The popularity of shared office spaces in North America – like the ubiquitous WeWork – has led to the debut of the first coworking spaces in China.

For nearly five years, internationally renowned architecture and design company anySCALE – which has offices throughout China – has designed 30 co-working spaces under the name “SOHO 3Q” for office developer SOHO China.

SOHO 3Q is a shared office community that offers open desks as well as private offices supported by shared spaces. To achieve its construction goals within narrow time limits, the design team developed layout standards to ease the design process while giving a strong and recognizable identity.

The idea of 3Q started in the fall of 2014. Zhang Xin (CEO of SOHO China) and Pan Shi Yi (Chairman of SOHO China) visited coworking spaces around the U.S., curious to see if the Western model could be adapted to the Chinese market. Shortly after their U.S. visit, they decided to test the market by creating two coworking spaces within their own properties. Those were the first coworking spaces in China and were designed by anySCALE Architecture Design, headquartered in Beijing.

“I remember Zhang Xin called us on September 14, shortly before the October holidays, saying that they’ve got a task for us, but we’d have only 120 days to accomplish it,” notes Andreas Thomczyk, anySCALE’s co-founder. “We had to design two complete projects and create a new product for SOHO 3Q – including the branding and visual identity – with no money [upfront], we’d only just gotten the task from them. It was obvious she knew we were the only architects who would be able to manage it in regard to the time restrictions.”

Thomczyk met Zhang Xin, Jerry Yin (head architect for SOHO China), and the rest of the top management of SOHO and was briefed on the new SOHO China 3Q concept.

“The briefing she gave us included a lot of technical details about the building, plus she gave us only three words describing the style of the space she expects – “hip, warm, and easy” – and that’s it,” Thomczyk recalls.

SOHO’s strategy then was to build up coworking spaces in two locations simultaneously: Beijing (the brand new Wangjing tower designed by the late Zaha Hadid) and Shanghai (Fuxing Plaza mix-use development designed by GMP), in order to test the Chinese market.

“AT THE BEGINNING OF THE COWORKING SPACES ERA IN THE U.S., THEY ONLY USED INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS, WHEREAS IN CHINA’S BIG CITIES AND TOP LOCATIONS, THERE ARE NOT SO MANY INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS.”
— Andreas Thomczyk,
anySCALE

Type of Spaces

More than 80 percent of all 3Q projects are housed in existing SOHO properties. The chief difficulty was that initially all those spaces were designed to fulfill completely different functions, and now they had to be redesigned and adapted from the original layout to become attractive coworking spaces.

The majority of property types available were shopping malls, office towers, and mix-use buildings. As a large developer in a highly competitive market, SOHO China had unused spaces in their buildings available to be refurbished and transformed into coworking offices.

“At the beginning of the coworking spaces era in the U.S., they only used industrial buildings, whereas in China’s big cities and top locations, there are not so many industrial buildings,” Thomczyk explains. “So for this country, it was obvious to look from a different perspective.”

That is exactly what they’ve done. anySCALE faced three redefinition challenges: redesigning the upper-level office spaces, turning shopping mall floors into coworking spaces, and bringing new life to the underground “leftover” spaces originally used for food courts or storage.

Executive Offices

The most restrictive spaces to design were the upper-level areas, consisting of a standard office floor with a low ceiling and common corporate lobbies, six to eight elevators inside of its core, and usually narrow spaces between the core and the outside façade.

The first step was to knock down all the walls and take out the ceiling to make it as spacious as possible without losing efficiency. It was important not to make it look like a typical office with tables in an open space. The design edict was to make the function intuitive for visitors and offer comfortable working spaces and lounge zones.

Retail Renovation

The other initial 3Q projects – Zaha Hadid’s iconic architecture and Fuxing Plaza in downtown Shanghai – were completely different because they were originally retail establishments. With the development of online shopping and its popularity in China, people tend to buy less in physical stores. Therefore, many existing shopping malls have become empty. For SOHO China, it was a ingenious solution to turn an unused shopping mall area into a coworking space.

“From an architect’s point of view, it is extremely interesting to [redesign a retail space],” Thomczyk says. “From a consumer’s point of view, it’s the same interesting and inspiring [space] as such places are ‘breathful’ with high ceiling levels and are very accessible and visible from the street. Passersby see the people working inside of the building, so the overall design concept has to take into account the interconnection with the outer world.”

Carving out small, intimate spaces within a larger open space gives SOHO 3Q Danling comfortable niches for collaboration.

Basement Suites

Technically the most difficult spaces to redesign were what was deemed “underground leftovers” because of the colder ambiance and lack of natural light. The towers or properties typically have a huge basement used not only for parking, but for storage or a food court — plus a very high ceiling. In many cases, there were underground spaces that had never been occupied since the mall plans were never completed.

The challenge was to turn these huge “caves” into lively places with a welcoming environment. The design team explained that spaces like these demand exciting ideas, such as bright colors and creating themes that have nothing to do with the building itself or the city, creating a world separate from the one outside.

“Redefining the spaces was challenging, but that is really what we are proud of. We have found the design solutions that, in the end, created the inspiring and reviving space with no pressure or flatness,” Thomczyk comments.

Design Solutions

Overall, the key pillars for creating inspiring coworking spaces as 3Q are: splashes of color, open spacious areas, automation of the design processes, and comfortable lighting for work.

The color range that anySCALE chose follows the predominant color of SOHO China: white. In each 3Q space, a lot of white is used, along with wood and concrete. White is then supplemented by warm fresh colors in the entrance of the space, followed by orange, yellow, red, and later fresh green, pink, and blue tones.

Compared to the U.S. coworking style, which is more of a masculine type – heavy, dark, and wood – SOHO 3Q designers, together with the Company itself, wanted to have a feminine design for the coworking spaces and yet fit in with the Chinese market.

To bring in the airy and light feel, designers apply very light wood on the floors and walls as well as the custom-built furniture. The anySCALE team always begins each project with open ceilings to provide as much natural daylight as possible. The designers find a mix of lights – from industrial pendants to warmer, residential lamps – yield the best results. “You cannot do industrial lights 100 percent,” Thomczyk explains. “That gets too cold and uncomfortable. The space needs warmer lights to be added, like those from the home environment.”

Fast Work

The average timeline for the design of each project, from initial conception to detailed design drawings, is approximately 50 days. A key element when designing in such a volume under tight timelines is to automate some of the design processes using a system that the anySCALE team developed.

Simon Berg, director of anySCALE’s Shanghai office, who worked alongside with Thomczyk and managed the rest of the design team, explained how they efficiently met the fast-paced demands of SOHO China. For example, developing the SOHO 3Q corporate design meant that some items – i.e. certain furniture, materials, or even meeting room layouts – be systemized. He created a library of all the corporate identity items and layouts which could later be accessed by the staff and plugged into their CAD drawings. “Obviously there were adaptations, but the principle remains the same,” Berg explains. “These design systems, which ranged from furniture types to wallpaper and poster lists, all helped us to work efficiently and fast.”

The design team learned as they went along in the process. “To keep things fresh and colorful, we started to use much more wallpaper than in previous projects,” Berg states. However, the tight timelines prevented them from doing it the usual way — by having the selected wallpaper delivered from overseas.

“We found the best way was to design our own wallpaper,” Berg remarks. It was actually faster for the design team to create their own designs and have them printed locally. As it is relatively easy to get custom-made furniture in China, the team handled the furnishings the same way, creating their own bespoke furniture library.

The Future

With SOHO China as the pioneer in developing 3Q coworking spaces in China, and with anySCALE’s reformative approach, their collaboration has further influenced co-working development around China. By establishing the corporate identity developed by anySCALE, SOHO 3Q has succeeded in bringing the “hip, warm, and easy” concept to the entrepreneur world and start-up community on a large scale.

PROJECT AT-A-GLANCE

Project name: SOHO 3Q (spanning 115,791 square meters in total; 4,632 sqm average per project)
Client: SOHO China
Architects/designers: anySCALE Architecture Design
Image credits: Jerry Yin, Xia Zhi, CreatAR, SOHO China

GALLERY