What Google knows about greener offices

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What Google knows about greener offices

Interior waterfalls and aquariums. Workstations that offer views of gardens, orchards and bright sunshine. Living walls brimming with ferns, ivy and other greenery.

A growing number of organizations from Google to the federal government are incorporating homages to nature into their office blueprints, not just to earn more green building certification points but to reduce employee stress, improve cognitive function and encourage creativity.

"Biophilic design is happening more and more as an outcome of sustainable design and as an outcome of particular design aesthetics," said Suzanne Drake, associate and senior interior designer with architectural firm Perkins+Will. "The driver has been studies that help validate what a lot of designers feel intuitively."

For those who need a primer, "Biophilia is humankind's innate biological connection with nature," wrote design firm Terrapin Bright Green in its recent report, "14 Patterns of Biophilic Design." "It helps explain why crackling fires and crashing waves captivate us; why a garden view can enhance our creativity; why shadows and heights instill fascination and fear; and why animal companionship and strolling through a park have restorative, healing effects. Biophilia may also help explain why some urban parks and buildings are preferred over others."

[Learn more about biophilic design later this month at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

Terrapin's founding partner, Bill Browning, has been abreast of the biophilic design movement since it emerged in the 1980s. Interest has accelerated in the past six to eight months, especially among the high-tech and healthcare sectors, he noted.

"This really focuses on the people rather than the design of the building. Some green buildings miss the human factor," he said. "A structure could be a great, green building but it might not be biophilic."

Pattern and response

Recent examples of groundbreaking biophilic design include the visitor center at the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, which is shaped like an enormous orchid for a flood of natural sunlight; the award-winning Via Verde housing complex in the Bronx, N.Y.; and the General Service Administration's modernization of the Federal Central South near Seattle, originally constructed as a warehouse. Among other things, the project converted large areas of "hardscape" into green space.

Judith Heerwagen, an expert in environmental psychology who is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington, said early pioneers in biophilic design are beginning to demonstrate tangible financial benefits.

For example, she points to research that shows hospitals can shorten the amount of time patients spend convalescing by providing them a view of trees or other elements of nature from their beds.

"If you can show a competitive advantage, it will catch on very quickly," she said. "Where you put walls, daylight is one of the biggest factors of all."

[Catch Judith Heerwagen in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.] 

Browning cites a more specific example involving the call center for a utility company. By spending about $1,000 per workstation to let employees glance outside, the organization was able to boost call-processing time and improve per-employee productivity by 6 percent, he said.

How can a company recoup that financial benefit? "You already see this captured in real estate values or hotel room prices," Browning noted. "The view of the parking lot is less expensive than the view of the ocean."

In its report on biophilic "patterns," Terrapin Bright Green highlights some of the more common design elements: visual and non-visual connections with nature; non-rhythmic sensory stimuli; variations in thermal and air flow; the presence of water; use of dynamic and diffused light; connection with natural systems.

Google's interest in biophilic design is probably best personified by its Healthy Materials Program, a corporate-wide program that screens building products for hazardous or health-questionable substances and seeks bio-based alternatives to items of concern. In addition, the company has issued guidelines for designing sunlight and fresh air into workplaces wherever possible, said Anthony Ravitz, Google's real estate and workplace services green team lead.

"Here at Google, we value feedback and want to make sure people are comfortable and happy, so every quarter we issue a workplace survey to understand how our workplaces, including the biophilic elements, impact the day-to-day lives of Googlers," Ravitz said in an emailed response to my questions about the company's interest in biophilia.

"We've found that Googlers with desks closer to windows are more likely to feel that their work environment lets them be more productive and sparks creativity," he wrote. "This feedback reinforces our belief that building design helps reduce stress levels, increase creativity and improve performance, and we'll continue finding ways to measure and support this."

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