The Civic in the Suburbs

How to Put the “Park” Back into the Business Park

July 17, 2018

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Planetizen.

Over the past decade, the public realm — comprising streets and public spaces like parks and squares — in downtowns and urban neighborhoods has been recognized as critical to the functioning and livability of a city. The public sector is increasingly allocating funds — or trying to allocate funds — for the provision of usable open space. In city centers, developers are wise to this renewed interest in public space. A “public realm provision is integral to the branding of new developments: these spaces are heavily programmed,” hosting everything from yoga classes to farmers’ markets.

Meanwhile, ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for 2018 [pdf] notes that as Millennials are beginning to reach their home-buying and child-bearing years, there is an expectation that demand for suburban office space will rise, bringing with it an expectation for “urban” amenities in suburban locations.

However, in the suburbs there is little or no space provided for true civic interaction.

The Challenge of the Civic in the Suburbs

Why should we care about the civic? The civic is the acknowledgement of our responsibilities to our fellow citizens; it promotes social cohesion, and, one could argue, is more important than ever in this era of political discord. Perhaps fostering a civic realm will help us know our neighbors, and we will look out for, and respect, each other; perhaps it will help mitigate the marginalization of the elderly, the infirm, and those simply viewed as “the others.”

The civic also allows us to navigate what sociologist Richard Sennett in “The Spaces of Democracy,” the 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture + Urban Planning, described as the fundamental diversity of urban environments:

“Difference” today seems to be about identity — we think of race, gender, or class. Aristotle meant something more by difference; he included also the experience of doing different things, of acting in divergent ways which do not nearly fit together. The mixture in a city of action as well as identity is the foundation of its distinctive politics. Aristotle’s hope was that when a person becomes accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, he or she will cease reacting violently when challenged by something strange or contrary. Instead, this environment should create an outlook favorable to discussion of differing views or conflicting interests.

Ride the Market

Private enterprise, for one, is beginning to recognize the importance of the civic realm. Life sciences campuses, technology parks, and enclaves of light industry are embracing what it means to be a contemporary and appealing workplace. They recognize that facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange is key to attracting the best and the brightest. They understand that their employees have rising expectations about access to amenities, the outdoors, and activities that contribute to well-being.

Certainly the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook have suggested new paradigms for how to fulfill these objectives. Encouragingly, even housing, supporting services such as grocery stores, and community infrastructure are being introduced to business parks. Business Insider reports that “Facebook, for example, plans to put 1,500 new housing units, a grocery store, pharmacy, and shopping center in the 56-acre Menlo Science & Technology Park it bought in 2015. The company calls the development a ‘mixed-use village.’” Facebook has agreed to pay $15 million in support subsidies and projects for Menlo Park, in addition to bringing $636,000 in revenue annually.

While Facebook seems to be taking a very progressive and inclusive approach, the creation of competitive corporate campuses inevitably focuses on the employee. However, we are citizens first, and then employees.

As business parks are redeveloping to include a greater mix of uses, as defunct malls are being repurposed or literally turned inside out, and as retail spaces become harder and harder to maintain in an era of online retail, this is an opportune moment to reconfigure the suburbs, make sustainability more than a buzzword, and create inclusive places and spaces that are truly imbued with a sense of the civic.

The Civic as Connective Tissue

To provide truly public and civic space, workplaces and retail parks must not only provide for their workers and shoppers, but must also contribute to their wider environment. Similarly, adjacent neighborhoods must be able to “infiltrate” the territory of the technology, life science, or healthcare campus, as well as the shopping mall. It is the generally underdeveloped zones between the campuses and the host suburb or town that provide the greatest opportunity.

civic connectorsPerhaps the suburban civic realm should reflect why people moved to the suburbs in the first place — they wanted access to open space and proximity to nature and natural systems. Or they wanted a more intimate lifestyle, in contrast to the anonymity of the city. As we consider the suburban context, we need to find opportunities to connect with natural systems, even if only remnants exist, and exploit their potential as a civic realm. After all, hikers greet each other on a forest path despite not knowing anything about each other. People do not do this in a public square or a shopping mall.

We must find ways to extend forest into the civic realm — literally and figuratively. The often daunting physical and perceptual distances between dispersed neighborhoods and diverse people can be bridged using natural systems, much like the BeltLine currently being completed in Atlanta, or the Old Croton Aqueduct trail that connects the small towns and suburbs north of New York City. (Indeed, a retail main street could never span the full length of some of these connective routes.)

Common Ground

The civic in the suburbs has the potential to manifest in destinations that, in the best cases, provide social cohesion — the recreation center, the legion hall, the youth club. Indeed, it provides an opportunity to explore new typologies — the primary school integrated with a seniors’ home by shared outdoor ground and roof space, or the library providing apprenticeships and workshops.

No uses are better positioned to provide an environment that fosters spiritual and physical well-being than those related to science, education, and healthcare. The built form should maximize accessibility and frame a public realm that allows for inter-generational interaction, recreation, physical and intellectual mentoring, debate, and collaborative production.

As “making” and a return to the trades becomes more prevalent, we can look to these sorts of activities to frame and activate the public realm. The Design Center in Boston, which houses Autodesk BUILD, is headed this way, as are many innovation districts. We need to ensure there are activities people can participate in for free, from gardening to outdoor chess to sports — activities that cut across generations and income groups. To this end it is worth learning about temporary uses from tactical urbanism and guerilla urbanism, which allow diverse communities to collaborate to test their vision of citizenship.

Next Steps

It is a timely moment to infuse the suburbs with a civic and meaningful public realm. Unfortunately, this is also an era when public resources are scarce. Therefore, to incorporate these civic spaces into re-configured portions of the suburbs, we will need to find ways to leverage space to accommodate them. To achieve those goals, we should consider mechanisms such as:

  • development impact fees that require the private sector to provide spaces dedicated to civic activity;
  • Business Improvement Districts or Public Improvement Districts where adjacent land owners support yet give over some of their control of the space;
  • locational criteria to ensure the allocated spaces can be active and safe;
  • and design guidance and form-based codes that all new development and redevelopment must conform to — which should be produced now, before the market dictates its approach.

If we are to create a civic realm in the suburbs, we need to be proactive. The market is advanced in ensuring its own needs are satisfied, but less so for ensuring a true civic realm for all. While urban design alone cannot reinstate the civic, it can provide much-needed platforms and forums for the interaction and shared experiences that suburbs — no less than their urban centers — want and deserve.

Banner image courtesy of Google Earth.

Illustration courtesy of Kathryn Firth/NBBJ.

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Neuroscience Is Optimizing the Office

How a Molecular Biologist and an Architecture Firm Teamed up to Reimagine the Workplace

July 3, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by the Wall Street Journal. It was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, partner at the architecture firm NBBJ, and John Medina, developmental molecular biologist, author and affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

 

As competition for employees and ideas increases, employers are looking to office design to give them an edge. That’s why companies like Amazon, Google and Samsung have asked us to create spaces that directly affect how their employees think and feel. Our research over the past four years has shown how design affects human biology and experience, allowing us to maximize comfort and productivity. This means creating spaces with all five senses in mind and thinking about the impact of everything from diet to color theory. Here’s a look at how the office of the future could promote the health of the organization and the individual.

 

Keep It Down — Unless Brainstorming

Neuroscience tells us: The human voice evokes some of the most potent emotional responses in our auditory experience. Voices in excess of 55 decibels — roughly the sound of a loud phone call — cause measurable stress. Even more disruptive are overheard “halfversations,” in which the listener is privy to only one side of a dialogue; our brains automatically imagine the other.

How design can help: Sonically diverse environments — private phone booths, outdoor gardens and acoustically buffered spaces for activities like brainstorming and team-building exercises — keep noise away from traditional desk setups. Sounds found in nature, like moving water, can be particularly helpful for drowning out disruptions. At Amazon’s Spheres, an office for 800 employees that opened in Seattle this winter, a rushing brook and waterfall permeate the workspace with continuous, calming white noise.

 

Go Green

100876_02_Spheres_N17_mediumNeuroscience tells us: Exposure to plants makes us less emotionally volatile and error prone; even pictures of plants have a calming effect. As a bonus, certain plants give off antiviral, immune-boosting chemicals called phytoncides that promote office health.

How design can help: Amazon’s Spheres contains more than 40,000 plants and hundreds of species, but just one plant per square meter can benefit mental and physical health — while creating a more pleasant-smelling work environment.

 

Seek Visual Relief

Neuroscience tells us: Humans have an evolutionary need for private spaces that offer a sense of safety, but we also crave vistas for inspiration — a condition known as prospect refuge. Open spaces foster creative thinking, while close confines increase focus. Specific colors have been shown to enhance or hinder these abilities.

How design can help: Enclosed, comfortable booths promote focus, while open floor plans with low seating, high ceilings and outdoor views can aid in brainstorming and creative ideation. At Tencent’s headquarters in China, seating along the windows provides views of the surrounding hillsides, while benches in secluded outdoor garden spaces give employees private, peaceful retreats. Colors should be deployed wisely: blue for stimulation, green for focus, and orange for decision-making.

 

101014_00_Samsung_N9_mediumGet a Move On

Neuroscience tells us: Just 30 minutes of aerobic activity can boost executive function and reduce stress; outdoor exercise increases these effects. At just 1.8 miles an hour — a moderate walk — reaction time and quantitative skills improve.

How design can help: The layout of each floor should encourage physical activity, with elevators hidden in favor of stairs, indoor and outdoor workout spaces where possible, and designs to accommodate walking meetings. At Samsung’s North American headquarters, employees are no more than one floor away from an outdoor terrace, where they can attend yoga classes or walk through campus gardens for meetings.

 

Eat to Think

Neuroscience tells us: Mediterranean-type diets — rich in fruits, nuts and vegetables — have been shown to boost cognition, particularly executive function, which is responsible for problem-solving and impulse control.

How design can help: Our design for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus courtyard included blueberry plants, which employees can pick and enjoy.

 

Banner image courtesy of NBBJ.

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Every Hospital Can Be Modernized

How to Upgrade Aging Facilities to Accommodate State-of-the-Art Operating Rooms

June 12, 2018

Medical Planner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Healthcare Design.

Operating rooms provide a critical component of a hospital’s continuum of care and constitute a substantial slice of annual revenue, not only in direct earnings from procedures, but also in their patients who fill hospital beds. It’s critical that hospital administrators maintain the productivity of their existing OR suites as well as provide procedural flexibility as market demands necessitate.

However, hospital administrators don’t always have the luxury of building new facilities when they need newer or larger ORs to support procedures that are increasingly more technologically complex and clinically demanding.

How can organizations find the space they need to meet these demands within their existing hospitals and avoid costly new construction? One strategy is to improve the productivity of existing surgery space by capturing and repurposing it, both horizontally and vertically.

 

Repurposing Space Horizontally

Most ORs in older hospitals are roughly 400 to 500 square feet. However, new technology demands, increases in the size of surgical teams, and the financial demands for ORs to be multipurpose—with the flexibility to support multiple specialties, such as cardiology, neurology, and oncology—have resulted in general ORs needing to be sized up to 600 to 650 square feet, with some specialty ORs requiring 750 square feet or more.

One way to increase OR square footage is to capture and renovate adjacent “soft” space, such as a clean core or storage space, which can add 100 to 300 square feet. The hospital project team then must develop new processes and operational models to replace the lost space and functional areas.

Another way to create space horizontally is by converting two substandard operating rooms into one highly functional one, which usually gains additional support space, as well. While reducing the number of ORs might seem counterintuitive, it can increase utilization, as one functional OR is preferable to two obsolescent ones. It can also expand a facilities services by making it possible to accommodate multiple specialties and procedures, which can maximize revenue as well as enhance recruitment and retention of the surgical staff.

 

Creating Space Vertically

New equipment competes for space not only in the room but also in the service space above the ceiling. The typical floor-to-floor height in a new facility is 16 to 18 feet, which allows room for changes in the necessary structural and mechanical systems. However, many existing buildings may have as little as 12 feet between each floor.

One strategy to address this issue is to replace large mechanical air ducts with more, smaller-sized ducts. This solution reduces the height of space required above the ceiling, however one tradeoff is that the increased number of ducts can congest overhead space, making it more difficult to arrange other equipment like electrical connections, lighting, boom mounts, and access panels.

A hybrid OR with integrated ceiling, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. © Sean Airhart/NBBJ

Hybrid OR with integrated ceiling, University of Washington Medical Center. © Sean Airhart/NBBJ

Another option is to use an integrated ceiling in which some or all components are prefabricated and coordinated systematically before being built into the room. Because prefabricated systems can be engineered more precisely than individual systems installed in the field, they yield a more compact, efficient design that can be accommodated in tighter floor-to-floor heights.

Different levels of integrated ceiling systems are available, from units that have all major and minor components integrated and prefabricated as an entire piece of equipment to others that include only the major structural and mechanical systems with space for the smaller components to be added in later.

An integrated ceiling can also be installed on-site quickly and easily, which can shorten construction and installation timelines.

 

Planning Steps

Operating rooms are complex spaces that require meticulous planning and design to successfully add space that will allow for more efficiency. Older hospitals considering updating their ORs need to evaluate their current state and determine which strategy to pursue.

For some facilities, their rooms may have enough square footage, but their ceilings and equipment may be outdated and inflexible. In these cases, innovations like an integrated ceiling can make it possible to update equipment and create flexibility for future technology within the existing walls.

Other facilities seeking to expand their ORs will need to determine which rooms are in a position to be merged to create the right square footage. Some steps to consider in this process include:

  • Understand the needs of surgical staff and the hospital’s surgery business plan.
  • Evaluate the physical plant, from the square footage of standard ORs to floor-to-floor heights and ceiling system infrastructure.
  • Assess room utilization and productivity.
  • Understand departmental support procedures.
  • Get input and involve surgeons in the planning and design process.

Once a facility determines that an upgrade is needed, the design team can develop a strategy to shift an aging group of ORs into high gear with the right amount of space to support the care needs of its patients and staff.

Banner image courtesy Russ Ward/Unsplash.

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