Quick Review: Cubed

The book Cubedtackles what has become a ubiquitous space in today’s America: the white-collar office. Here are some thoughts about the book:

1. While the book might appear at first glance to be about office spaces, it is largely about the development and evolution of white-collar workers in the United States. This shift from farming and manufacturing in the late 1800s to office and clerical work was a profound shift in American society that affected everything from women in the workplace to educational aspirations to what it means to be middle class to what urban downtowns look like. It isn’t just about cubicles or desk chairs; it is about a shift toward knowledge workers increasingly laboring for big corporate America. It may seem normal now, but it is a remarkable shift over roughly 100 years.

2. While this shouldn’t be surprising given the field of architecture and design, it is still remarkable how much of office design was about trendy ideas and theories than on-the-ground information about what makes offices work. Thus, a history of American offices includes Taylorism, Le Corbusier, and Peter Drucker. Have a new idea about the intersection of work spaces and human interaction? If it is popular enough, it is likely going to going to be translated into office designs. Unfortunately, some of this theorizing comes at the expense of workers who were guinea pigs.

3. The book does well to include plenty of sociology, particularly picking up after World War II as sociologists like C. Wright Mills noticed the big shifts in society. At the same time, it strikes me that there isn’t enough well-known sociology about office life and American businesses more broadly. This may change in the near future with more economic and organizational sociology but it seems like a missed opportunity in the past from a field that focused on other topics.

4. This is the sort of book that would benefit from more pictures and architectural plans. There are some scattered throughout the book but I could easily imagine a coffee table companion book with rich photos and designs of iconic office arrangements. It can be hard at times to visualize the major patterns.

All in all, the book is a nice overview of American offices in the last 100+ years. There are numerous places where this book could have ballooned to many more pages but it doesn’t feel like the author is painting with too broad of strokes. Indeed, if we want to understand America in 2014, perhaps we should look less to Washington, glittering skylines, and the entertainment industry but rather examine what millions of Americans experience regularly in their offices.

Normal people living in “America’s smartest homes”

As part of Time‘s recent look at smart homes, they profiled a number of “regular people” in different types of smart homes:

At the start of her final semester, Spratley, a 29-year-old design student, spent 90 minutes every day driving between her apartment in the suburbs and her college classes in midtown Atlanta. “It was tiring,” she says, “and it made it really tough to meet people.” So she moved into a parking garage behind her school’s main building. Literally. Spratley, who graduated in May, was one of the first residents of SCADpad, a three-dorm compound built and styled by students, faculty and alumni of Savannah College of Art and Design to prove that underused public spaces–many U.S. parking structures operate well below capacity–can be repurposed into homes. Although the 135-sq.-ft. (12.5 sq m) space felt cramped at times during her weeklong stay (“I was like, Where’s the closet?!”), Spratley found plenty to love: the iPad-controlled lights could mimic a sunset, a nearby 3-D printer made free home accessories like coasters, and the compound fostered its own minicommunity. “I had friends over to watch The Fifth Element on the ceiling of the parking deck,” she says. “It was like living in a piece of the future.”…

After marrying her college sweetheart in 2007, Miller, then 22, happily took what her friends called the “normal next step”: putting down a payment on a 2,500-sq.-ft., four-bedroom house with her new husband. But when they divorced a year later, she says, “my financial torture began.” First, she failed to resolve a messy deed situation with her ex; then the economy collapsed, and the bank seized her home. At that point, Miller, an architect, had an idea: “What if I take the $11,000 I’d have to spend on a year’s rent and build a minihouse from scratch?” She wasn’t alone: more than 70 architectural firms now specialize in helping Americans ditch their large, pricey abodes to raise low-cost, low-energy tiny homes, and Miller found starter plans aplenty online. She bought a flatbed trailer ($500), rented a 0.125-acre lot ($200 a month) and within 18 months had built and moved into her dream home, all 200 sq. ft. of it. Now Miller’s monthly expenses are $400 instead of $1,200, and she’s dating her new landlord; the two had a daughter in March. Her next project is designing a 650-sq.-ft. abode for the whole family, including her Great Dane. “I’ve realized I don’t need a big house,” she says. “I never did.”…

When retired Marine Sergeant John Peck awoke from a medically induced coma in July 2010, two months after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan and losing all four of his limbs, his skin “was so hypersensitive that I would scream if someone touched me,” he says. But once his physical pain subsided, Peck, then 24, faced a much more daunting obstacle: adjusting to everyday life in a new body. The challenges at his Walter Reed housing complex were immediately clear. He couldn’t enter rooms with nonautomatic doors, because he didn’t have hands to grab them. He’d wanted to be a chef since he was 12, and now he couldn’t reach the food cabinets–let alone prepare meals. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says. Today, however, Peck lives in a house built by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation that was designed to serve his individual needs. Now 28, he has a bathroom with a bidet, so he can use it solo, and can adjust lighting, sound and even the height of his kitchen cabinets by tapping a tablet. To be sure, there are plenty of issues his home won’t solve. “I can’t put shampoo into my hair or put shorts on by myself,” he says. And unloading the dishwasher is nearly impossible, even when he’s wearing prosthetics. But Peck draws hope from a potential double-arm transplant–and his November wedding to fiancée Stacy Elwood. For now, he says, “my house makes the little things easier.”…

Like many other people living in America’s poorest neighborhoods, Giuria, a South Bronx native, grew up at risk for obesity. He ate junk food (it was cheap) and avoided playgrounds (the equipment was undermaintained and dangerous) and gyms (he was never taught the importance of exercise). By the time he was 27, he weighed almost 400 lb. (180 kg). “It was awful,” he says. “I sprained my ankles, I couldn’t buy clothes, and I didn’t sleep well.” His brother eventually took him to a nearby fitness center, where he learned to use the elliptical. (“It was so weird–I did it backward for a while.”) But to really get healthy, Giuria knew he needed a lifestyle makeover. That’s when he learned about Arbor House, a $37.7 million, 120,000-sq.-ft. (11,150 sq m) low-income housing project going up a few blocks from his then residence. The new site emphasized active design, an increasingly popular style of architecture that’s meant to encourage physical activity. (Think visible stairwells and bright, inviting indoor-outdoor gyms.) He immediately applied for residency and moved in last June. Now 30, Giuria has continued to lose weight–he’s almost down to 200 lb. (90 kg)–by running and playing alongside his wife and three kids (including Xzavier, right). “This will make it second nature to them to be healthy,” he says. “It won’t be foreign to them like it was for me.”

Some interesting options with several common themes:

1. Homes more customized to individual dwellers. Some of this can be accomplished with technology but design can also help. People living in the home get the benefits of using the space better as well as having the home reflect well on them.

2. Smaller spaces. This could be the case because people want less space (limiting consumption, more green) or they can afford less space (often in more urban areas).

3. Greener, more sustainable building starting with lowered utility costs to houses that encourage more activity and are built using different materials.

My big question for all of these options is whether they could be produced and lived-in on a mass scale.

Quick tips for living in a microunit

Here are four tips for living in a micro-unit:

Those who live in Tweet-sized units know it takes certain adjustments, and they have advice to offer — wisdom that even McMansion dwellers might find beneficial.

Don’t eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed (even if it is in your “kitchen”).

Host only people you like. Really think about how you spend your time and with whom.

Take a zero-tolerance approach to clutter.

The truth is that “micro” — like virtually everything else in life — is relative.

An interesting mix of ideas. I think three and four are most helpful: less space means you simply can’t hold onto as much and living in a small space requires a different mindset that may not take some long to get used to. The first two are quirkier. If you have limited space, why not eat in bed? Is this about keeping some semblance of a “normal” life where people don’t eat all their meals in the bedroom? Didn’t the Romans often eat reclining? The second hints at some different social dynamics. Just like some commentary these days suggesting you really should pare down your friends list on Facebook, having a smaller unit means you have to be serious about who you invite over. And it may not just be about a numbers game of how many people you fit inside; it might also be about who can work with a small space. Imagine a really loud party person; they may not work well in little space.

While much of the interest in tiny houses has been about design or providing affordable housing (and perhaps these goals are mutually exclusive), there will likely be a growing commentary on what it takes to live in such spaces. How might tiny houses really change your whole mindset or won’t it matter so much as these smaller spaces spread?

Using ethnographic techniques to study how office space is used

According to Cubed, architects and designers have had a lot of idealistic approaches to office design but companies have pursued more ethnographic approaches in recent decades:

In other words, interior designers are struggling, hard, to be relevant and so are architects. And so are space planners and so are product designers. Both Steelcase and Herman Miller have intensified their use of anthropological techniques – participant observer, video ethnography, object testing – to understand office workers’ behavior and to design around behavior rather than attempt to influence or change it. (p.308)

In other words, some have moved from top-down designs borrowing from trendy ideas about office behavior and design to actually studying the people at work in offices to see what might or might not work. What you likely gain are the small but important pieces of information that might be lost with other methods of data collection. Imagine the all-important serendipitous short conversation between two employees who pass in the hallway. Designers and others often think these are really important as they generate social connections and innovation. But, if you asked on workers on a survey about such short encounters, they may not recall them or think much of them at the time.

Lots of businesses could benefit from ethnographic approaches as they would get the viewpoint of the workers instead of the interpretations of management.

What if Facebook could consistently improve users’ moods?

There has been a lot of hubbub about the ethics of a mood experiment Facebook ran several years ago. But, what if Facebook could consistently alter what it presents users to improve their mood and well-being? Positive psychology guru Marty Seligman hints at this in Flourish:

It is not only measuring well-being that Facebook and its cousins can do, but increasing well-being as well. “We have a new application: goals.com,” Mark continued. “In this app, people record their goals and their progress toward their goals.”

I commented on Facebook’s possibilities for instilling well-being: “As it stands now, Facebook may actually be building four of the elements of well-being: positive emotion, engagement (sharing all those photos of good events), positive relationships (The heart of what ‘friends’ are all about), and now accomplishment. All to the good. The fifth element of well-being, however, needs work, and in the narcissistic environment of Facebook, this work is urgent, and that is belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self – the element of meaning. Facebook could indeed help to build meaning in the lives of the five hundred million users. Think about it, Mark.” (page 98)

This might still be a question of ethics and letting users know what is happening.  And I’m sure some critics would argue that it is too artificial, the relationships sustained online are of a different kind than that of face-to-face relationships (though we know most users interact with people online that they already know offline), and this puts too power in the hands of Facebook. Yet, what if Facebook could help improve well-being? What if a lot of good be done by altering the online experience?

McMansions as “weapons of mass construction”

One writer resents having to put up with McMansions, labeled in the headline “weapons of mass construction,” for the sake of the economy:

I hate being all in this thing together. Or let’s just say, I hate being all in this thing together with the home-construction industry. Right now, a McMansion the size of the Louvre is going up directly across the street from my house. Nine other monstrosities are also being deployed in what was once a beautiful, empty meadow. The field has been filled with backhoes and earth movers and building materials on and off for at least two years.

The projects, once begun, take forever to finish. The crew starts work on a house, then gets dispatched to finish another project in a different town, and then comes back. So it takes months to get the micro-chateaux built. It’s like watching someone set fire to your neighborhood, then douse it, then come back and start the fire again six weeks later. You’d rather they just ruined things once and for all and got it over with. If you’re going to sack Rome, sack it. Drilling, digging, dust and leveled trees have been our reality since 2011. It makes it very, very hard to root for the home builders.

I am constantly reading that young people are not buying houses at the pace needed to get the economy percolating. Well, maybe someone should tell the developers to stop building lurid, vile houses that no one can afford. Or to stop building lurid, vile, prefab, ticky-tacky houses even if people can afford them.

When the economy cratered in 2008 and my 401(k) got massacred, I wasn’t as upset as I should have been because it meant that the McMansions scheduled to be erected across the street wouldn’t get built until the recession was over. Four happy years ensued, without bogus cathedral windows and four-car garages and faux-Belgian cobblestones and Philistines for neighbors. This situation put me in the uncomfortable position of having to root against my own country. As long as the housing industry was flat on its back, life was good.

I really wish that the economy were not so dependent upon the health of home builders. I would love to root for these guys. I really would. But they build trash. They tear down adorable bungalows and build McMansions in Princeton, N.J. In Chicago, in Boston, in Los Angeles and even in little old Easton, Pa., they are bulldozing whatever stands in their way and throwing up their eyesores. Throwing up being the operative term.

What does he really think? I wonder if this is closely tied to what he suggests is a personal experience with nearby houses. It is one thing to dislike McMansions on the whole and argue they are bad for society – like Thomas Frank suggested a few months ago – but then not live by them. In fact, a lot of social problems are like this: we know there are bad things happening in our county, state, country, and around the world but it is different when they are removed and abstract. There is some of that argument here: such homes are ugly, he doesn’t want to have to rely on the housing industry so much, etc.

It is another thing if a new McMansion under construction greets you every morning when you walk out your front door. Or if construction projects take a really long time. Are these concerns the result of teardowns where a historic neighborhood is threatened?

USA Today says American Dream costs $130k per year

Living the American Dream isn’t cheap, according to calculations from USA Today. Here is what went into the cost:

•Home ownership is central to the American dream. So, we took the median price of a new home ($275,000), subtracted a 10% down payment, then projected the annual cost of a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest. We also added annual maintenance costs of 1% of the purchase price. Total: $17,062 a year.

•We used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s April 2014 figure of $12,659 for a moderate-cost grocery plan for a family of four.

•In May, AAA estimated it would cost $11,039 a year to own one four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

•The Milliman Medical Index pegged annual health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses at $9,144.

•We used various estimates for the costs of restaurants and entertainment; one family summer vacation; clothing; utilities; cable or satellite; Internet and cellphone; and miscellaneous expenses (see table).

•Total federal, state, and local taxes were pegged at 30% for households at this income level, based on a model developed for Citizens for Tax Justice.

•USA TODAY calculated current educational expenses for two children at $4,000 a year and college savings (all of it pretax, we assumed) at $2,500 per year per child, based on various rules of thumb.

•Finally, the maximum annual pretax contribution to a retirement plan for people under 50 is $17,500. That’s slightly less than 15% of this American dream household’s annual earnings, in line with financial planners’ recommendations.

Total: $130,357.

It sounds like a lot — and it is in a country where the median household income is about $51,000. Add one more child and another vehicle and you could easily reach $150,000.

I can see some places where costs could be trimmed, particularly with the car and a more minimalistic approach to retirement savings. I wonder if the emphasis here should be on the overall cost – which is high and the article notes it can vary quite a bit from region to region – or the assumptions about what the middle class is about. I was recently looking at a classic sociological study Working-Class Suburb written by Bennett Berger in 1960. There is a point in the book where Berger juxtaposes the suburban critic frowning at the ills of suburban life and the suburbanite who is happy with his relative comfort of a car, refrigerator, house, and little patch of lawn. In the decades since, expectations about the good life have increased, as Juliet Schor showed in The Overspent American. If Americans need $130,000 a year to have the basics, many of which are good things, then is being middle-class something completely different today?

Should your office cubicle be smaller than your suburban home’s bathroom?

A short passage from Cubedhighlights the increasing size of suburban bathrooms compared to the size of cubicles:

To add insult to injury, [cubicles] shrank. According to a BusinessWeek editorial from 1996, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s the average size of a cubicle decreased between 25 and 50 percent. Ironically, the editorial was spurred by BusinessWeek‘s editorial staff being “informed that most of us will lose our private offices in a year or two. This prompted a closer look at cubicles,” they wrote, “which are occupied by some 35 million of the 45 million white-collar workers in this country.” BW forecast only half humorously that at those rates the average cubicle in 2097 would be eight square feet. By 2006, when the average cubicle was seventy-five square feet, half of Americans would report that they believed that their bathroom was larger than their cubicle; one wonders to what extend the extravagant growth of the American bathroom, and of the suburban home in general, is partly a reaction against the shrinking of cubicles, where the owners of those bathrooms spend so much of their time. (p.243)

Interesting contrast. American homes are indeed larger today and have more bathrooms than in the past. Cubicles are often meant to be practical, places for business and yet suburbanites tend to desire more opulent bathrooms. Watch HGTV for a while and lots of homebuyers want bathrooms that are more like spas, have the latest features like granite and rain showerheads, and have plenty of space. For all these niceties, how much time do people spend in bathrooms compared to cubicles? The numbers wouldn’t even be close for the average cubicle dweller. But, bathrooms, particularly connected to the master’s bedroom, are showpieces, status symbols , and catch buyers’ eyes and cubicles are definitely not those things.

Fireworks limited by suburban sprawl

Fireworks shows are now limited by newer guidelines and more sprawl:

“What’s happened is, the size shell that you can shoot in a particular location has decreased,” Taylor explains. Just as shell width correlates to height, so too does height correlate with regulation. Old regulations dictated that you needed 70 feet of area cleared for every inch of shell fired around a launch area. The new industry standard is 100 feet. So when you play that out, practically, a large 12-inch shell needs 1,200 feet (or nearly a quarter of a mile) cleared in every direction to be considered safe.

Taylor tells me that fireworks sites nationwide have been shrinking with both urbanization and suburban sprawl. And fellow fireworks company Pyrotecnico echoes the sentiment. “What we’re finding is that sites are shrinking,” explains Pyrotecnico Creative Director Rocco Vitale. “Growth is happening. More buildings are going up. And when that happens at a site, a show you could use six-inch shells two years ago becomes a place for four-inch shells.”

Neither company feels that the end product has suffered as a result: Since the extra expense per each inch of shell grows almost exponentially, the savings made from downsizing can be reinvested into the experience.

“Rather than one eight-inch shell, I could probably put 12 three-inch shells up for the same price,” Taylor says. “We like that for several reasons. Larger shells are more dangerous because they have more explosive power in them. But the truth is, people in this country especially like density in their fireworks show.”

So perhaps the best solution is to find large, empty pieces of land that people have to travel to in order to see more impressive fireworks. Or, if available, communities could use bodies of water which also add the bonus of the reflective surface. Yet, many communities shoot fireworks from parks which tend to be close to other things.

There is an odd juxtaposition with this story. The headline reads: “How McMansions Murdered Big Fireworks.” Then the final short paragraph: “So it wasn’t your imagination. Fireworks have gotten smaller over the years. But there’s a bright side: The public may be safer, and happier, for it.” The headline invokes evil McMansions and the desecration of sacred fireworks shows. The story suggests this is all because we want fireworks to be safer and people tend to like more dense fireworks anyway. That’s a McMansion clickbait headline if I’ve every seen one…

Fighting to protect Chicago’s parks from mini-banks, tea stores, and the Lucas Museum

Curbed Chicago sets up the likely coming battle over using public space for the Lucas Museum:

Since late Spring, a small “pop-up bank” operated by PNC Bank has sat in Grant Park. It’s a bright orange and blue shipping container with doors and windows and an ATM. The park district earns $120,000 annually from the small structure, but many folks are not happy with its location in the park. DNAInfo has reports of numerous complaints about the very idea of a bank opening “It seems to go against the nature of the park itself,” a citizen tells DNAInfo.

The Park District is okay with it, obviously, in part because of the payola but also because, according to them, it’s not a permanent structure. In their mind, it’s a temporary vendor like you might find several dozen of in the park during Taste of Chicago. But is it the same? And where are the limits? What if Starbucks wants to open a mini-cafe right next to the PNC to capture the millions of visitors Grant Park will receive this summer? Why wouldn’t they?…

And consider Connors Park, to the north of downtown a few blocks from John Hancock tower. The squat little park is now home to an Argo Tea pavilion which just celebrated its one year anniversary of the location. Initially there was confusion about whether the park was still a park, and if it was okay to sit and enjoy the park without buying a tea. At a celebration for the one year anniversary, staff told us that with recent changes to the signage that confusion has dissipated and that neighbors know they’re welcome…

But the fact that these two issues are even issues at all speaks to the city’s constant vigilance against abuse of the parks, and it explains why despite being a seeming “slam dunk,” the Soldier Field parking lot location chosen for the Lucas Museum won’t come without a fight. This isn’t a quarter-block tea house or a 160 square-foot mini-bank, it’s a massive, multi-million-dollar development that has already captured the attention of the nation. As Chicagoist puts it, The Debate Over The Lucas Museum Has Only Started.

There are two levels to this:

1. What seems like an increased interest in many cities in ensuring that public spaces stay public. What can happen in these parks? Is there enough public space as opposed to private space masquerading as public space?

2. The special circumstances in Chicago that suggest the land near the lake needs to remain for public use. All sorts of ideas can pop up for a lakefront – I was reminded again recently about the older Mayor Daley’s suggestion that Chicago should build a major airport out in Lake Michigan – so having these guidelines has been a big boon. Yet, it is hard for a city that is chasing elite status (perhaps due to its own insecurity) to turn down a figure like George Lucas in such a location. Additionally, such a battle could give opponents of Rahm Emanuel an excuse to pick a battle.

Maybe all this represents one of the major trade-offs in today’s world: just how much do want corporate interests or the interests of powerful people overrule the rights of others? Constructing a museum like this isn’t the end of the world for Chicago but it may seem like another event in a long line of concessions to growth machines.