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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Cullen

Space Just Got Personal

Put your hand up if you are NOT currently dealing with questions about the future of your spaces – personal, home, work, other? I'd be surprised to see any hands raised.


Some of us need more space to live in, to work in, to take a private moment in, to escape to. Others are saddled with seemingly redundant, excess, unwanted or unwieldy space. We’ve spent much of 2020 wrestling with not just our relationships to people but also to spaces. We’re suddenly aware of the need to have a big (and regularly changing) think about the immediate, short and long term future of our environments. Our attention has been drawn to the interface between ourselves and the world outside our own bodies. We’re coming to appreciate the two can’t be separated from affecting each other.


At Forward Thinking Design (the social enterprise strategy and design firm I founded almost two decades ago), we've already been hard at work researching, discussing and collaborating on projects around trying to understand and shape the future of space. We’ve certainly observed that the time has come for personal space, in particular, to finally gain the respect and recognition it deserves. COVID-19 even saw defined zones of ‘personal space’/social distancing legislated! This begs the question: what does our new respect for personal space mean for the future of our built environments?


Did you know that there is actually a field of study called Proxemics? Wikipedia says: ‘Proxemics is the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction. Proxemics is one among several subcategories in the study of nonverbal communication, including haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time)… the study of proxemics is valuable in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also "the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns". Proxemics remains a hidden component of interpersonal communication that is uncovered through observation and strongly influenced by culture’. ‘A Pattern Language’; one of the books you’ll see under Recommended Reading on this website; delves into the planning side of this more deeply.

COVID-19 almost eliminated what we define as our Intimate Distance and Personal Distance ‘spaces’, relegating every interaction to Social Distance and Public Distance (except for our interactions on social media; content able to both richly and damagingly cut through into the Intimate Distance of our mental spaces, if we allow it). Whilst most people hate others crowding into their personal space without permission, we’re also all feeling the emotional strain of losing the Intimate and Personal distance ‘spaces’ we perhaps never realised we valued so much! The repercussions on mental and emotional health are huge and yet to be fully revealed.


In the meantime, COVID-19 awareness sees tensions raised when people don’t respect our Social Distance personal space when we go to work, shopping or to other public places. Suddenly every one of us has to consciously and actively manage space! Something to which we used to be only sub-consciously aware and which was largely designed for us, by others. Now we know what those interior architects and designers were doing all this time. They weren’t just picking out paint samples and cushions! (I can say that with tongue firmly in cheek because commercial interior design is where my career began ;-P).

In the new future of space we all need to develop an awareness of how we can lay spaces out with greater respect to individual rights to personal space. We also need to be careful that the resultant need for extra space, per person, doesn’t cause the deepening of already existing social inequalities – where the wealthy can buy/access the experience of all the space they need, whilst the less wealthy are relegated to ever more cramped conditions. Space allocation and entitlement becomes a deep social and human rights question when we see how it impacts on health, wellbeing and safety.

There is enough space in this world for everyone if we distribute and design it more consciously. The call in defining the future of space is one of building equality.


COVID-19 has largely shifted the workforce to remote working, which has had significant impacts on the demand for office spaces and the co-working business model, as businesses have realized the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of remote working. Many employees have appreciated the flexibility of working from home, and companies will look to continue providing this option into the future.


What do we do with excess office and commercial space that is no longer occupied? It has been suggested that this vacant space could be converted into residential to tackle affordable housing shortages. The advocacy and housing provision charity Housing All Australians; already apply this thinking to empty and underutilized buildings. Conversions work can also create markets and jobs. This landmark creative invitation, to address inequalities through adaptive reuse, is vast in scale and mustn’t be missed!


A flexible activity and task based work hub environment has been suggested as the workplace model of the future. This concept focuses on the functionality of a work site as a human-centric meet up destination. A place where people escape their homes to do concentrated tasks or to collaborate in person. To reimagine their workplace as such a hub, an organisation must ask:

  • What functions or activities are, by nature, anchored to, or best served by a physical site?

  • Why do people need and desire to physically gather?

  • How can we best facilitate the flexible coming and going of people to/from our site/s?

  • How can we create integrated physical and virtual environments that encourage engagement, build organisational culture, develop relationships and facilitate innovation?

  • Does cloud-based file sharing and physical office layout suddenly become part of the same conversation?

  • How can we gather all our stakeholders to co-design work solutions that best address individual and organisational needs and effectiveness?

  • Lease terms? Costs and timing of changes? How can we make this financially viable?

  • How does this relate to the diversity and design of our team member’s working from home environments?

It’s plain to see the winning organisations will be those who support their stakeholders in our collective re-negotiation of environments. If we're to create a better future, consciousness of our intrinsic relationships with space will be demanded of us all.


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