Coworking spaces are no longer just for tech startups.

Small practitioners in the AEC industry are seeking out or creating these alternative office arrangements to gain big firm resources without the big overhead.

What is coworking?

Coworking spaces seem to be popping up everywhere in the last five years. In case you aren’t in the know, coworking spaces are offices where otherwise unrelated people (typically freelancers and solopreneurs) go to work, effectively sharing amongst each other the cost of infrastructure like a receptionist, meeting rooms, kitchenette, toilet rooms, internet, and furniture. Members show up with their laptops in hand, either sitting wherever there is room or paying higher rates to have their own dedicated desks or private offices. They combine the best elements of working in a coffee shop and working in an office.

The largest coworking company in the US is WeWork, which has offices in 14 different cities throughout the United States, plus a handful of spaces abroad. Their New York City spaces charge $350-$700 a month for a dedicated desk, depending on location. Their lowest cost membership is only $45/month, which includes one day per month of access to drop-in space and a variety of perks.

Why coworking is a growing option for architects

There are three traits that make coworking particularly attractive for the AEC industry:

1. It is a highly fragmented industry. As just one reference point, according to the AIA, more than 25% of all architecture firms are sole practitioners. Yet large firms enjoy disproportionately higher billings.

2. It has specific and expensive infrastructure needs. Amenities like repographics equipment, design libraries, and flat file storage are typically steep barriers for small firms in their efforts to compete with larger firms.

3. It is inherently collaborative. The AEC industry is made of temporary teams of design professionals and builders that reshuffle every time a new project begins—a structure that benefits from the networking opportunities gained from coworking with a built-in referral network.

Joining a coworking space allows a typical sole proprietor architect instant access to other professionals with whom to network and pursue projects, a professional office space to welcome clients into, and the kind of premium features he or she misses most from working at a large firm.

Industry-specific coworking

One drawback to WeWork and others like it, however, is that they are industry-agnostic, serving any and all types of mobile workers. As professional designers understand, “office design” is not a one-size-fits-all idea. These generic office designs typically rely heavily on benching workstation setups that assume a row of people will work quietly on their laptops and need little more than 24” of elbow room, fast wifi, and coffee.

An office design that works well for app coders won’t work well for a mechanical engineer or a video editor. This is why industry-specific coworking spaces have begun springing up, like Cohere for musicians or Green Labs, serving entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

The point of argument between those advocating industry-specific coworking versus industry-agnostic coworking is whether it helps or hinders a member to share space with similar professionals. Some argue higher value comes when a professional can network with a more diverse. Others argue greater value comes when coworkers share industry concerns and resources.

The perfect balance probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, in a scenario where a curated membership provides variety within a specific industry.

Ad-hoc coworking

Anecdotal evidence suggests there are hundreds, if not thousands of ad-hoc or unofficial coworking situations around the country. These are situations where one firm sublets some of its space to one or more smaller firms. The recent recession fueled a boom of such cooperations within the AEC community.

Conrad de Jesus, founder of DJA Architects, has been a sublessor in one such arrangement for a number of years. While it afforded him many benefits as compared to working at home or paying for his own office, he acknowledges there are uncomfortable elements.

“There is real inequity in ownership, which translates to control. The primary lease holder has all the default access to conference spaces. I feel like I’m asking for a favor if I need to use the copier or the plotter. Essentially it’s her space and we are guests,” de Jesus said.

Professional AEC coworking spaces

The matured version of these organically developed sharing arrangements, expressed as AEC-specific professionally run coworking spaces have already appeared.

One such example is a new space opening in Oakland, California called BIG Oakland (short for Building Industry Gathering). It is currently running its Kickstarter campaign. They may be the first in the country dedicated to the entire spectrum of designers and builders within the construction industry, hoping to shrink the cultural gap between the two sides.

A smaller example in Burlington, Vermont is Hinge, a coworking space for designers of all types.

In San Francisco, a new space called COVO is opening that hosts a wide variety of industries, but courts the architectural design community by providing a samples library and plotter.

A model for the future

According to deskmag’s annual coworking survey, the number of coworking spaces globally has grown by 36% in just over a year. It’s clear that especially in the AEC industry, coworking is a model that will see higher demand in the foreseeable future and will continue to experiment with different forms.