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MIT And Google Give The Cubicle A Radical, Shape-Shifting Redesign

The work pods are a glimpse of the self-assembling architecture of the future.

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Once heralded as an ingenious design strategy for saving money and fostering collaboration, the open-plan office has fallen from grace. It's increasingly viewed by employees as a stressful, noisy nuisance, but with real estate prices soaring, it's not an easy trend for many companies to reverse. That's why some of the best solutions have been small-scale interventions that reconfigure existing open-plan spaces to fit employees' needs in the moment.

But ask Skylar Tibbits to design a reconfigurable space for your open office and you're going to get a whole different animal. That's what happened after Drew Wenzel, a civil and environmental engineer who is part of the campus development team at Google, met Tibbits and started collaborating with him earlier this year.

Tibbits is the co-director of MIT's Self-Assembly Lab along with Jared Laucks, where they and a team of researchers work to develop textiles and materials that can be "programmed" to self-construct. Their past work has taken the form of wood that is 3D printed with a particular grain pattern that causes it to transform into specific objects and even furniture when wet, as well as shoes that can be made without human or machine aid, thanks to 3D-printed textiles.

The lab's latest project brings its wild material experimentation to the everyday office: a wooden pod that lowers down from the ceiling and expands into a temporary work space. Born out of a conversation Tibbits had with Wenzel and others at Google, the transformable workspace offers a real-world application of the lab's future-focused work.

At first glance the pod doesn't seem so different from the quirky, adaptable workplace furniture you might find in a startup office. When it expands fully, it's around 10 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall—enough room for a range of uses, from individual workspaces to meetings of up to eight people. Its bulbous walnut exterior creates a secondary office space where nearby sounds are dampened by a felt-lined interior. Tugging on a counterweight lowers the space from the ceiling, and pushing the structure's frame brings it back up.

There are no mechanics or electronics involved in this complex, adaptive structure. The workspace is made of 36 fiberglass rods that are woven together into a type of textile that Tibbits describes as a "moveable skeleton" with a certain amount of flex. Knit together in a cylindrical braid, the fiberglass rods behave like a Chinese finger trap: The circumference of the pod shrinks when it's pulled, and expands when relaxed. The combination of the weave, material, and a little bit of energy from the counterweight makes it possible for the workspace to lower from the ceiling and transform without motors, gears, or any source of energy.

These structures build on the lab's work with smaller-scale "active" textiles and materials, or 3D-printed materials that respond to temperature and moisture, by applying the same basic principles to architectural space. Tibbits calls them "active woven structures."

The research, which has been ongoing for the last seven months, is ultimately focused on how these types of transformable materials could be applied to real architectural practice, for example in the form of retractable roofs for stadiums. While retractable roofs are fairly common—look no further than the new Atlanta Falcons stadium—they typically rely on massive amounts of power and equipment like electromechanical gears, pistons, and motors. But what if the material itself could retract and expand without any of those added mechanical parts?

Tibbits even envisions one day using the research to develop woven structures as big as Olympic stadiums that could be collapsed after use without causing a massive disturbance to the urban landscape and local economy. The lab is already applying the same concept to larger, more complicated projects, like a transformable tower. These structures do require a little bit of human power; in the case of the office pod, someone needs to pull gently on a counter weight. But generally, the lab's experiments—like materials that self-assemble when wet, or the shoes that come together due to a specially woven textile—do not.

These structures are still in the early research stages, and the collaboration with Google will help the lab experiment with materials while also developing real-world applications. (Though Google acted as an advisor and offered feedback on the prototype at the lab, the company declined to comment on whether it also provided funding for the project.) Google's offices in Palo Alto, Boston, New York, and elsewhere are, for the most part, open-floor plans, and it's interested in ways the lab's experiments could help reconfigure existing offices into more flexible spaces. While both Tibbits and Wenzel say they're still far off from manufacturing a work pod, both seem intent to keep experimenting.

For now, the only working prototype is in a courtyard in the Self-Assembly Lab space at MIT, where it's being used by the researchers and other building occupants. "We've had four people sitting in there at tables, or standing in there for a meeting," says Tibbits. "We also thought it could be sort of nap pod. It’s more about the transformation of space rather than trying to present what happens in that space. We're just trying to create different capabilities."

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