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Biophilia grows in Silicon Valley

We are intrinsically tied to nature and incorporating nature into our workspaces makes us happier and healthier.

So, you are at work at your Silicon Valley tech company and you have to go to the quarterly All Hands meeting. Do you grab a shuttle and go offsite to the nearby fairgrounds for the meeting? Or head to the massive windowless—or more likely, all glass—conference room with giant TV screens in a building on your campus?

How about a 500-person, outdoor amphitheater surrounded by redwoods? That’s where you would meet if your tech company leased space on the up and coming 18-acre Central & Wolfe campus in Sunnyvale. 

You would still be stuck in car-oriented Silicon Valley, but from multiple floors you have access to 90,000 square feet of rooftop gardens, and you are surrounded by lush open space and jogging paths that wind through tons of trees. Inside, you work next to living walls and you will never be more than 45 feet from a view or potential interaction with nature.

 “Increasing biophilic design into a space increases user experience,” explained Scott Jacobs, the developer of Central & Wolfe and CEO of Landbank. 

We are intrinsically tied to nature and incorporating nature into our workspaces makes us happier and healthier. 

Biophilia is one of the focuses of green design as defined by the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge, a building standard that offers design credits not only for energy, water and waste, but also beauty and biophilia.

Meanwhile, one of the focuses in Silicon Valley is the user experience. 

The concepts crossover in this Sunnyvale building project and they did at Net Positive, a recent green building design conference in San Francisco hosted by ILFI, where Jacobs presented. “Net Positive” refers to this design community’s goal of surpassing net zero energy and water use to achieve regenerative design in buildings and sites.

A focus on the user experience may be the way into energy/water savings and sustainability in Silicon Valley. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Daylight and natural ventilation, for example, are good for both reducing energy and enhancing the user experience. 

To be completed by March 2016, the project is pursuing LEED Platinum, Living Building Challenge and Net Zero Energy certifications.  At 770,000-square-foot of office space, it could become the largest net zero office yet. The majority of the water consumed on site will be reclaimed water. At least 18 percent of the electricity consumed will be generated on site, according to the developer.

Biophilia is about more than simply bringing nature, plants, fish, trees, stones and water into the space. The thirteen-and-a-half-foot ceilings throughout the interior, Jacobs explains, are “playing on our innate preference for higher volume, open space.”

 We may be unaware that we have an innate preference for higher volume, open space, but biophila scholars say we do, and designs that pay attention to evolutionary psychology and these innate human patterns can make us more comfortable. Amanda Sturgeon, executive director of ILFI, who hosted the discussion with Jacobs, explained the invisible currents of biophilic design.  “Our hunter gatherer instinct we have mapped in gives us these instinctive preferences,” she said.  For example sitting with our back to the door may feel uncomfortable because of our instinct to seek refuge.

 Recent studies on the economics of biophilia in buildings and site design show it not only increases comfort and enjoyment but also increases the value of the space financially. “People will pay 127% more for a property with a view of water,” Sturgeon said.

 Jacobs’ devotion to the occupant experience on this campus will attract a premium tech client who will pay more for it. As a bonus for this audience of Living Buildings followers, focused on energy and water—the biophilic and integrated design approach helps achieve energy and water savings.

 Energy and water are priorities for the developer and the design team (HOK and Point Energy Innovations). Yet, in marketing the property Jacobs has come to believe sustainability comes second for the tech sector audience.  

 “The story of sustainability kind of fell flat with tech clients. But once we start talking about the people, the parking, the views, now the tenants take notice,” he said.

 “I’m not trying to suggest these clients don’t care about sustainability. But the larger a company becomes, the harder it becomes to make energy savings a priority,” Jacobs said. He believes the reason is that these companies are spending a lot more on salaries than on energy.

 “A lot of these companies believe they will always be able to get energy at some price,” he explained, yet talent is scarce. And, “The real estate they occupy is an opportunity to influence their brand. A really compelling office space is an HR tool.”

Jacobs advised the Net Positive audience to talk about people’s experience with the building first and energy and sustainability second. “We need to find ways to increase awareness of biophilic design,” he said.  “This will make it easier to achieve our net positive aspirations.”


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