Modular, efficient design will provide innovative work environments for tomorrow’s employees and tenants.

Humankind has been eternally fascinated with the concept of its own future. Inherent in human ambition is the need to question the current standard and envision the next step. For millennia we have imagined and depicted the forthcoming political, economic and physical landscape.

Across the spectrum of visual media some of the most striking and imaginative portrayals of the future are those of the built environment. Humans have continually sought to define their visions for the future, from early illuminated manuscript depictions of the Tower of Babel to science fiction films of the last century. While themes of pervasive automation, servile robots and artificial intelligence are common throughout, the architecture of our cinematically conceived future is represented in many varied forms, each portraying a unique visual and perhaps cautionary commentary on the state of humanity.

In February 2012, a team of multidisciplined professionals stepped into this stream of futuristic imaginings and discussed and identified trends, advances and opportunities for potential incorporation into the design of an Office Building of the Future (OBF) for the year 2030 as part of a national competition sponsored by NAIOP. This article is a summary of the team’s award-winning submission.

The OBF team included Pickard Chilton, design architect; Magnusson Klemencic Associates, structural and civil engineer; Atelier Ten, sustainable design; Cosentini Associates, MEP engineer; IA, interior architect; and Gilbane Building Company, cost estimator and scheduler. The proposal is grounded in the pragmatic realities of the most accurate and latest data of building science available, the design nearly limitless in its potential configurations and bound only by the imagination.

Qualities of the OBF:  Workplace Trends

Building owners will require an innovative work environment to attract employees to a corporate headquarters or tenants to a commercial development. Current office trends offer insights on how the diverse workforce of the future will interact and what they will expect from the workplace.

The Workforce

The newest members of the workforce will be “digital natives” and will drive the efficiency and speed of communication, necessitating open floor plans and mobility within the office. [1] They will optimize time at the office with multitasking as they seek greater work-life balance. [2]

The Workplace

The next-generation workplace will offer environments that blur the lines between work and private life. The office will function as an anchoring physical location away from the digital realm. It will house a variety of workspaces [3] and be a place for collaboration, face-to-face encounters and team building. [4] 


The OBF will provide greater access to daylight and natural ventilation, views, green space, public transit, on-site parking and proximity to residences. Numerous studies indicate that these attributes directly result in a more content and healthy workforce, thereby contributing to increased productivity. [5] Better working environments also serve to attract and retain top talent. While certain features may increase up-front costs, they are offset by the gains from increased employee productivity.

Business Objectives and the OBF: Trends and Metrics

The OBF will meet the owner’s business objectives by providing a value-based yet high-performance architectural solution. A number of emerging trends in office design will impact the design and construction of the OBF.

Distributed Work

On any given business day 30 to 40 percent of physical workspaces are vacant. By working in an increasingly social, mobile and collaborative fashion known as “distributed work,” companies can enjoy the benefits of substantive cost savings and greater space utilization. [6]

Greater Occupant Density

The next generation of workspace will move away from dedicated offices and workstations. The current average occupancy density of 150-200 square feet per person has been continually trending downwards.

Maximizing Floorplates

Consistent lease depths of 45 feet offer many advantages including: unobstructed and column-free floorplates, maximum flexibility and efficiency, access to natural light, and customization for greater leasing capability. [7]

Greater Modularity in Interior Fit-out

The flexible design allows for the building to be easily repurposed to accommodate new technology, amenities and tenants. [8]

Personalized Comfort Controls

Personalized environmental controls provided at workstations enhance office comfort and improve productivity. They also contribute to reduced construction and energy costs. [9]

Integrated Design

The Building Information Modeling (BIM) platform will facilitate integration and coordination of design, engineering and construction. Its advantages over traditional delivery methods include greater precision and reliability; easier identification of inter-discipline conflicts; broader project understanding; more precise cost estimates and control; and more secure data transfer.

Faster Construction Delivery

A shorter schedule means fewer days that accrue general conditions costs. Efficient schedules equate to more effective use of labor, which is the largest percentage of the construction budget. [10]

Sustainability: OBF Performance

Sustainability goals will increasingly achieve a balance of social and fiscal growth within the limits of our natural environment. [11] The next-generation workforce will innately understand the value of environmental stewardship, choosing to live closer to the office and utilizing local amenities.  

Although a number of rating systems exist today that are based on quantifiable improvements in building performance, the future measure of buildings will not be relative, but rather absolute. Just as nutritional labels now allow consumers to make informed decisions, metrics will be established for building performance and be readily available and displayed.

The OBF incorporates an advanced monitoring system that can be viewed as the heart of an interactive building automation system that tracks, measures and displays real-time consumption metrics and inefficiencies or failures in the systems. Simple, intuitive graphics will allow key metrics including energy systems, water systems, green space impacts and carbon usage to be easily understood and compared. Such data will allow potential tenants to make informed decisions about their workplace and allow a high-performance building such as the OBF to stand out in a competitive real estate market.

A Shift Toward Modular Construction

One of the most significant conclusions from the study is that, while the OBF will be unique, site-specific, and responsive to its environment, it can be efficiently developed through an advanced system of modular building. An innovative modular system offers the adaptability, efficiency and economy necessary to balance the owner’s business objectives with the well-being and productivity of employees or tenants and the appropriate use of natural resources. Modular construction merges high-tech BIM and the simple concept that eliminating excess saves money.

A modular building system offers significant economic advantages including shorter construction time (due to speed of erection, negligible weather delays and increased structural efficiency) and greater cost control as a result of the following: a highly efficient manufacturing and construction process with an increased number of more skilled workers, fewer subcontractors and reduced overhead cost and material redundancy. The system allows for efficient off-site construction in controlled environments that offers greater tolerances and higher quality control.

Every major building component is considered for its potential as a modular unit that can be fabricated in a factory and sized to be easily transported by truck, delivered to the site and assembled by a smaller workforce. As units are shipped after being manufactured, they do not require a significant staging area on site prior to construction. With a faster construction period than the typical office building, the system will result in short- and long-term cost savings as well as earlier building occupancy.

A Prototype for the Modular Office

Previous attempts to realize quality commercial construction with modular building did not prove viable because they did not deliberately align a strong concept of modularization with the realities of building materials and construction processes. In the case of the OBF, the fine-grain details of building systems and logistics have been carefully considered to produce a new methodology of construction that is feasible in both concept and practice. The modular system is inherently flexible, able to accommodate a variety of building systems and capable of being assembled into a range of building forms with a variety of architectural expressions.

It was determined that a 45-foot-wide floorplate would offer the most flexibility and that the unit design would maintain a floor-to-floor height of 13 feet. With more efficient plenum spaces in the ceiling and floor deployed more effectively, space is freed up to produce significantly higher ceiling heights. To meet goals of sustainability and quality, it was assumed that this floorplate, with operable glazing on both sides, would be the basic formation of all building massing strategies, and thus the modular “kit of parts” is devised for this configuration.

Floor Module

The structural floor module incorporates cooling/heating loops, integral air highways and a mounting system into a single, integrated assembly. At one-half of the traditional plenum depth, savings are achieved by alternating ceiling and floor cavities and interweaving them within the structural depth. The precast elements are fabricated off-site and pre-fitted with all of the mechanical and electrical systems. As the modules arrive on site, they are lifted off the trucks and set directly in place. A topping slab joins the individual components to create a continuous diaphragm and the necessary systems are connected.

Wall Module

The OBF’s structure and facade are delivered as a complete single wall module. Measuring 30 feet by 1 floor, each structural bay’s columns and spandrel beam are precast as continuous frames that are in-filled with the latest fenestration technology: high R-value materials, triple-pane glazing and translucent insulating panels. Solar radiation is blocked by vertical shading and converted to electricity with translucent amorphous silicon photovoltaic cells. With integrated insulation to prevent thermal bridging, perimeter columns are shifted to the exterior of the wall to maximize interior space planning.

Core Module

Defining a new paradigm, the core of the OBF will be embraced as the heart of the building. Rather than group all of the lateral bracing into a solid concrete cluster at the building center, the OBF expands the bracing system into an open tube of precast concrete latticework that surrounds a light-filled, centralized atria. With lateral loads more broadly distributed, the assemblage is more structurally efficient yet less material intensive. Due to the system’s inherent “plug and play” flexibility, the independence of the structural core allows for programmatic units such as mechanical rooms or elevators to be added or replaced years after completion.

Systems Integration

When natural ventilation is not possible, fresh air is supplied though small floor-mounted vents to provide each occupant with personal control. Inconspicuous overhead heating and cooling will efficiently maintain proper temperature.

Case Study: Applying the System

To explore the OBF’s potential, the modular system was applied to a one million gross square foot, two-phased, mixed-use development that achieves a successful programmatic balance of office, retail, residential and parking. Although the OBF is conceived as an office building, its programmatic composition will be increasingly mixed to be viable in future real estate markets.

The Implications of Site Selection

Every successful sustainability program begins with an informed site selection. Although a number of potential cities were considered for the OBF, Seattle was selected, as it is home to several significant tech companies and their educated workforces. With its Seattle 2030 district, the city also offers a proactive community that has long been a proponent of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

While overcast conditions are common, climatic data suggest that Seattle would also provide ample opportunities for direct sunlight, and the city offers immediate access to both the ocean and the mountains, which are distinct advantages and amenities.

The real estate and development community is active, with a number of potential sites. Ultimately it was decided to site the OBF on the prominent corner of Westlake and Eighth Avenues within Seattle’s Denny Triangle Neighborhood, an underdeveloped area at the edge of the central business district. With direct access to public transportation, its gently rising terrain offers views of the harbor.

Phase One is a 248,000 gross square foot mid-rise office composed of two buildings of eight and nine stories unified by an open diagrid core. Phase Two is a 47,000 gross square foot low-rise residential building and a 607,000 gross square foot, 32-story office tower offering dramatic views of the harbor.

The development sits atop 98,000 square feet of at-grade restaurants, boutiques, a fitness center and lobbies. A multilevel landscaped urban park will serve both building inhabitants and the public. Supported by piloti, the office building will float above the park and allow light and air to freely penetrate.

The OBF’s aspiration to meaningful reductions in the use of natural resources demands a response to and understanding of its local environment and climate. Seattle enjoys a mild — if cool — rainforest climate. Summer highs and winter average temperatures suggest a need for supplemental heating with minimal cooling. Natural ventilation is feasible but humidity must also be addressed. Strategies to handle Seattle’s high average rainfall include capturing rainwater for building use and managing runoff.

Natural ventilation, combined with both solar gain on exposed thermal mass and night purge ventilation, can expand the typical comfort range. Orientation of the OBF will direct summer breezes through the building to enhance natural ventilation strategies and reduce energy demand.

Summer offers the most solar energy available to the site, and the OBF will maximize available and anticipated solar technologies. There is negligible overshadowing from adjacent buildings in mornings and afternoon. The OBF’s south-facing glazing will benefit from solar radiation in winter, and, in summer, shading west-facing windows will minimize overheating. Direct sun shading is only necessary in the summer to reduce heat loads on glass surfaces.

Building Structure

On-site assembly of the OBF will be a rapid culmination of a process that began, and largely took place, in a controlled factory environment. As modules are assembled to create dynamic spaces, and spaces assembled to form an elegant building, a new icon will be an innovative addition to Seattle’s dynamic skyline.

Careful consideration has been given to ensure the OBF’s durability and longevity. As the modules of the OBF are lowered into place, they are structurally fused together by weld points and NMB sleeves — a specially designed coupling system that effectively unites two abutting reinforcing bars. In the high-rise office tower, lateral loads will be resisted by a “core-only” approach, in which a central diagrid tube resists both movement and shear forces. Structural analysis confirms that this configuration is more than sufficient to keep tower deflection within acceptable limits. Expected to soon become more economical and widely available, 10 ksi concrete and 100 ksi steel were the assumed materials for structural testing. By transferring perimeter vertical loads to the core at the bottom of the building, and allowing the core to stand alone for the bottom third, the tower’s core-only structural model is fully expressed in the building form.  

Building Ecosystems

The OBF will interact with the world around it and the inhabitants within. Capitalizing on energy from the sun and water from rain, manipulating wind energy for cooling and ventilation, and converting excess urban CO2 into oxygen are a few of its significant sustainable strategies. Office workers will enjoy and benefit from access to natural ventilation and light, as well as an elegant office atria, dramatic stairs and landscaped terraces.

Net-Zero Energy

The OBF aims to produce just as much energy as it uses: it will be a high-performance building that improves indoor environment quality, enhances productivity, and encourages healthy behavior. Narrow floorplates and efficient facades use passive strategies to decrease energy consumption and costs while increasing occupant satisfaction. Radiant heating and cooling systems and efficient lighting, coupled with smart monitoring and occupant controls, provide users with personal control of their environments and thus greater comfort and productivity. Supplemental ventilation ensures optimum indoor air quality. Heat recovery ventilators capture waste exhaust heat to precondition fresh air intake. Open stairways and floors encourage greater collaboration and occupant activity while minimizing elevator trips.

Diversifying solar energy technologies makes the OBF more productive over the course of a year and in atypical weather conditions. Using solar hot water collection, the OBF will reduce energy requirements for domestic hot water by 50 percent, almost 5 percent of its total energy demand. With the best currently available photovoltaic panels on the roofs, the OBF will generate 1.4 percent of its annual electricity. Building-integrated photovoltaics made of amorphous silicon and laminated into sunshades and skylights will act as both shading device and electricity generator, producing just less than 1 percent of the building’s needs. Future improvements in photovoltaic technology will allow the OBF to outperform current estimates.

Net-Zero Water

The OBF will adopt a comprehensive approach to efficiently manage all of its water resources. It will direct rain from its roofs to a cistern along with HVAC system runoff for reuse throughout the building and landscape.

Green roofs and landscaping will absorb a portion of the rainwater, create micro-habitats, and help mitigate the urban heat island effect. These features will improve the local microclimate with increased evapotranspiration and reduced runoff loads.

With lushly planted tanks and concealed cisterns, an onsite Living Machine mimics tidal wetlands’ natural filtration capabilities to produce non-potable reusable water from wastewater. A reverse-osmosis plant will further purify this output to make it fully potable. The onsite blackwater treatment and reuse strategies will reduce demand for city-supplied water by 86 percent, wastewater outflow by 95 percent, and runoff by at least 50 percent. Payback on the capital cost of this on-site infrastructure is estimated to be achieved in as little as four years.

Net-Zero Embodied Carbon

Determining a project’s embodied carbon is challenging due to limited or unavailable material data. The OBF’s embodied-carbon strategy will focus on making informed choices during the design and material procurement process by considering relevant comparative data. Carbon Accounting will be commonplace within the next decade as Life Cycle Analysis is increasingly a focus in new construction.

Strategies to reduce the OBF’s embodied carbon include reducing or eliminating Portland cement since its manufacture accounts for 2 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions and requiring embodied carbon reporting and using a material’s carbon footprint of as one of the decision-making metrics. To offset resource consumption, trees selected for the OBF site will absorb almost 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years, and it is expected that a conscientious owner will offset the remaining carbon impact by supporting regional or international reforestation efforts.

Cost and Schedule Savings

As a means to test the viability of the modular system, the units were assembled into a variety of building masses, one of which was chosen for detailed cost evaluation. This building design, called the “Base Building,” was estimated under two distinct construction scenarios: (1) built using the modular system as described, and (2) built using conventional construction techniques with a cast-in-place concrete structure. By employing the outlined strategies , the OBF cost analysis shows that the modular approach provides a 6.35 percent cost advantage as compared with conventional construction in addition to a 20 percent improvement in the construction schedule, providing significant reductions in risk and project financing costs.

A Model for Change

Attributes contributing to the success of the OBF’s modular system include a high level of sustainable design and stewardship of limited natural resources; concern for inhabitants’ quality of life; and the careful management of schedule and budgets. The system’s limitless adaptability in terms of building program and scale as well as a faster construction schedule will offer owners greater agility in responding to market demands.
The modular system can be achieved and implemented in nearly any city worldwide, responding to and taking advantage of its specific location and unique climatic conditions by easily accommodating local zoning requirements and adapting to the environment. The OBF can be further customized within each unit, allowing for on-demand rapid integration of technological advances in both materials and systems while modules are in production.

As envisioned by the design team, the OBF has the ability to continually evolve and accommodate humanity’s drive to innovate. What suits and serves its occupants in 2030 can be replaced by future tenants who have grasped the imaginings of 2030 and realized them as the novel and unanticipated technologies of the high-performance building of their time.


1 Schmidt, Lucinda, and Hawkins, Peter. (July 15, 2008) Children of the Tech Generation. The Sydney Morning Herald.

2 Interior Architects Presentation of Qualifications: Workplace Trends. (

3 Blum, Andrew. (15 November 2011) Acting Like a Start-Up. Metropolis Magazine.

4 Staniek, Bettina, and Claus, A. (September 2011) Typology of Organizational Forms of Offices. Detail Magazine.  p. 1014.

5 Romm, Joseph J. (1999) “Design for Workplace Productivity, Lockheed Building 157. “Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits. Washington, DC: Island Press. p.92-94.

6 O’Neill, Michael and Wymer, Tracy. (2011) The Metrics of Distributed Work.

7 Pesek, Judy. (19 May 2011) The Shifting Office Needs of Corporate America. Real Points. judy-pesek-the-shifting-office-needs-ofcorporate-america/

8 Sargent, Kay. (June 2009) A Pivotal Shift; Leveraging for Advantage. p.10

9 Napoli, Lisa (15 February 1998) Earning It; Where Every Worker is Ruler of the Thermostat. The New York Times.

10 Stukel, James. (September/October 2003) Cost Conscious Construction. Commercial Investment Real Estate Magazine.

11 International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives. (1995) The Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide. Section 1.01.

Jon Pickard, FAIA and William Chilton, FAIA are Principals of Pickard Chilton, an international architectural practice noted for its expertise in the design of large, complex buildings including corporate headquarters, high rise commercial office towers, hotels, academic, and health care facilities. The firm practices from its New Haven, Connecticut studio located on the town green across from Yale University. William Chilton is a Senior Fellow of the DFC.