Bringing The Outdoors In And The Indoors Out

Larry Lander outlines three ways to effectively design outdoor spaces that create compelling workplaces and foster a sense of wellbeing.

600 Canal St, Dominion Energy Tower; Richmond Virginia; Architect: Pickard Chilton

The importance of outdoor spaces in the workplace has been amplified by our year of the pandemic. We have learned over the past fifteen months that good ideas we had before the pandemic are even better ideas now. The pandemic has not so much caused a thing to happen as it has amplified it. Gallup’s latest research indicates three broad areas of attention that employers will need to negotiate as workers return to the office and one of these is identifying a “workplace value proposition”. Their report asks, “How do we get people to want to work on-site? What does our workplace offer that enhances the employee experience?”

The importance of outdoor spaces, their integration with interior workspaces, and the desire for a connection to nature are key characteristics of this new attention. As employees negotiate the return to the office, and as employers struggle to find just the right tone, the role of the workplace as a truly compelling destination will be critical to an organization’s message and ultimately, its success. The most compelling workplaces have three common characteristics that transcend location, work style, and industry. Workplaces must create an urban vibe, promote a collegial atmosphere, and connect workers to nature—what we have called a “Walk in the Park”. The science behind the relative safety of outdoor spaces in relation to the spread of the coronavirus has leant even further credence to the importance of outside spaces. We have long been aware that outdoor spaces provide a healing environment that humans crave, and the pandemic has emphasized this important idea even further.

This idea of a “Walk in the Park” can be exhibited in three ways:

Landscape as a visual treat.

Even without direct access to outdoor spaces, workspaces are increasingly exploiting views, access to daylight, and the biological importance of sunlight. Open planning, extensive use of glass for closed spaces, perimeter circulation paths with interior offices can open the exterior for all employees. Lighting and interior planning in perimeter zones are designed to harvest daylight for energy savings. Full-height and high-performance glass invites daylight deep into interior spaces. Ceiling heights in even spec office buildings may be ten feet or higher with even taller dimensions at the perimeter.

Compare two spaces and the feeling they convey, a traditional model of perimeter offices with open interior work zones limits connections to the outdoors for anyone without one of the perimeter offices. A simple move to create perimeter circulation or work zones with all solo seats on the interior, opens the outside to all and has the potential to push daylight deep into the interior zone. And the health benefits alone can be worth the investment. One recent study conducted by Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell, showed workers in day-lit office environments reported an 84 percent drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision symptoms, which can detract from productivity.

“The study found that optimizing the amount of natural light in an office significantly improves health and wellness among workers, leading to gains in productivity,” said Hedge. “As companies increasingly look to empower their employees to work better and be healthier, it is clear that placing them in office spaces with optimal natural light should be one of their first considerations.”

Functional outdoor spaces.

Gardens with outdoor rooms have proven very successful when they can be outfitted with the functionality usually reserved for interior meeting and collaboration spaces. Movable tables and chairs, actual protection from sun and rain, and even integration of audio-visual equipment and cooling or heating to temper temperature extremes can create effective and particularly desirable outdoor spaces that replicate highly functional, normally interior workspace. The spaces can serve as meeting spaces, dining spaces, as a change-of-pace collaboration zone, or simply alternative, but desirable, solo seat settings.

The workplace must be a compelling place to entice workers back to the office. One component in this equation is the variety of spaces in which to do work, whether solo or teamwork. This variety is not just sanctioned, but encouraged, and these choices need not be limited to only indoor spaces, but take advantage of thoughtfully designed outdoor rooms.

600 Canal St, Dominion Energy Tower; Richmond Virginia; Architect: Pickard Chilton

Seamless integration of inside and outside.

Here the idea is that the exterior flows seamlessly from inside to outside and back again. Colors, materials, and furnishings are repeated both inside and out. Walls of glass can slide away to make the outdoors part of the indoors and vice versa. Live plantings make living walls or interior gardens, while pressurized interior spaces and tempered air can make even seemingly inhospitable outdoor environments cool or warm enough to enjoy on all but extreme weather days.

Some of the most compelling elements in current workplace design have come from a close collaboration between the interior architect and landscape architect. Both disciplines focus on spaces for human interaction and when these work seamlessly together, the result can be one of the most dynamic spaces in a building. This idea of creating outdoor rooms has been characteristic of any number of prominent landscape architects, notably Dan Kiley, who described a language of landscape architecture “…to reveal nature’s power and create spaces of structural integrity. I suddenly saw that lines, allées and orchards/bosques of trees, tapis verts and clipped hedges, canals, pools and fountains could be tools to build landscapes of clarity and infinity, just like a walk in the woods.”

One of the exciting ways outdoor spaces have been integrated into interior spaces is to create terraces and gardens on any level of an office building. Once limited to ground level or parking decks, gardens are now integrated into building core and shell design in the form of outdoor decks, balconies, indoor atriums, and living walls.

Effective outdoor spaces integrating nature into interiors help create compelling workplaces that foster a sense of wellbeing, and make people healthier when they go home than when they arrived. Going forward, choice of where an employee might work (home, office, third place) will be a feature of employment with the best organizations and the need for the office to be a compelling enough place to attract and retain talent will be critical. The Walk in the Park is an important tool to provide highly desirable places for people to work—both collaboratively and independently.

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