Facility Executive spoke with several leaders in workplace design about their forecasts on how the office will transform to incorporate more natural elements indoors and how the shift to conducting business outdoors will benefit everyone involved.
The recent global crisis has highlighted how important personal health is and how built environments can greatly impact the lives of its inhabitants, employees, and others that frequent these spaces. While “bringing the outdoors in” has had a long history in design, over the past decade, the blurring of indoor and outdoor has increased in popularity, specifically in the workplace industry. This design trend has shown that through incorporating biophilic design, people feel healthier both physically and mentally. By including these elements within an office space, employees are happier, and therefore, performance and productivity increase. Some designers are forecasting that now, more than ever, we need to go one step beyond merely incorporating small elements of nature into design by actually immersing ourselves in our surroundings—in other words bringing the indoors out.
Facility Executive asked these four workplace design experts to share their insights, and the story below reflects their observations.
- Paolo Trevisan, Head of Design, Pininfarina of America
- Jairo Vives, Lead Architect, Pininfarina of America
- Kate Wieczorek, Manager of Workplace Strategy, Ted Moudis Associates
- Louise Sharp, Principal, HLW
How Nature Is Influencing Workplace Design
Nature has been an essential part of human life since Earth’s original days. Early on, people recognized that through connecting with nature, they could live healthier lives. As more research emerges on the benefits of having access to nature, the demand for design that is both considerate of it and incorporates it has grown — a phenomenon that has been compounded over the last few months. Jairo Vives, Lead Architect at Pininfarina of America, explains, “Today, architecture must respond to the most basic human needs to reconnect with nature in order to have a more balanced lifestyle and be healthy from a holistic standpoint.” A connection to nature helps to promote healthy relationships with daily routines and more balanced lives.
Louise Sharp, Principal at HLW, agrees that the power nature has and how it aids in bettering the human experience is vast. “Prior to the pandemic, people had more engagement with nature and the outdoors, whether that was walking through a farmers market to get to the office or going to a nearby park for lunch. Without these daily activities, working from home can increase the feelings of isolation and separation,” Sharp explains. “People are looking for that connection to the natural environment in the smallest and easiest ways,” she continues. Because many people do not have access to outdoor spaces in their own homes, offices can provide this amenity. Sharp believes that the office can become a destination that employees go to when they are looking for a tranquil and calming environment.
As people rethink every aspect of their lives through a health-focused lense, office design must follow suit. Many offices are equipped with green walls, outdoor terraces, and other spatial elements that mimic the natural world, but more must be done to support the wellness of employees. Since the workplace trend of biophilic design started in 2010, it has always been seen as a “nice to have” rather than a necessity. Kate Wieczorek, Manager of Workplace Strategy at Ted Moudis Associates, says that this is no longer an option. “Scientific research and theories demonstrate that we have an intrinsic need for exposure to natural environments. We experience benefits in this such as increasing productivity, improving physical health, and promoting mental wellbeing.” By people being more aware of their health and wellbeing, companies must also find ways to support and promote the healthy lifestyles of staff.
Embracing The Outdoors In Existing Offices
One of the most efficient ways to provide tenants with access to nature is by converting existing outdoor spaces into public amenities. This can range from balconies to rooftops to terraces. By converting an existing space for tenants to use, not only can the employer provide their workers with a sought-after amenity, but the building too becomes attractive for prospective occupants.
For those looking to invest in renovating existing infrastructure, an important thing to consider is access to daylight. Sharp explains that the number one consideration for all design concepts should be this natural source of light. “Spaces must allow access to views and daylight for all. When creating a new environment, designers must give consideration to where rooms are located to allow for this. This could involve making physical changes to the infrastructure by adding skylights, solar tubes, or other means of introducing daylight into less traditional building types like warehouses.” Buildings should also consider giving occupants control of their settings like the ability to open and close windows, blinds, or shades. Giving the occupant the ability to change their environment can increase comfort while offering flexibility throughout the day as lighting and temperatures shift.
There are also simpler solutions each office can implement that are low-cost, but have a high impact. Vives discusses how biophilic design often tries to mimic the natural world rather than bringing us closer to the actual elements. One major point to consider for spaces is the air quality, which is measured and regulated by local and international building codes. “As it turns out, air-conditioned spaces have an acceptable level, but one that is not optimal for our wellbeing. Optimal is fresh natural air, free of pollution. We can achieve this by filtering natural air through plants, such as English Ivy, Aloe Vera, and Chrysanthemums.” Vives also suggests adding air purifiers to help clean the air in air-conditioned buildings. Options range from desktop fans to state-of-the-art advanced machines.
Creating An Optimal Experience, Inside And Out
Moving workspace outdoors presents a few challenges, but these can be addressed through creative design solutions. One obstacle that must be considered is how to mitigate the exposure to the natural elements. With those in colder climates having access to outdoor spaces for a shorter portion of the year and hotter ones needing cooling solutions for warmer months, each geographical location presents its own unique challenge. “Weather could certainly be a deterrent of this trend,” says Wieczorek. Still, she remains optimistic. “Opportunities for new technology in temperature control could emerge in order to support outdoor working.”
Another concern surrounds how accessible technology will be in these outdoor workspaces. “Access to technology can be more of a challenge because it requires infrastructure that is traditionally stored indoors and has been designed to serve specific building zones,” Sharp explains. “Diverse types of meeting settings can be explored to better suit outdoor work in the same way breakout spaces and conference rooms have evolved for interior settings.” Through creating different zones within an outdoor area like flexible spaces with rollaway screens and permanently built pavilions—like a greenhouse space within a garden—the level of technology a person has access to can shift. This will allow the infrastructure needed to support WiFi and Cloud services to be shielded from weather, while also allowing staff the flexibility to enjoy the outdoors.
Paolo Trevisan, Head of Design at Pininfarina of America agrees, “The key to designing an outdoor workspace is to always consider the human experience first. Providing adequate shade and integrating seamless WiFi connectivity are some of the essential elements to incorporate within the design of outdoor office spaces.” Designers are continuing to evolve their ideas and ways to solve these challenges. This moment in time provides the unique opportunity to explore how to alter designs and better incorporate the necessities of the office and its employees.
“We also can’t rule out the possibility that these outdoor spaces could or should remain tech-free,” proposes Sharp. “If what we’re craving is a venue for safe, human-to-human collaboration, a quiet spot outside may be better suited as a moment of relief and disconnect than simply another location to video chat.”
The positive impact the outdoors have on humans have been well documented as it relates to productivity. “As we see an increased focus on health and wellbeing in all aspects of our lives, biophilic design can be used as a tool for companies to make employees happy,” Trevisan explains. He and his team look to create solutions that promote wellbeing for employees and improve their livelihoods whether than be in or out of the office.
Wieczorek further elaborates, explaining that when a company provides a unique office experience, it can inspire employees to be innovative in their own work. A calming office can also benefit employees by creating a temporary escape. With offices incorporating nature and comfort, the office can now serve as a place employees go when they need to relax from the stresses and challenges of working from home. This is an opportunity for the office to become a destination employees look forward to going to even more than before.
Now is the time to push the boundaries of what an office space can be and what companies can offer its staff. By providing employees with the flexibility to choose to work outdoors or indoors, staff can feel like they play a bigger role in optimizing their happiness and productivity. With the right mix of natural elements and outdoor spaces, the office can serve as an escape for employees and act as a source of inspiration as they complete tasks. By designing through a holistic lens, designers can start to blur the indoors and outdoors even more.