As Offices Evolve, Owners Look Outward

Even in densely populated locations, there are opportunities to design outdoor spaces for employees and visitors.

By Chi Lee

In a pre-COVID world, outdoor space was an attractive and desired amenity in the workplace but not a necessity. We would see these outdoor spaces take shape through small balconies and terraces in high-rise buildings or even on top of parking garage structures. As many return to the office while the country still fights the pandemic, outdoor spaces are no longer a bonus — they are essential. With health and wellness top of mind, company leadership and building owners and facility management must implement ways to keep employees and occupants safe while staying relevant within the competitive real estate market.

Outdoor space and its flexibility will make employees feel more comfortable about coming back to the office and help teams meet and brainstorm in person in a safe manner. For example, my workplace — Perkins&Will’s Austin studio — is a perfect reflection of this because we rely on our outdoor spaces more. The Austin studio is located on the ground floor and gives employees access to a paseo. Before the pandemic, employees only used this outdoor space periodically. Once quarantine was lifted, it quickly became the most sought-after space for employees to work together as it was one of the few safe places where we could meet and re-engage with clients and teams during the past year.

outdoor space
At the Perkins&Will Austin, TX studio, an existing paseo (or walkway) provides employees access to outdoor spaces. (Courtesy of Perkins&Will)

Suburbs vs. The Dense Urban Core

After the onset of the pandemic in 2020, people flocked to the suburbs for more space, both interior and exterior. Still, what about those in dense urban environments? With more space in the suburbs, it is easier to expand buildings to house flexible outdoor areas. The challenge comes when applying outdoor spaces to those properties in the highly populated, dense urban core, where high-rise buildings are the primary forms of real estate.

(Courtesy of Perkins&Will)
outdoor space
(Courtesy of Perkins&Will)

In urban environments, almost everyone has access to outdoor space at the ground level, but it is not always a workable space. Limited access at the ground level can also be a hassle for those that need to travel 10 floors to reach fresh air. There is an increased opportunity for building owners and operators to retrofit their properties within these densely populated areas to include outdoor space. As designers, we want to ensure that we are dispersing outdoor spaces beyond the main floor and rooftop, giving occupants a generous amount of outdoor accessibility on every floor through the addition of large, well-landscaped, covered balconies, and patios set on each level.

Building Factors Must Be Considered

Before moving forward with outdoor programming, structural and life safety concerns must be considered. For new developments, the architect and structural engineer will factor in the life safety and loads that come with the additional occupancy and weight of outdoor spaces throughout the design process. For repositions and renovations, a structural engineer is needed to determine whether or not the existing building structure can handle the additional loads that come with the addition of outdoor space(s) and what additional structure is needed if not. An architect will need to analyze whether the existing exit doors and exit stairs have the capacity to provide safe egress for the additional occupancy and if not, what measures are needed to do so.

Another primary consideration is the weather and maintaining the proper thermal and moisture protection, particularly if the outdoor space(s) will be directly above enclosed interior spaces. The architect will factor these conditions throughout the design process for new developments. For repositions and renovations, the architect will need to analyze and devise what methods will be required to retrofit the existing building to provide the proper thermal and moisture protection.

outdoor space
(Courtesy of Perkins&Will)

We also have to consider the climate of where the building is located. To have a successful and comfortable outdoor working area, the space must be ready for employees to use year-round. Whether this is satisfied by installing fans, heaters, or shades, the space should be weather-ready for the varying local conditions. These spaces also need to be properly landscaped and programmed to ensure the health and well-being of those that use them. Adding in biophilic elements like plants and other vegetation is sustainable and brings added benefits to the environment and employees. The addition of greenery can help clean and filter the air, mitigate noise, and help block the elements like wind and sun. A properly designed outdoor space contributes to an employee’s overall health and wellness and offers resiliency.

Financial Benefit

Adding outdoor spaces to a building also comes with financial benefits. While building owners may lose interior space by adding outdoor areas, they create more flexibility. The newly added outdoor spaces can become workspaces for employees to interact and brainstorm at a safe distance. In return, building owners can offer these outdoor spaces for rent just as you would for an interior space. This gives owners and operators the ability to maintain income revenue. If designed properly, shaded outdoor spaces can act as a solar and thermal barrier which can help reduce HVAC usage during the most extreme weather seasons. This results in a reduction to annual operating costs and a potential reduction on first costs, as building owners will only need a smaller, more efficient HVAC system if this is factored into the design. Depending on the climate, including operable windows and walls that open to the outdoor space(s) can also help reduce HVAC loads further by allowing the fresh air on comfortable weather days to condition the workspace instead of the HVAC system.

Repurposing Existing Office Buildings

The residential sector is also craving outdoor space. As office tenants continue to vacate leases due to COVID-19, we are seeing more building owners selling their corporate office buildings so that they can be transformed into multi-unit residential buildings. Converting a former office building into residences provides a unique opportunity — the width of the floors in office spaces is 50% wider than the typical residential floor. Because of this, architects can give each floor more dedicated outdoor space, such as a large balcony for each residential unit or a large, shared outdoor patio on each floor.

As we continue to combat the pandemic, the gradual return to work will be a hybrid approach for many companies. Part of the workforce is returning to the physical office, and the other half is continuing to work-from-home (WFH). For those working from home in the traditional multi-unit residential development, shared amenity spaces (both indoor and outdoor) are likely limited. As a result, we see the desire and need for directly accessible outdoor space increasing because this new at-home workforce is feeling stuck inside without an outdoor respite. The same benefits from direct access to outdoor space in the workplace described above also apply to residences. Residential design needs to consider how to support the growing WFH workforce’s needs. This offers a special opportunity for multi-unit residential developers to distinguish their development in a competitive market by accommodating this new demand.

Having outdoor space as part of a residence or office space is not a new idea, but the pandemic accelerated the need. Working outside offers resiliency in the face of the pandemic as people returning to the office can comfortably work outside and provide the WFH workforce flexibility where they live and now work. The addition of outdoor and indoor workspace will provide all employees with a safe environment while keeping their mental and physical health a main priority.

Lee is Principal, Corporate and Commercial at Perkins&Will in Austin, TX. At an early age, he knew he wanted to be an architect, and his passion for creating things only grew when he moved to New York City for college and the early part of his architectural career. Lee spent the majority of his career in Austin where he matured as an architect and transformed into a trusted advisor, a steward, and a friend to his clients. As such, he prides himself on mentorship, hoping to cultivate a studio of passionate designers equally as dedicated in influencing and transforming the future of Austin as he is.

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