Bringing the outdoors into the office: Coronavirus reinforcements push for healthier building design


CookFox Architects, a Manhattan firm that works on sustainability and green spaces in building design, is a showcase for biophilia, with its office building in Midtown fitted with three rooftop decks.

CookFox Architects

Even as the coronavirus pandemic worsens in the United States, stay-at-home orders in some areas have loosened and companies have fired some workers into offices with social distancing restrictions, temperature checks and plexiglass anti-sneeze barriers.

These new health precautions in the midst of Covid-19 are new for offices. But architects and office designers have long worked on innovations to make corporate space healthier and better for the environment – projects they say will be in higher demand even as millions of people work on it. home and businesses rethink their need for future office space.

“When you come back, when I come back, people will look at office buildings differently,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

“The plexiglass will be gone, but the focus on air quality, water quality, lighting and acoustics will remain,” Allen said.

Designers say the pandemic has boosted business interest in redesigning the workspace to simulate nature, have better air filtration systems, and use more materials that are better for the environment.

“Covid-19 has accelerated the interest of our corporate clients in health and well-being. These are inextricably linked to doing a better job for the environment, ”said Gail Napell, sustainability specialist and design resilience leader at Gensler architecture firm.

Napell said the company’s projects, which aim to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and create a healthier workspace, have gained momentum.

“We believe our goals will create great places for people and for the livability and health of the planet. At this point in history, that’s critical. We are where we are,” Napell said. “The real estate community has the opportunity to have a huge positive impact on the global climate and well-being.”

Push towards biophilic design

Companies are increasingly embracing biophilic design – the concept of bringing the health benefits from the outdoors to indoors while reducing energy costs and improving employee health and performance.

“The basic theory of biophilic design is to take advantage of the richness and complexity of nature and use this incredible ecosystem as a stress reduction tool to improve our lives,” said Rick Cook, founder of CookFox , a Manhattan-based architectural firm that works on sustainability and green spaces in building design.

“We found that people have higher cognitive performance when you design with these ideas in mind,” Cook continued. “We started out by trying to make buildings and spaces better for the environment … what we stumbled upon was how to make buildings quantifiably better for people.”

Biophilic concepts include the incorporation of green walls with plants that help purify the air; natural materials like wood in the spaces; indoor water features such as ponds and waterfalls; and circadian lights that provide different color temperatures to keep the body’s internal clock in line, like brighter white lighting to mimic daylight.

“All of these things were already on the rise. Covid-19 has happened and no one could have been prepared for it,” Cook said. “Now the option for outdoor space will be more in demand and high quality air filtration – people will pay a lot more attention to this.”

Pictured is an energy efficient LED module that complements a main ceiling lighting system set to circadian rhythms. Lights that have different color temperatures and intensities throughout the day help keep the body’s internal clock in line.

Americans spend more than 90% of their lives indoors, where indoor air pollution is up to five times worse than outdoor pollution, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Indoor pollutants like smoke, dust, mold, and chemicals from some paints, cleaners, and building materials are especially harmful.

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Research shows offices with artificial lighting, lack of windows and poor ventilation create more stress for workers and impair decision-making abilities, according to study published in the journal Environmental Health Outlook.

However, working in a room with natural light helps improve productivity and mental health, and employees who are exposed to natural light in offices sleep better because light improves circadian rhythms, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

“Covid-19 has accelerated the movement of healthy buildings,” Allen said. “Each sector is now talking about what it needs to do for health in the building, for Covid-19, the transmission of infectious diseases and beyond.”

Building healthier buildings

The pandemic has also highlighted the construction of new spaces adaptable to changing workplace standards and the need for more sustainable buildings to mitigate climate change.

Asheshh Saheba, managing partner at Steinberg Hart architecture firm in San Francisco, said his company is working on designing buildings with parking and garage structures that can adapt to changing transportation habits because the pandemic has reinforced transport practices that are better for the environment, such as cycling and walking.

Buildings are also adjusting to demand for outdoor workspace, such as terraces, and to widespread expectations that employees will be more mobile once the pandemic is under control.

“Being in an office and going out on the patio – this interaction with nature is something that has long been missing from the design of office buildings,” Saheba said.

“We are blurring the line between work and home,” he added. “Your office does not need to be closed to your desk.”

DCI Engineers’ San Francisco office incorporates sustainable, natural materials like cross-laminated timber and highlights the visual connection with the outdoors through organized view corridors to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Steinberg Hart / Vittoria Zupicich

Real estate developers are also turning to more durable and natural materials like solid wood or solid wood panels, rather than concrete or steel which emits more carbon dioxide.

Offices built with more wood store carbon and offset greenhouse gas emissions, reduce labor resources and produce a clear and natural interior, which can have positive effects on people’s health. who work there, in part by improving biophilic design.

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“The environment is different, being surrounded by a space made of a natural wood material, there is a feeling of warmth that you get with these materials,” Saheba said.

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“People who work or live in an environment like this, they are more inclined to take fewer sick days, they are also more inclined to always feel connected to the outside,” he continued.

Better ventilation

One way to add nature to an office space is to add houseplants, as the CookFox Architects office in Manhattan did.

CookFox Architects

When people finally return to offices after Covid-19, a major challenge for designers is to bring in more outside air and better ventilate office buildings without increasing the building’s energy use.

Modern office buildings typically have hermetically sealed windows to increase energy efficiency, a design that is positive for the environment but traps and circulates airborne contaminants, an issue that builders are increasingly addressing in addition because of Covid-19.

“For a long time, we were building tightly closed office buildings that kept us inside and outside outside,” Saheba said. “What we have discovered, especially with the pandemic, is that a tightly sealed environment puts us at a certain level of challenge.”

Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance, said Covid-19 has increased demand for high-quality air filters in ventilation systems and increased use of elevators in because of the social distancing requirements.

“With the big push towards healthier buildings, there is a risk that it will end up causing more energy consumption in the building,” she said. “The real estate market is always working to strike a balance between the need for extremely healthy buildings and extremely sustainable buildings.”



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