘custom.’ We still need to be able to leverage all of the understanding that we’ve built through the data collection.”
Working closely with manufacturers, WeWork has amassed warehouses full of prefab units that are ready to go. Inevitably, a kind of uniform WeWork look does emerge: warrens of glass-enclosed meeting rooms, bold graphic walls, a profusion of phone booths, quirky seating pods. Rader shrugs off this tendency toward monotony, explaining that it’s a relief not to have to start from scratch with every new project: “My team actually has the most fun. We get to figure out how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together.”
WeWork’s robust databases, coupled with insights harvested from user feedback, also give designers cultural insight when planning offices outside the United States. For example, communal rooms are purposely larger in Argentina because workers tend to gather during lunchtime. In Japan, where it’s not unusual to wait 15 to 20 minutes for an elevator, WeWork designed lobbies with piped-in music to help pass the time. “We wouldn’t have known that had we not used analytics to study cultural behavior,” says Rader.
This acuity with data analytics is a draw for bottom line–oriented enterprise clients. “WeWork’s insights-driven approach to designing the space has been incredibly valuable to us,” says Marc Montanaro, head of HR for UBS Group Americas. The Swiss financial services company tasked WeWork with refreshing three floors of its Lincoln Harbor campus in Weehawken, New Jersey, with hopes of transforming it into a vibrant collaboration hub. Spatial analytics, Montanaro explains, helped improve major architectural elements such as an awkward lobby and large conference rooms that often remained unused.