Second Home is reinventing office life. Is yours next? Step inside its world of vintage chairs, froth insulation, and zig-zagging walkways
A wall of transparent plastic has been stretched across the gap between two mews houses. It’s a bit steamed up but, as I peer inside this makeshift structure, I can make out the tips of spiky leaves, just visible through what seems to be a cloud of frothing white bubbles. It looks like someone’s having a foam party in an illicit backstreet cannabis farm, but this is actually the latest outpost of a company determined to make going to work not just another day in the office.
“We always want people to think ‘What’s that?’ and be drawn inside our buildings,” says Rohan Silva, the 37-year-old co-founder of Second Home, provider of “unique workspaces and cultural venues for entrepreneurs and innovators”. The company opened its first space in Spitalfields, east London, in 2014 and now boasts users ranging from tiny tech startups to the likes of Volkswagen and auditing giant KPMG.
Since that start, Second Home has raised £40m from investors, opened a bookshop across the street, launched a second branch in Lisbon and has several more on the way, including a spectacular complex of amoebic studio pavilions set in a tropical garden in Los Angeles. “So much of the built environment is bland and generic, particularly offices,” says co-founder Sam Aldenton, who in Dalston in 2005 launched one of London’s first co-working spaces, complete with rooftop allotment garden. “We have a responsibility to do something different.”
Second Home’s Spitalfields flagship, housed in a former carpet factory, signals its presence with a big orange bubble bulging out on to the street, through which passersby can glimpse an alluring world of young creatives working on laptops and gliding between space-age pods amid a jungle of pot plants. The interior is a seductive mixture of curving acrylic walls, glowing corrugated screens and mid-century furniture, all styled with a retro sci-fi air. It looks as if Barbarella has opened a garden centre.
This is the pop-futuristic vision of José Selgas and Lucía Cano, the Madrid-based duo whose network of rainbow coloured tunnels brought a psychedelic touch to London’s Serpentine pavilion in 2015. Their new Second Home outpost, located among the mews of Holland Park in west London, is similarly trippy. The foam cascading down the inside of the facade is their experimental take on insulation, based on a technique used in agricultural greenhouses. Not only does the sheet of plastic stretched over the courtyard form a transparent roof, letting light filter into the communal lounge, it can also be pumped full of party foam to keep the heat in. When they’re not needed, the soapy bubbles can simply be flushed out and left to dribble down the facade. Who knew insulation could be so much fun? We’ll see how it’s holding up in a few years’ time, though.
Inside the new venue’s jumble of brick buildings – which once housed a photographer’s studio, provided a setting for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, and later served as Richard Rogers’ first office – the architects have constructed another fantasy landscape for nomadic creatives. A bright yellow staircase (designed by David Chipperfield when he worked for Rogers) leads to a wonky new mezzanine gantry that zigzags between full-height fig trees, palms and groves of bamboo. Curved desks wiggle around the branches, giving the feeling of working in a forest canopy.
Angular glass pods are laid out on a zesty orange carpet in the pitched-roof shed next door, forming a maze of studio spaces with more trees sprouting from holes in the floor. One of Rogers’ sons – Roo, who runs a “venture development lab” – has moved in, along with the founder of the WAH Nails salon empire, not to mention companies working on the future of agriculture. Their little cubicles are lined with translucent corrugated fibreglass, giving them the look of scientific incubators, glowing with innovation. Interesting Things Are Happening Here, the design is very keen to suggest.
“Design helps employers win the battle for talent,” says Silva, who in his 20s rose to prominence as a senior policy adviser to David Cameron, credited with formulating east London’s Tech City strategy and advocating tax breaks for venture capital and angel investors (from which Second Home now benefits). “Google is spending £1bn on its new headquarters in King’s Cross, but the cost of innovative office design is a barrier for small startups, who are often competing for the same staff as these giants. We’re trying to do some of that heavy lifting for them.”
The design was one of the main reasons Jeff Kofman decided to base his software company Trint at the Spitalfields Second Home, after scouring London for somewhere affordable that wasn’t in a dingy basement. “Hiring good developers is really hard as they all have lots of options,” he says, sitting in his double-height plant-filled office where he employs a team of 25. “Being able to offer a space that feels a bit special is a real bonus. It has personality, warmth and sense of community, with lots of events going on. Other places like WeWork are way too expensive for a startup like us.”
When Second Home first opened, it was easy to see it as a caricature of the east London creative scene, fulfilling every cliché parodied in Nathan Barley and the Shoreditch Twat. It began as invitation-only, with strict policies over the “curated” interior and some decisions seemingly more concerned with form than function. “They sometimes seemed more interested in plants than people,” recalls one of the early occupants. “We had to sit in these uncomfortable vintage chairs all day. We were forbidden from sticking anything on the walls and there was no way of having confidential client presentations, as we were in a fishbowl. People were getting back problems, but they had to bring in a doctor’s note to fight for an adjustable chair.”
Some gripes persist, ranging from leaks and freezing conditions near the curving acrylic windows, to a lack of acoustic privacy. As one member says: “It’s become normal to walk around with your laptop balanced on your palm, doing a Skype call without headphones. But the architects have done a great job with the awful old building, using cheap materials in a clever way. They manage to pack a lot of people in, but it doesn’t feel crowded.”
While the average UK office provides around 10 sq metres of space per person, at Second Home the figure is about half that – including the communal areas. “It is super-dense,” says Selgas. “The angled walls and curving desks are all about how many people we can fit in. But compact space is often good for working – the place I’m most productive is on the plane.” After many requests from new parents, the forthcoming London Fields branch will include a creche. “We want to make it normal to bring your baby to a meeting,” says Silva.
Beyond the designer interiors and the domestic atmosphere, what’s particularly striking about Second Home is the precisely engineered nature of the community and the opportunities it has spawned. Just 6% of fast-growing small businesses create over 60% of all new jobs in the UK, and Silva is less obsessed with workspace design than with getting the right people to meet, and with creating the right conditions for this “hyper-growth”. Second Home is years of wonkish policy thinking made real.
“Cross-pollination is what’s special about London, but it doesn’t happen by accident,” says Silva, standing in his bookshop where, naturally, the books are arranged around themes and ideas, rather than conventional categories. “If we just let the market ride, Second Home would be full of tech companies, but we’ve only allowed 10%. The services essential for startups, like lawyers, accountants and investors, make up 20%, while 15% are charities and non-profits. We’ve got Help Refugees next to Ernst & Young, TaskRabbit next to a charity working for women in Africa.”
Two full-time “community organisers” make introductions between companies, while regular “Be Better” seminars run by members cover such topics as embroidery, nutrition, the future of blockchain and “the science of mindfulness”. It might sound contrived, but the members I spoke to love it and the mixing seems to have paid off: 75% say they have collaborated with other members, while teams based here have grown 10 times faster than the national average, according to Second Home’s own survey.
Others are beginning to take notice: this philosophy of community and collaboration is filtering into the mainstream. Stuart Lipton, the man who brought progressive American office ideas to Britain in the 1980s, in the form of the Broadgate development, has taken a keen interest in Second Home. His latest project, the gargantuan 22 Bishopsgate, will play host to “a changing menu of actions”, with shared areas conceived as “village greens” where work life will be “coached and curated”.
Second Home certainly seems to have worked for Amit Gudka and Hayden Wood, who began working at Spitalfields soon after it opened, when they were launching their renewable energy company, Bulb. Three and a half years later, they employ a team of 90, due to increase to 150 this year, and have taken over half a floor of the building. “We wouldn’t have grown this quickly if we weren’t based here,” says Gudka, standing beneath a ceiling bristling with thousands of purple felt nodules, like some designer fungus.
Looking out on a series of rooftop ponds, he says: “We’ve made so many connections and been able to hire the best people, because of the space. People want to invite their mates for a drink. And you can’t say that of many offices.”
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