The history of the office

March 28, 2023

Petronas Towers, Malaysia

From the Empire State Building and the Burj Khalifa to the Petronas Towers and the Pentagon (officially the world’s largest office building with more than 600 000m2 of floor space), iconic office buildings have become defining features of the cities and countries in which they stand.

Buildings have evolved in architecture and engineering. Now, modern, green building materials and technologies provide sustainable solutions for workspaces.

For instance, technologies such as START enable the establishment of sustainable supply chains for modern building materials.

The rise of modern offices

Elevators inside office building

‘Modern’ offices arose in the 19th century with the introduction of multi-level buildings made possible by two important innovations—both involving steel.

The first was the invention of the safety elevator in 18521, which established the feasibility of multi-storey office buildings. The second was the use of steel frames in building construction, which could dramatically increase the load-bearing capacity of a structure and allow architects to, quite literally, take their creations to new heights. What many consider to be the world’s first skyscraper—Chicago’s 10-story Home Insurance Building—used steel-frame construction.

Material improvements: Glass, plastic, wood and aluminium

As steel facilitated the development of the modern office building structure, new material enabled the establishment of what we would consider the modern office space.

Driven by the increased availability of cheap, lightweight plastic partitions that maximised the number of workers within a space2, the ‘cubicle farm’ became ubiquitous in the 1960s. This interior layout became the norm for the next 30 years.

Modern open plan office space interior

In the late 2000s, open-plan offices3 did away with segmented workspaces and focused on employee collaboration. This movement towards more ‘natural’ spaces saw a rise in the use of organic materials such as wood, as well as the widespread and still standard adoption of aluminium glass frames so office spaces receive the maximum amount of natural light, while keeping buildings cost-effective in terms of heating and cooling costs4.

Going green: The growing demand for sustainable practices and responsible materials

Employee well-being is now a priority for many companies around the world. With hybrid working models that were adopted during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic5 likely to become the norm6, there is an increasing expectation among employees, and correlating demand from employers, for workspaces that complement their existing priorities. Around 77% of organisations report that their employees ‘will increasingly expect the workplace to have a positive impact on the environment’6.

Green buildings have already begun to use innovative technologies to generate their own electricity and improve the efficiency of heating, cooling and lighting systems.

Left: Shanghai Tower, Right: Bahrain World Trade Tower

Outstanding examples include the following:

  • The Pixel Building in Melbourne, which generates all of its power and water onsite

  • The Bahrain World Trade Centre 1 and 2, which cleverly incorporates wind turbines into its design

  • The Shanghai Tower, which uses a ‘second skin’ to provide ventilation and reduce energy costs7

“60% of companies surveyed in 2022 planned to invest in ‘sustainability technologies to improve environmental performance’ by 2025”

– JLL. 2022. ‘The Future of Work Survey 2022’.

As 60% of companies surveyed in 2022 planned to invest in ‘sustainability technologies to improve environmental performance’ by 20256, the shift towards the sustainable offices facilitated by these technologies will be driven by the materials they rely on, such as aluminium, copper and lithium.

With responsible procurement being a key focus area for more than 40% of companies6, transparent, sustainable material supply chains are more valuable than ever before. This is the role we envision for START, a sustainability standard that utilises blockchain technology to provide unprecedented insight into material supply chains, allowing construction companies and employers to embed the concept of sustainability in their workplaces from the outset.

Contact us to find out more about how START can contribute to your next green building or share this article to help us spread our vision of a sustainable future.