Ryan Mullenix

Ryan Mullenix

Partner, NBBJ, @ryanjmullenix
A co-lead of the NBBJ’s corporate design practice, Ryan is a strong advocate for data-driven design, a process that uses custom algorithms to link geometry with data to augment both human and building performance. His work and expertise have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, San Jose Mercury News, Newsweek, Quartz, Bloomberg News, CNBC and National Public Radio. He enjoys dragging his family along hiking trails throughout the Pacific Northwest, while secretly checking sports updates on his phone.

How Space Impacts Creativity in the Hybrid Workplace

A Research Endeavor to Improve Problem-Solving Through Design

February 25, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


The first time I heard author Daniel Pink speak about creativity was in 2003. As a futurist, he projected the employment challenges society would face because the jobs we’d steadily relied on were quickly becoming anything but. Roles that were “routine, rule-based, single discipline and managed” were disappearing, or at least becoming less important. Even two decades ago, the fields of accounting, law, manufacturing and retail were feeling this impact. In Pink’s words, work in the 21st century would be conceptual, empathic and big picture—perhaps not surprisingly, the very traits of creativity that make us distinctly human.

As an architect, I practice in a field where such creativity is paramount. To address critical issues from environmental impact and human health to urban integration and social inclusivity, creative individuals and teams are essential. This demand for ingenuity, however, is not specific to just the arts. Corporations have long leveraged creative skillsets to drive innovation and differentiation in their products. At the time I was listening to Pink’s predictions for the future, Stanford University’s d.school was forging its existence, helping people unlock their creative potential to tackle some of the messiest problems in healthcare, education and social innovation.

This necessity for multi-faceted creativity in the workplace has led NBBJ to various cross-disciplinary collaborations over the past years. Our primary intent for such exposure has been to improve how our ideas help organizations perform at their highest level. In a recent research partnership with Kristen Dong and Tyler Sprague at the University of Washington, we collectively pursued a deeper understanding of creativity to specifically guide how NBBJ designs the spaces and relationships that allow people to do their best thinking. The following post outlines our process and findings on how to create ideal platforms for generating ideas.

But First, Why Design for Creativity?

In an ideas-based economy, competing with the best thinking starts with offering environments to attract the best thinkers and provoke the best thoughts. It doesn’t stop there. Creative employees are not only more effective workers—they also tend to be happier people. Employees with creative agency report higher productivity and fulfillment as well as higher retention rates. As an innately human characteristic shared by cultures around the world, creativity also fosters an inclusive mindset. Like the “yes, and” of improv, it supports thinking that is open to new and different perspectives. An environment that encourages these benefits is one worth getting right.

Approach and Learnings

For the sake of our exercise, we defined creativity through the lens of the Alternative Uses Test, designed by J.P. Guilford in 1967. Given creativity is difficult to measure and evaluate—and that many we interviewed stated they were not “creative” types—we inquired about tasks related to creativity in addition to direct evaluations, such as open-ended problem solving ability. We also utilized a mixed-methods study to make sure our quantitative and qualitative data supported each other.

The study focused on 36 different social and spatial factors in workspaces. It included questions regarding behavioral outcomes prior to work-from-home conditions demanded by Covid-19. Following the quantitative evaluation, we interviewed a smaller group of participants for qualitative insights. Although unintended, our research efforts coincided with the very beginning of the pandemic. The impact of remote work and distanced interactions yielded a condition that enabled us to explore creativity through a narrowed—but no less complicated—lens.

Finding 1: Regardless of the Workplace Setting—Whether in the Office or at Home—Control Remains Important

The pandemic certainly accelerated discussions happening prior to Covid-19 around what a workplace should be. The importance of choice in the workplace—how space is physically used and the behaviors around those uses—remains fundamental to employee satisfaction and performance, whether remote or in an office. The work-from-home scenario surprisingly didn’t solve the issue of control—while people had greater autonomy over their direct atmosphere (i.e. temperature, lighting, noise, posture, dress), they had less influence over their periphery (i.e. housemates, access to the outdoors, room proportion, furniture options).

Datapoint: Those with high agency to adapt their space were the best performers in work-from-home; those that had low agency fared the worst. Study participants with low design agency in their space were poor performers across all behavioral outcomes.

Potential: Design for Convenience in the Hybrid Workplace

  • Easily accessible temperature and lighting controls provide an office convenience that is often an afterthought in a home environment.
  • Wheeled, modular furniture is an inexpensive, low-tech means to allow for a variety of configurations and greater sense of control.

Furniture that allows for multiple configurations, and easily controlled lighting and temperature, contribute to a sense of agency that helps to enhance performance.


Finding 2: Perspective Matters, Everywhere

How you—and others—literally see ideas offers a unique prompt difficult to achieve in the virtual world. Per our research, displaying ideas in various ways appeared to inspire divergent thinking, boost collaboration, clarify vision, and enhance innovation. This finding, however, wasn’t limited solely to moveable partitions and animated walls. Whether remote or in-person, interactions that are familiar or static can limit the way we stretch our thinking. However, per our research, it appears that exposure to different stages of development, life issues and communication styles initiated important mind shifts by introducing new vantage points, whether socially or physically.

Datapoint: Caregivers who lived with families reported the highest creativity among all participant demographics. Those that lived alone struggled. As trying as it was for many of us to balance work with caregiving, this activity appeared to provide an unforeseen benefit.

Potential: Design for Multi-Generational Relationships

  • While remote work has been difficult for many, participants noted this has allowed for more flexible schedules and improved individual problem solving.
  • Peer-only relationships can be limiting. Encourage cross-generational groups that are not solely project- or department-specific.
  • Opportunities to teach, coach, or care for others may provide important outlets for staff not yet engaged in an organization or community.

While remote work has been challenging, the opportunity it provided for caregivers living with families to engage in intergenerational interaction resulted in increased creativity. Designing for multi-generational relationships and mentorship in the workplace can provide similar benefits.


Finding 3: Despite Technological Advancements That Improve How We Interact, Creative Thinking is Still Heavily Influenced by Our Physical Surroundings 

Most participants reported struggling to match their former performance prior to remote work and learning. 50% shared a workspace with others, and 70% said mental health issues impacted their ability to learn. Generally, interviewees felt less effective in productivity, team problem solving, time management and open-ended work (e.g. writing an essay). Individual problem solving was improved, implying that isolation from others was helpful for this type of thinking. In our qualitative interviews, people voiced a need for more space, separate space and minimal distractions as critical to improve their creative thinking.

Datapoint: According to the survey, the best place to work was a dedicated office room with furniture that allowed for movement and platforms for ideas. These spaces, however, were the least common spatial features in participant workspaces. Conversely, the worst place to work in was a kitchen without windows or spaciousness. While having these elements didn’t contribute to better performance, lacking them significantly affected participants.

Potential: Design “More” Space

Expansive spaces can boost creativity. An element as simple as the height above you can have an impact on how a space supports ideation or focus. Whether at home or in a formal “workplace” this sense of expansiveness can reduce stress. Therefore, for employees who are primarily remote, it is important for employers to understand how constraints of their remote space may limit their contributions. This may suggest organizational support through a “home office in a box” kit.

  • Increase perceived dimensions through mirrors, natural lighting, and high ceilings to make spaces feel larger than the floor plan allows.
  • Create comfort through contrast by offering differing scales and juxtapositions. A small space next to a large open area can make an individual feel more comfortable (the strategy of prospect and refuge) while making the overall experience feel more expansive.
  • Build in separate space to rest or step away from work. Research suggests that taking a break in a direct workspace rather than outside of it are not as restful or beneficial to creativity.

A feeling of expansiveness can increase creativity. High ceilings, differing scales and contrasting spaces all contribute to an environment that is more conducive to ideation or focus.


Potential: Design for Movement

Numerous studies show movement enhances creativity by boosting cognition, learning, memory and decision-making. Even in confined conditions, workplaces can encourage people to move in different ways. By using standing desks and yoga ball seating, participants responded with the highest creativity and problem-solving abilities.

  • Quiet flooring allows occupants to tap their feet or fidget without disturbing neighbors.
  • Workspaces that are separate from eating and relaxing areas will force movement, but it is important to consider transition spaces as well. These areas must be inviting while encouraging a quick “mental break.”
  • Consider the difference between a prompt and an inconvenience. If spaces are too troublesome to travel through regularly, occupants will find a workaround or skip movement altogether.

From small-scale solutions like flooring that muffles the sound of tapping feet, to inviting transition spaces that encourage a mental break, promoting movement enhances creative thinking. However, if spaces are inconvenient or hinder travel, they may have the opposite effect.


Creativity remains a trait that is hard to define when present, but highly noticeable when missing. Factors of personal perception, background and area of study will continue to frame how individuals and organizations reference this elusive term. Yet new research is enabling designers to identify techniques that will encourage diverse thinking through environments and behaviors. As expected, the spaces and dynamics around us remains critical, but so do the people we interact with outside of our jobs, especially in the post-Covid workplace. As companies look for consistent differentiation in their work and products, these creative advantages may not only help them recruit and retain the best talent, it may also offer holistic wellness while delivering better financial and cultural returns.



  • Future Research Centers: The Place of Creativity and Innovation. Bisadi, M., Mozaffar, F., & Hosseini, S. B. (2012). Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 68, 232–243.
  • Creative environments for design education and practice: A typology of creative spaces. Thoring, K., Desmet, P., & Badke-Schaub, P. (2018). Design Studies, 56, 54–83.
  • Literature review and interviews on the impact of space on creativity using previously defined space typologies. Thoring, K. C., Guerreiro Goncalves, M., Mueller, R. M., Badke-Schaub, P. G., & Desmet, P. M. A. (2017).


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Humanizing Skyscrapers

Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction

January 6, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in NAIOP’s Winter 2021/2022 Issue under the title, “Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction.”

This post was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, Dr. John Medina and Greg Smith


Tall-building innovation has been driving architectural conversations for centuries. Society has long marveled at structures that brought humanity closer to the heavens. From the time of the construction of the 138-foot-tall Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885 (widely considered the first modern high-rise) to the 2010 opening of Dubai’s 2,723-foot-tall Burj Khalifa, the tallest buildings grew approximately 20 times in just 125 years.

This ambition is both understandable and applaudable. Tall buildings create more value for less land, not only in increased square footage but ideally through less lifecycle resource expenditure. Tall buildings also help address population challenges. According to research from the University of Texas, earth provides around 24.5 million square miles of habitable land, but as the number of people has increased almost five times in the past 100 years, the amount of habitable land has stayed relatively the same. The acreage per person has been reduced by about 80%, from almost 10 acres in 1900 to just over two in 2020.

For those looking to build higher, where has the conversation been focused? Most discussions on high-rise innovation tend to address three areas: conveyance (how one moves up and down), structural design and materials (how a building resists wind and earthquakes), and exterior walls (how energy performance can be improved). Recently, mechanical system efficiency and speed of construction have entered the dialogue. Given the significant impact of each of these factors, it’s no surprise that the design of the building core, a concrete block filled with elevators and shafts, usually demands the most attention.

What is surprising, however, is that these topics remain similar to those that surfaced over a century ago, when technological advancements first enabled society to build higher. The conversation is still rarely around how people — or organizations — stay healthy.

Humanizing Skyscrapers
A substantial number of developers and corporations see the future of the built environment as one centered on community. In recent years, buildings such as the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Leadenhall Tower in London and Tencent’s HQ in Shenzen (which includes elevated gardens, porous ground floors and amenity-based sky bridges) emphasized the importance of interaction. Their investigations prompt a powerful question: if high-rises were designed around people — not systems — how would that process begin?

To answer this, it’s important to explore the intersection between the science of buildings and the science of the brain.

What Makes us Human?
Designing high-rises in a people-centric manner requires an active knowledge of how the human brain responds to built environments. The first insight from the cognitive neurosciences is frustrating, however. The human brain reacts to the modern world as if it were still living in the Rift Valley of East Africa, many thousands of years ago.

How is that gap bridged? Humans evolved to be social animals. Relational interactions soon became a crucial part of human survival, a fact that was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any building that supports such interactions is likely to be successful.

A second insight occurs in humans’ ability to adapt. Though we appear to be creatures of habit, we actually don’t like being in places that are static. We appreciate experiences that are repetitive enough for simpler navigation, but those spaces must be unique enough to ensure our environment isn’t boring. Though we often hate change, the brain is surprisingly good at it.

Integrating Tall Buildings and Humans
In contrast to what benefits the human physiology, tall buildings are comprised of a substantial number of floors that are isolated; massive structures and greater distances from the ground or roof reduce interactions with colleagues, urban experiences and the outdoors. Although the exterior may be dynamic, the tenant experience is often anything but.

Given this context, the following ideas provide insights on how to broaden the dialogue to include innovative thinking for both buildings and human performance.

Spaces to think. Ceiling height influences different types of cognition. According to neuroscience research, a tall ceiling supports divergent thinking, while a compressed ceiling helps us focus on detailed resolution. Skyscraper floors are typically undifferentiated — the repetitive floorplate dictates a repetitive layout under a non-varying ceiling.

At The Net in Seattle — a new 36-story high-rise that recently broke ground — high-volume spaces throughout the building will create unique environments for various modes of creativity. The ground floor offers a 24-foot-high daylit solarium and a range of conditions throughout. The uppermost floor provides 30-foot ceilings for ideation sessions and events that are immediately adjacent to a three-story landscaped park.

Spaces to move. Our ancestors used to walk up to 12 miles a day. In a high-rise, going for a stroll likely requires an inconvenient elevator ride to a small ground-floor lobby that squeezes out onto the sidewalk. Placing egress stairs — usually an artificially lit element buried in the center — next to the exterior wall implores occupants to think twice about how to get from A to B. At The Net, a 36-story stair is adjacent to the elevator bank and occupies part of the façade. A code-required element, the stair now provides benefits to tenants without reducing rentable square footage.

Spaces to learn. Winding paths, plenty of nature and varying types of unpredictable movement are ideal for how we focus and retain information.

Outdoor spaces in tall buildings — if provided at all — tend to be relegated to any roof area that remains after cores and mechanical penthouses are placed. Direct floor access to the outdoors is rare in office projects over 10 stories tall. Stacked atriums that combine natural worlds to discover with verticality are a powerful mixture that can improve cognition. Even simple balconies can provide benefits.

Spaces to comfort. Pandemic-enforced isolation has taken its toll on the mental health of the worldwide workforce. Most tall buildings are limited in their ability to support multiple configurations for diverse work needs, including emotional and mental health. Elevator arrivals tend to occur in the center of the floor, and high-traffic areas like restrooms and service elevators have a large impact on acoustics and privacy. Spaces for refuge are rare.

Can a high-rise building environment aid in addressing mental health? Possibly. To take one short-term example, tall buildings might embed places where tenants could find temporary relief from psychological stress at work (WIRED calls them weeping paths).

At The Net, moving the core from the center of the building creates an open floorplate that is readily reconfigurable based on needs. Instead of being constrained to a single lease depth between the core and the exterior wall, spaces can be more graciously created for arrival and collaboration, and, just as importantly, respite. This footprint allows for different tenants to craft an experience that reflects how they work now and to adjust an experience based on how they need to evolve.

Initiating the Next Discourse
The past 125 years of high-rise dialogue has yielded some remarkable outcomes. Developers, designers, architects, engineers and contractors have collaborated to achieve unbelievable heights on properties that are often smaller than a football field.

High-rises can add value to their inhabitants. They can ignite greater creativity and cognition. Tall buildings can encourage healthier bodies and teams. They can enable individual choice and control for those moments when life and work intersect. Adding an unexpected but unsurprisingly relevant mindset like neuroscience can ensure that, as we build taller in the years to come, the distance between us and the ground does not increase the distance we feel between each other.

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Think COVID Shapes The Future Office? Think Again.

The overlooked influences that will more strongly define where we work.

July 8, 2021

Partner, NBBJ


The impact of COVID is extraordinary. An unexpected, yet accelerated conversation has compressed a century of debate on how to work better into a one-year dialog.

Our comfort level – high or low – with offices leads to an expedited resolve to address long-lived conversations around density, commute, work mode, remote connectivity, and physical health. It’s also caused us to question more deeply how work affects life (and vice-versa), what an office provides that we can’t get at home, and the impact of our jobs on our communities and our mental wellbeing. We have elevated both personal and collective discernment around what is needed to be our best.

This experience also has resurfaced not only much of what was already known, but what is often overlooked – or underappreciated. We are social beings, yet we are unique individuals. We enjoy convenience, but don’t necessarily learn well when just one click away. We are inherently connected to nature, but not all of us have direct access to that benefit.

As businesses contemplate their next workplace, leaders will be asked to answer multiple questions that impact recruiting, productivity culture, and experience. That response will likely center around one initial fundamental ask: why should employees return?

Many agree that a physical workplace offers a chance to engage in ways we can’t remotely, and yet a remote environment provides control and refuge that doesn’t happen in an office. Many also acknowledge that our next workplace – whatever that is – cannot be the one we previously knew. Space, behaviors, and schedules must all shift to accommodate learnings from our remote experiences. Offices – or whatever they will be known as – must now provide experiences and benefits we can’t get elsewhere.

However, as these messy, unique, and highly-personal situations are contemplated, there may be a risk of missing specific cues that are critical to long-term support of the best talent and ideas, regardless of where they do their work. Here are five areas of organizational awareness that should not be overlooked:

Most employees of innovative companies are eager for learning opportunities that continuously provoke new levels of awareness. Although much of that learning may be specific to how to improve skillsets and feed curiosity, that drive is also related towards discovering personal style and approach. Critical career guidance is often less about who one wants to become and more about the traits they hope to avoid (Harvard Business Review – the Good, the Bad, the Productive).

Dedicated advocacy programs coupled with “structured serendipity” – the intentional overlapping of colleagues through schedule and work modes – can lead to a perpetual education loop. Peripheral training – sessions that are less specific about doing tasks better and more geared towards personal improvement and advancement – is an opportunity to create well-rounded employees who are better students, teachers, and citizens.

For years, organizations selected a location based on where they could do the most business. Talent followed, arriving in those places in droves but sometimes settling for the local lifestyle offered. As costs of living and technological advancements rose exponentially, work locations shifted to places where companies could discover emerging talent. Proximity to universities, research institutions, and airports were key attributes. Now, as individuals prioritize lifestyle, companies are realizing their real estate “presence” may likely need to be anywhere. Talent is choosing a preferred way of life, and businesses are following – a complete reversal in the conventional chain.

Reconsider what a convening places is; the future office will be versatile and scaled to suit, fitting in everything from downtown towers to shopfronts to community centers to homes.

From the start of the pandemic, there has been an understandable concern around “haves and haves-nots.” We know that in-person collaborations often start before – and continue well beyond – the scheduled meeting time. For those calling in for specific time frames, those important conversations will be missed, putting those in a remote setting at a potential disadvantage. There is much discussion around means and technologies to address these circumstances, including protocols for hybrid mode versus full remote or in-person mode. A bigger gap, however, may likely be growing between generations. Although technology makes it seem as though there is a level playing field, those who have years of experience in either the industry or with an organization tend to have established relationships, networks, and institutional knowledge regarding how to successfully lead. They also are often later in their career, and their remote environment tends to be more conducive to the work they do – more space and fewer interruptions. These experiences skew the reality of what most of a workforce might be experiencing.

What an in-person space offers to younger or newer employees can help address this disparity. What a company provides for its employees at home can as well.

In the next five years, the majority of our workforce will consist of a generation that has witnessed social injustices, a changing climate, a mental health crisis, and a pandemic. They will expect their employers to not only take positions but, more importantly, actions on how to combat these issues. The environments and experiences of a day at work will be scrutinized not just through a lens of personal growth, but through a deliberate focus on how that day makes life, society, and the planet better. Ideally, employees don’t have to choose between volunteering and a career.

Exposure to impact – and opportunities for further contribution – should be a part of every company’s dialog. Narratives and physical links to these outcomes are a great start; co-sharing spaces with those you’re impacting might bring more meaning.

The tie between a company’s business vision (i.e. what it does in the market) to a company’s ethos (how it reflects its beliefs) is an emerging metric many employees are considering. Much like the generational expectations noted above, employees are selecting where to work based on how well a company “walks the walk.” The more palpable the benefit of one’s work on others (socially, environmentally, economically, culturally), the stronger the emotional tie between a job and a contribution. Consider moving beyond the passive customer connection (displays and stories) to active customer relationships (embedded service centers and partnerships).

The experiences an organization provides for a customer extends beyond simply how they use an interface. When a team can sense the value they bring to the customers they serve, they not only improve their awareness of a quickly evolving market, but of how to improve the product being created.

After a year of incubated debate, there will be tremendous pressure to provide an ultimate outcome. Some organizations will return to the office as if nothing happened, others will move forward as if the office never existed. Most will occupy an interstitial space that ranges from furniture solutions and revised sharing ratios to a radical rethinking of how physical environments offer restorative experiences.

It’s becoming more obvious that 2021 will be the big experiment, so treat this upcoming year like the scientific method – create a hypothesis, test, iterate, and start again. Also recognize that the best outcomes in life usually require some sacrifice. In our personal lives, diet and exercise in exchange for better health is a daily reminder of this trade-off. At work, it will be important to assess where individuals and companies should stretch for greater fulfillment and personal reward. These less-discussed but no less important influences will likely be the true drivers of the next workplace.

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Staying Human in a Digital Workplace

Ten Research-Based Ideas to Improve Hybrid Work Settings

June 17, 2021

Partner, NBBJ


A major disruption on many fronts, the Covid-19 pandemic also challenges nearly every standard methodology around work. The resulting tension provides an opportunity to ground daily work habits in a deeper understanding of human nature. People seek meaning in their jobs through multiple ways, especially through the context of relationships — a trying predicament inherent in a remote or physically distanced workplace. Effective outcomes require recognizing such limitations and using research-backed design strategies to support the agency, behavior, creativity and unpredictable beauty that ultimately makes us human.

As organizations transition back to the physical office, many will continue remote working policies or create hybrid workplaces with a mix of off-site and co-located workers. Depending on organizational vision, mode of work and personal preference, this approach will present both unique challenges and opportunities. Through NBBJ’s Fellowship Program with brain scientist Dr. John Medina, we identify 10 research-based ideas for improving engagement and productivity in these new workplace experiences.

Meeting Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
In hybrid workplaces, a significant amount of communication occurs via videoconferencing and other technologies. Creating productive remote work environments that more closely approximate in-person meetings are critical to addressing a major challenge of hybrid workplaces — remote workers may be at a disadvantage due to technology gaps and lower visibility.

Additionally, while technology transforms aspects of how we work, it is often still an impoverished form of communication. Zoom fatigue is real — video meetings are more exhausting than in-person conversation because the brain must fill in gaps of information it normally gets through face-to-face conversations. Our reliance on body language is so strong that we often only hear 25% of what is said (and surprisingly retain only half at that).

With that in mind, here are five key protocols that can help address these limitations to create a better remote work environment:

Share Meeting Materials in Advance
Meeting organizers should provide written meeting agendas, materials and goals prior to meetings. This approach compels organizers to crystallize their thoughts in advance and allows attendees — whether remote or collocated — to prepare. The outcome is a true discussion that encourages synchronous interaction versus a presentation.

Make Meetings as Interactive as Possible
Meeting attendees should read the agenda and materials prior to the meeting and come prepared with ideas, comments and questions. The organizer can begin with a brief summary, but then move quickly to a more interactive discussion. The more interactive the exchange, the better the material is retained.

Ask Questions and Clarify
Remote communication increases the odds of being misunderstood, so it is crucial that everyone feels empowered to ask for clarification as soon as a point of confusion arises. This helps ensure clearer communication; if a frequent practice, it also helps impart a feeling of safety in the group, which tends to be in short supply in remote settings.

Practice Good Listening Skills
Everyone can improve their listening skills. Research shows that great listeners actively comment and ask questions, and avoid pressuring the speaker even when tough questions are posed. This supports cooperative conversations in which no one dominates or gets defensive. Keep in mind that people engage in different ways—a lack of response may not indicate disinterest, but that another approach is needed to get input.

Rethink Virtual Platforms
The above-noted behaviors can be supported by communication tools that bring more of the human body into the field of vision, and use color and other visual elements to capture non-verbal cues. More visibility into the workplace for remote workers can improve awareness of others and prompt important unplanned connections.


Design and Workplace Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
Individuals have the highest awareness of what habits and preferences work best for them. Forward-thinking organizations must leverage this knowledge to create processes and spaces that enable people to not only reconnect to one another when the pandemic recedes, but to map out their optimal workday. This is particularly important in hybrid workplaces, where, as more workers shift back and forth between office and remote work, there will be an increased need for individual flexibility.

To support the balance between individual prosperity and organizational success, here are five strategies to consider in creating a workplace that reflects both:

Understand Team Needs and Preferences
People have different preferences for how, when and where they work. Developing question sets that explore how these preferences vary across teams can be a useful, straightforward step towards creating more productive team dynamics and tailored schedules that take individual work habits into account. For larger companies, a framework that enables teams to manage themselves will likely lead to faster overall growth and camaraderie than a single blanket policy.

Encourage Personal Agency
Research shows that encouraging choice reduces stress and improves job satisfaction. It can also help people make better decisions to support their personal and professional development, and build understanding as to how, when and where they feel most productive. People offered more choice in how they organize and collaborate should arrive at the best setup for their individual needs. Configurable “kit of parts” spaces designed for smaller autonomous teams can provide significant flexibility and enable teams to experiment to find optimal work arrangements. Consider how this benefit can extend to remote environments where some may not have true agency due to apartment size or housemates. Also acknowledge that agency can be intimidating—develop a means to evaluate how well these choices are benefitting individual employee satisfaction and growth over time.

Support Diversity and Autonomy
The pandemic popularizes flexible work models which are likely to become a more permanent feature. Expanded and unconventional work shifts that encompass remote and office modes can be supported and coordinated to provide individuals with the work schedule that best aligns with their chronotype, work habits and role and life responsibilities. With many companies looking to reduce the number of workstations, amenities will also become more important as spaces that support a wider variety of individual and team work modes.

Promote Wellbeing
The health and wellbeing of the workforce is critical to organizational success, impacting everything from job turnover to performance and brand image. Organizations can consider realigning corporate values and priorities and developing new success metrics to support physical and mental health. Workplace design can incorporate strategies that support movement like stairs and walking paths while offering a connection to nature that may not always be possible in a remote setting. Wellness amenities that employees can’t get at home will be a valued in-person benefit.

Maintain the Intimacy of Working From Home
The working from home experiment builds deeper connections among some colleagues as they “invite” each other into their homes. In hybrid workplaces, it will be important to find ways of retaining and promoting those personal connections by imbuing them into the office. Layouts which group workers into smaller team areas with flexible furniture configurations, for example, can encourage greater intimacy and personalization. The harshness of a conference room compared to the softness of a home or hospitality environment will be readily felt, perhaps underscoring the gap between remote and in-person. Finding a more seamless transition that is able to be personalized in both realms will be critical.

The past year has initiated a chaotic yet revealing series of conditions that many are just beginning to comprehend. However, just as we grapple with these learnings – some new, some decades old – promising results from vaccines plus the desire for clarity in the year to come has created an urgency for organizations to define their next workplace now. The obvious danger lies in reacting so quickly that the next workplace becomes the previous workplace, or even worse, the unsustainable workplace.

For companies navigating this crisis, this transitory period has been ripe with opportunities to learn and reimagine, driving towards spaces that capture what a work experience should have been. The result can be a fluid environment that enables people to be their most productive selves while engaging in a deeply meaningful way. Humans have survived for 40,000 years because of their ability to socialize, adapt and rely on individual talents and strengths. The science behind this history is critical for its future – to stay human in a hybrid world, don’t forget to be humane.


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Fear Factor

Seven Choices for Work Environments that Underscore the Need to Respond, Not React

May 20, 2020

Partner, NBBJ


Covid-19 illuminates the world to many pitfalls in current workplace design. Issues of density, location and balance have been laid wide open for all to attack. That’s a good thing. But in the ensuing conversation, are emerging ideas actually more regressive?

During a time of unknown, humans desperately want answers. When we’re inundated with information and anxious about the world around us, we often look for quick solutions. We also miss long-standing cues, touting reactions as fresh ideas instead of acknowledging them as changes that should have already occurred (look no further than the 35-year notion of biophilia). But more dangerously, we can generate solutions without considering what makes us who we are: human. As this unfortunate crisis fuels a long-needed conversation about where and how work is done, I’m most wary of ideas that celebrate the expected to the detriment of those doing their jobs.

Below are predictions made from a reactionary mindset, coupled with realities that have been in front of businesses for some time. These positions are countered by responses that, instead of holding our working society back, seek to pull it toward lasting results.

Reaction: We will need to de-densify
Reality: Employees have already made this decision

Yes, fewer people with greater distance in-between means less likelihood of spreading or contracting disease. But we’ve known the implications of density on holistic human health since the industrial revolution. It’s no coincidence that as the number of square feet per person has decreased in an office, so has floor efficiency as more people work remotely due to these conditions. For the last 15+ years, technology has enabled workers to vote with their feet to create “preferred density.”

There’s a strong desire to solve problems with concrete measures like physical space metrics and basic division (overall square feet divided by total population). However, this challenge seems better suited for organizational strategies that align work modes with the proper environments to support them. It’s beyond simply offering the chance to work from home – it also means not designing ubiquitous spaces that try to be everything to everyone, an aspect of the “open office” that many despise. This attitude will allow companies to reduce the number of people in a space at one time (less density) while increasing the number of employees a space serves (more use). The resulting choreography should increase job satisfaction while reducing congestion on the road or on public transit, an outcome our planet and nervous systems would greatly appreciate.

Reaction: We will need a six foot physical boundary around us
Reality: People will return to the office to overcome barriers, not to create them

In addition to reducing density, establishing physical separation between people is being advocated through the return of the protective cubicle (sneeze guard included). As much as my engineering mind loves games like Tetris, repeatable system layouts that drive how people do their work are rarely the right place to start. And what are the correct dimensions? Testing is showing just how variable the range of a virus can be.

It’s not necessarily a coincidence that when the movie Office Space appeared, cubicles nearly disappeared. Cubicles are isolating and demoralizing, they block light and view, and most use porous acoustic material (aka virus breeding grounds). Why come to an office for that? I hope that before putting this solution into action, we fully understand the risk of adding these anachronisms to our offices – and then landfills – again.

Reaction: We can fuse social interaction and isolation into one space
Reality: It’s impossible to go against our hard-wired brains

There are suggestions that we should build workplaces that enable us to be together and yet apart. Is the office of the future the awkward middle school dance of my past? Or will it be a game of tag, where we can’t help but try to guess who’s “it” – an outcome that soberly could lead to inadvertent discrimination.

We all appreciate the importance of engaging others in our personal and professional lives, especially now. With that comes the beautifully organic, somewhat unpredictable means of interaction. As a result, there will always be pinch points. Visit any grocery store now to feel this in full effect. At the height of this crisis, even strangers are challenged to respect mandated personal space. Although spatial configuration, RFID mapping, and visual cues may offer a quick but uncomfortable solution, advanced health screening and progressive quarantine protocols should provide greater confidence in our interactions. This trust-based attribute is important to team risk-taking and creativity. It’s also more inclusive for those with impairments.

Reaction: We must limit our sharing of technology, and potentially, space
Reality: Nobody wanted to use someone else’s keyboard anyway

Reducing the transfer of communicable disease through what we touch is important, but let’s be honest, sharing work supplies is almost as bad as getting the warm chair in a conference room. Although I hope the share economy continues in many forms, “hot-desking” has forced a bigger conversation around blurring personal preferences with professional support (if we ever want that concept to return, we should rethink the name).

The opportunity in this moment is to better discern the significant distinction between individual and communal uses. Such insight will be crucial to reimagining post-COVID buildings that can still become 24-hour shared resources. Psychology and urban design provide much-needed expertise in identifying the spaces and places that humans will accept as co-habitable.

Reaction: We must upgrade our air filtration systems
Reality: We’ve been breathing bad air for some time. Improving health goes beyond filtration.

Clean air is something we’ve struggled to achieve in the office for 40 years. Our fascination with sealing buildings entirely in the 1980s left us with a false sense of domination.  When our environments became artificial – lighting, heating, cooling, etc. – our minds felt we were controlling nature while our bodies knew otherwise. This arrogance blinded us from the reality that CO2 buildup in our conference rooms was impacting our thinking.

Instead of only upgrading filtration, rethink the entire mechanical approach. Thermal mass, radiant systems, and self-shading require less air to be conditioned and then circulated. Where possible, increased natural air changes are obviously ideal. Don’t forget to address exhausted air; what we spew out of our buildings not only impacts global warming but the health of our neighbors next door.

Reaction: We require chemicals to achieve healthy workplaces
Reality: Wait, more chemicals in our environments? Let’s focus on awareness.

Understandable anxiety around the unseen prompts us to default to what we know works. It also reveals the danger of environments being curative, not preventative. Yes, chemicals can eliminate viruses, but let’s not lose sight of the fact we had just committed to getting hazards out of our spaces.

While sanitation is important, much of a healthy environment is derived from individual attentiveness and choice. Practitioner insights and raised awareness around personal hygiene, general cleanliness, and bathroom etiquette will hopefully keep us from having to take an untested blanket approach. Nature (surprise!) may also have an answer. We continue to learn more about daylight and temperature as allies in fighting viruses. We can also proactively bolster immune systems through universally-accessible pinenes like cedar and rosemary, both which smell better than disinfectant.

Reaction: We won’t need offices anymore
Reality: What is an “office” anyway?

This definition depends on the work you do and how you do it. Sure, technology has increased the number of tasks we can do remotely. But it hasn’t satisfied our desire for social interaction, or the heightened sentience and better ideas that can come from it. It also hasn’t changed the fact that physical space helps reinforce the tangible ethos and culture of an organization. Without these relationships, we risk becoming teams of task-based contractors searching for identity and connection to mission.

We continue to have a dualistic mindset of work happening in either an office or at home, but as we’ve known for years, work for some people can happen everywhere. How it’s done best, however, is dependent on you, the work you’re doing, and the experience you seek. Today I’m less intrigued about fewer days in the office and more interested in fewer hours in one place, office or not. We can all benefit from mapping out what makes our individual workdays rewarding.

In light of constantly emerging and often-changing information, responding to causes versus reacting to symptoms is essential. It’s a challenging feat – we as humans will never be free of compulsive reactions because we want the surety that quick answers seem to offer. Unfortunately, though, those answers usually lie within our own spheres of influence. Broader exposure to science, history, and design thinking is critical to ensuring meaningful progress. Don’t rush ahead because you’re afraid of being left behind. Use this pause to interpret that fear, and then respond with your way of working. Exemplify awareness… your fellow humans need it.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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Binary Thinking and Other Misconceptions About Work

How Covid-19 Exposes the Dangerous Trap of the Work-Life Pendulum and Grants an Opportunity to Reset the Workplace

April 22, 2020

Partner, NBBJ


Humans are fixated with the notion of opposites — “or” is easier than “and.” We love the simplicity of binary, black-or-white thinking. True or false. Progressive or liberal. Man or woman. If only society were that simple, right? Or maybe not. We’d either disagree and be in constant war, or align and never challenge assumptions — neither of which is good for humanity.

Not surprisingly though, it’s taxing to seek equilibrium. Yet it’s extraordinarily important for our survival. Just before our last global economic crisis, Roger Martin outlined the evolutionary advantage humans have by holding conflicting thoughts in a manner that enables us to synthesize better ideas and outcomes. It’s the evolutionary equivalent of the “yes, and” world of improv.

This same binary thinking also applies to a traditional view of our lives and how we spend time. Work or life. We remain fixated on the elusive ideal of the “live-work balance” in part because we aim for an ideal in which almost half of our working age will be focused on our jobs, while the other half will supposedly be spent reveling in the comforts provided by our paychecks. Almost insidiously, this mindset reveals our quiet acquiescence that work is now as important as life. Work — like education, spirituality, health, and community — was intended to bolster our existence, but it currently feels like a counterweight.

Why is that relevant now?

The disruption the coronavirus pandemic has created in our lives is confusing to say the least. We see how uncomfortable opposable thinking is at extremes: blue skies AND empty swing sets, 7.5 billion people at home AND few voices heard, a desire for social connection AND the requirement to stay 6′ distance apart. In the midst, life AND work collide into one footprint, with little chance of escape from either. This isn’t necessarily new; spurred by generational attitudes and technological advancements, we have invited work and life to be co-partners. But the discomfort we now feel is inescapably visceral. Our work-life scale is anything but balanced — it’s a swiftly swinging pendulum that doesn’t pause. Fortunately, we have a chance for a reset. Before we blindly rush back to our offices — forgetting what we’ve weathered simply because we’re thrilled to be together again — we need to recalibrate our beliefs about work and workplace.

First, remember what we know — and act
We are social animals. Approximately 40,000 years ago, we claimed our stake as a species that would survive through social activity. Instead of doubling our physical mass, we doubled our network through communication. Now we sense the importance of interaction more than ever. Video conferencing and task completion are easier to address in the short term. However, our ability to counteract physical isolation with tools that improve ideas and outcomes will be fundamental to advancing long-term ingenuity. Physical AND virtual environments must be geared towards collaboration, and equity through access will be crucial.

Physical activity and connection to nature are critical. Every person must have space in which to move and see green. We’ve acknowledged that, but are we delivering it? Those in urban settings feel this more than ever, and this demand will extend to offices once we head back. Density — of a floor or of a city block — must be humane. Urban planning, building siting, narrow floors, and outdoor access cannot be overlooked anymore. Nor can back-to-back-to-back meetings in the same windowless conference rooms. Subtractive master plans can help recalibrate the ratio of enclosed buildings to open space, daylight, and view; technology can ensure we never get stuck in one place for too long. Structured AND organic systems must coexist.

The workplace is never an “or.” It’s always an “and.” We’ve gotten so caught up in the “open office or closed office” debate that we slid effortlessly into the “working on-site or working remotely” conversation. Even in a workforce of one person, the workplace should never be 100% of anything. The opportunities for ANDs here are endless.

Then, acknowledge what we’ve learned — and don’t overreact
Working from home does not mean we’re comfortable. Yes, I can shower if I want, wear what I want, and control the amount of light and temperature. But ironically I’ve lost what truly makes me most content: time to think and the impromptu conversation. Instead, I’ve fallen prey to the merciless Outlook calendar. The learned helplessness sometimes felt in the workplace — where we unknowingly accept things “out of our control” — is carrying over into our own homes. However you move forward after this crisis, accept that work modes should drive work locale. This is not about remote OR on-site, but rather what condition best supports the type of work performed. Decipher employees’ stress points — not through complaints submitted by email or survey — but through actual conversations. Treat the cause, not the symptoms. Avoid reactive “helicopter” management. Instead, coach individuals on how to remove obstacles on their own, regardless of the physical location.

The workplace is more than just camaraderie and experience. More than ever, it’s painfully obvious that the office is as much about unexpected introductions as it is connection to familiar colleagues. We desperately need other cultures, beliefs, landscapes, and activities to reveal greater visibility to the world around us. Yes, this will help us escape our own filter bubbles, but it will also lead to a proven ability to better solve problems. Don’t grow numb to the issues you can’t see; make your work environment — wherever it might be — force novel exposures. Move beyond silos of company OR community; analyze your teams’ current day-in-the-life and ensure journeys that enable broader awareness.

Predictions can be futile — and dangerous. In his book “How Buildings Learn,” Stewart Brand outlines the predicament of buildings being predictions of the future in spite of all predictions being wrong. Fast forward to today, and anyone who’s ever worked in or designed an office is sharing their guess as to what the world will look like post-Covid-19. Regardless of where we land, if basic human nature isn’t taken into consideration, Mr. Brand will be correct yet again. Reason OR instinct leads to chaos and confusion. Taller cubicles, one-way traffic, more chemicals — ironically, these could cause the death of the office more than fallout from the health crisis itself.

In the midst of a pandemic that some predicted but few understood, we see first-hand the fallacy of the binary mindset. We no longer live in a virus-free or virus-riddled world — we understand that neither exist. We understand that working remotely or in an office should not be an either-or. We don’t care about an open-office or closed-office, just about a place that caters to our current task while offering awareness, delight, and social cohesion. And ideally, we will no longer divide our days into either working or living. Instead we have an opportunity to rediscover how work — and wherever it happens — is a platform for the way we want to live.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.


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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


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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The Sophistication of Amenities

Office Amenities Are Shifting from a Focus on Whimsy to a Focus on Meaning

August 10, 2016

Partner, NBBJ


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

As someone who designs workplace environments, it’s fascinating to participate in the “amenity one-upmanship” happening at corporations throughout the world and at tech firms in particular. From ping pong tables and kegerators to massage and nap spaces, amenities are now ubiquitous to the workday experience. They reduce the formality of the office environment and encourage a higher level of socialization and camaraderie, each key contributors to workplace satisfaction. They make culture more tangible and visible, which in a red-hot market plays a strong role in recruitment, retention, and differentiation.

But amenities are also engineered for greater productivity. Keeping people on-site longer (with food and fitness centers), removing mundane hassles (by administering dry cleaning and haircuts), and providing time to explore one’s personal ideas — each perk is embedded with the hope that “found” time will increase returns to the company’s bottom line.

The formula is fairly straightforward: at work, more engagement + less stress = elevated creativity = improved productivity = increased profitability. When companies stay true to themselves and avoid a “copy and paste” approach, the outcome is usually a win-win for both individual and management. This amenity surge has enabled organizations — through both intention and luck — to better understand and augment work-life integration, and the resulting alchemy has led to transitioning amenities from a focus on whimsy to a focus on meaning. In the quest for the perfect balance, here are other factors being tested in the amenity equation that could soon change the look, feel and impact of your office:


Making the Digital Physical

In San Francisco, the Autodesk Workshop — a hybrid workshop, laboratory and office space — offers the intriguing potential to fuse technological progress with the intrinsically human satisfaction of making things. This space encourages employees to design stronger digital design experiences through their learnings with the tactile and the tangible. Even megabank Barclays is getting in on the trend by sponsoring a series of maker spaces throughout Cambridge that it calls “Eagle Labs.”


Individuality as Brand

I am genuinely moved when friends in less expressive professions share their hidden artistic talents. Most of them do this outside of work, so imagine being able to tap into those skills while still inside the office. The Samsung headquarters in San Jose offers a music room for jamming, recording, learning or, if you’re like me, just making noise. Graffiti walls in company spaces are growing in popularity as well, where you can remain anonymous or permanently leave your name — until the next person paints over it. Data walls enable the same customization and personalization in a digital context. As Android so aptly puts it, “Be together, not the same.”


Team Build-ing

The pressure on newly forming teams to excel on a project can lead to either a defining moment or a divisive unravelling. Research shows that teams built with high theory of mind, less interruption, and more women solve more problems with greater creativity. Providing projects that have little to do with business success yet create a heightened theory of mind can yield both short- and long-term gains. ArgoDesign in Austin has been noted for building a Shelby as a side project — not in the garage, not in a back corner, but in the lobby. Using your hands and brains to create something real for fun, before you use your hands and brains to create something real for profit, can be a great way to bring people together.


From Filling to Fulfilling

I remember walking the halls of a tech campus with the person who oversaw food operations, and he noted his frustration with people drooling over the multitude of free snacks. As we walked, we noticed a colleague stuffing his pockets full of the many bite-size foods offered. At the time, this type of experience was completely new in the workplace and therefore somewhat forgivable, but excess snacking was later linked to greediness and weight gain across the industry. Now, many companies like data analytics firm Appeagle still offer snacks but have transitioned to offer healthier options. The smartest companies have shifted strategy completely, with some offering rooftop vineyards and personalized gardens that encourage people to grow, harvest, eat, and share their own food.


Complete Health

With obesity and other weight-related diseases on the rise, many companies are taking employee health into their own hands. Nearly 30% of companies with 5,000 or more employees now have on-site medical clinics, including on Microsoft’s main campus, and this trend is expected to continue. But holistic, preventative measures are being taken as well. Companies are introducing “winter gardens,” as research has shown simply looking at green or open space can improve overall mental health, including a reduction of stress levels and an increase in cognitive performance. Mindfulness, the hot topic of the day, is taken quite seriously by the suitably named Headspace because of its long-term, age-independent benefits.


History…  Again

During the industrial revolution, workplaces commonly featured high ceilings, daylight, and fresh air, small consolations during the incredibly long workdays that eventually inspired revolts in the late 1880s. In the 1950s, drop ceilings, artificial daylight, and conditioned air were seen as new amenities — and ironically, these amenities began to extend the workday again. Half a century later we’ve realized that better daylight, fresh air, and shorter workdays are still true amenities. And they’ll remain as such until all have access to such simple staples of good health. Even moving back into urban locales, where diversity of scale and people has always been prevalent, now is considered an amenity — as is the shortened commute that usually comes with the location. This isn’t just more convenient and environmentally-friendly, it’s healthier too, as longer commutes are linked to health problems.


What’s next? Will amenity continue to influence “age,” or will age influence “amenity”?

Amenity spaces have come full-circle since the personal tech boom of the late 1970s and early ’80s changed how people viewed work. I hope we don’t lose sight of the risks taken — and benefits uncovered — through the whimsical and eccentric in the workplace, where the initial youthfulness of tech encouraged people to dress more comfortably, to hang out for a beer during the day, and to feel it was okay to take ping pong lessons where everyone could see. These experimental attitudes have questioned the atmosphere of the office building, where many of us will spend over half our lives. But I also sense companies understand the gravity of taking a position through what they offer their talent pool. Those concerned with employee health and office culture are maturing their work environments through experiences, not moments. And, when done right, the upside is a formula that continues to result in a win-win for all.

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Design Meets Tech Meets Talent

An Invitation to Create the Future of Work with Distribute! A Global Hackathon

March 9, 2016

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, Lee Ajayi and Dan Anthony of NBBJ, and Robert Duffy of Time Inc.

ALLHumans are social beings, and our society is shifting to a way of work that is inherently social. Our technology connects us, allowing us to work distributed around the world and around the clock. “Where we work” is a much broader place than just the office. It exists not just in the workplace, but in the interstitial spaces that make up our working lives.

Despite this increased social dynamic, there is tension in our work culture, where an ability to communicate precedes an opportunity to relate.

We need to be insightful to make productive and, most importantly, happy work environments. We design, both digitally and architecturally, to link the virtual and physical. We dream of cultural “Wormholes” that bring together the joy of connectivity and intrigue of human experience.

Our connectivity can deepen our personal relationships, and our workplaces can be imbued with a sense of place and become repositories of knowledge and insight.

With this in mind, we are inviting designers, developers, and distributed workers to create prototypes of the Future of Work.

Technology has enabled teams to spread out in the global village. Teams that span multiple cities or boast members working from anywhere — coffee shops to beach villas — are increasingly common. Although enabled, distributed teams are far from optimized.

That’s where you come in!

We are looking for teams to create ways to allow distributed teams to have serendipitous interactions, create cultural portholes and collaborate in structured meetings. Solutions should use technology to allow people to overcome the barriers of space and time to form stronger teams.

Visit our website to learn more details on how to get your team involved in this global event/challenge in developing the next big tool to aid distributed teams in having a more seamless environment to collaborate in!


Images courtesy Britta Moline-Ayars.

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Stress at Work? Maybe It’s Your Space, Not Your Pace

Five Questions to Ask About Your Workplace Instead of “Open Office or Closed Office?”

March 1, 2016

Partner, NBBJ


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

As companies build a greater appreciation for activity-based work, improved mobility and team-based problem-solving, it has become increasingly difficult for them to predict or track a workday for one individual, let alone an organization of hundreds or thousands. Each person’s brain is wired differently, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a “one size fits all” mentality threatens the ability of teams to thrive. It’s why, when asked by clients the seemingly straightforward question of “should we go open office or closed office?” I’m convinced it’s the wrong place to start.


Asking the Right Questions

I’ve been privileged to work on teams that include both social anthropologists and some of the world’s best design thinkers. I’ve also spent the last two years with Dr. John Medina — a molecular biologist at the University of Washington and author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules — learning about how our brains respond to physical space. As the world discusses ad nauseam the desire for innovation, collaboration and satisfaction, I’ve come to believe we should stop focusing on office configurations and instead explore how physical environments can reduce our key adversary to doing great work: stress. Stress is a direct inhibitor to cognition, creativity, trust and comfort, all of which bolster greater ideation, productivity and meaning in our work.

When designing a workplace here are five questions you might ask before the “open office versus closed office” debate even enters the conversation:


Is it personal?

As designers, we constantly explore how place has character that is relevant, contextual and specific to its users. Linked to that character is the ability for occupants to not only personalize their space, but also to have control over it. Coincidentally, in research, stress is often defined similarly; it’s the inability to control an aggressive stimulus. Light, natural ventilation, temperature and acoustics are all factors that strongly impact our actual and perceived comfort in the work environment. But take that a step further: given how much our tasks change throughout the day — and how different our preferences are as individuals — how can we find the perfect space without wandering and wondering? Deloitte’s new headquarters in Amsterdam, The Edge, comes very close to achieving this through the use of apps that align employee schedules and preferences for light and temperature with available spaces, therefore reducing the frustrating friction they might feel daily in trying to find the perfect location for the task at hand.


025258_00_N399_mediumCan we get outside?

Much has been written about biophilia, a 30-year old hypothesis that illustrates our innate attraction to nature. There are numerous scientific articles describing the physical and mental benefits of spending time outdoors. For example, the color green — a symbol of life — promotes greater focus, and seeing natural movement stimulates our brains more. What perhaps hasn’t been fully yet understood, however, is how nature mitigates the impact of “arousal fatigue,” the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without intervening breaks. Sound familiar? The solution to this is “indirect attention,” or mild distracting stimulation without clear focus or intention. Gardens are wonderful at compelling the brain into states of sustained indirect attention; this stress-reducing impact is evident in Amazon’s design for its garden-filled spheres.


Can “work” be an active verb again?

025258_00_N298_mediumSome say sitting is the new smoking. Sitting for extensive periods of time can cut years off your life, as has been documented by Dr. Steven Blair. It’s estimated that the average office worker spends more than 75% of the workday in a seat without even realizing it. So let’s be proactive in designing more active spaces. Stairs, for example, promote exercise when they create inviting experiences that are more efficient to use than elevators. Walking meetings have proven to yield more solutions to difficult problems than meetings that take place while seated. Visibility across and between floors can encourage employees to explore, to create new relationships — and to be active. Have a competitive workforce? Use wearables to encourage greater health awareness. And remember, this benefit is as much about the health of an organization as it is about the health of the employee.


101014_03_Samsung_N51_mediumIs it safe?

At first, this sounds like a ridiculous question. But understanding that the brain’s primary focus is to keep you safe — and ultimately alive — you realize your ability to focus is often subconsciously marginalized. The theory of prospect-refuge was introduced 40 years ago by “human geographer” Jay Appleton, who understood that over eons, humans flourished in spaces that provided them with both shelter and high visibility. Our ancestors grew up on the savannah, with both a view to the plains and a cave nearby. Being able to retreat to safety and yet see the horizon gives us the perfect perch for survival. Unfortunately, an open-office environment leaves us exposed, and a closed-office environment leaves us isolated. Neither in isolation is the right answer; balance is essential.


Is it beautiful?

I’m biased of course, but this is one area that designers have been working to get right for centuries. For those who are intuitive and artistic, the emotional impact of entering a beautiful space can be incredibly uplifting — the play of proportion, light and material is often enough to inspire a sense of surprise, curiosity and awe (emotions that all have benefits). For the more analytical- or scientific-minded, believe it or not, research tends to agree on the importance of beauty. When looking at something beautiful, the reward part of your brain lights up. However, in viewing something ugly, your motor cortex activity increases, as if your brain is preparing to escape. In the end, beauty is subjective; its importance is not.


A Different Theory of Disruption

Before we start designing where people work, let’s explore the core requirements humans have to be great at what they do — and what has gotten in their way. As a species we have evolved over multiple millennia, but in just the last few decades we’ve subjected ourselves to working conditions that simply aren’t compatible with our physiological structure. Tinted windows, artificial lighting, recirculated and tempered air, unhealthy and synthetic materials, cubicles, vertical conveyance — all have been introduced in just the past 100 years. One could argue that architecture — specifically the design of conditioned environments — has disrupted human existence more than technology. It has tried desperately to parallel the speed of the digital revolution when it might serve us better to slow down to the pace of human evolution.

All images courtesy of NBBJ (photography by Tim Griffith, Sean Airhart and Timothy Hursley).

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Six Ways to Connect Without the Internet of Things

Reflections on the 2015 Bloomberg Technology Conference

July 8, 2015

Partner, NBBJ


At the recent Bloomberg Technology Conference in San Francisco, I felt like a bit of an outsider and, frankly, expected to lag behind most of the conversation. I’m a “building architect” as opposed to a “software architect” — an important distinction to make at an event attended by current and former leaders of highly-visible organizations such as AirBNB, Twitter, Yahoo, Cisco and Pixar, as well as a few lesser-known companies that will soon be turning our heads. Even though my firm, NBBJ, has spent the last few years helping the worlds of physical and digital space collide for similar companies, the challenges our two industries face are not the same, right?

Yet there’s a growing sense that any company wanting to understand the complexity of issues better, solve larger problems and reach consumers faster will either need to think like a tech company or render itself obsolete. We’ve subscribed to that at NBBJ too, as we’ve hired our own software engineers to attack complicated challenges. Additionally, we’ve observed that the stark differences in how people work may just be nuances in the phase and pace of social evolution. The increasing speed of technology seems to be shrinking these differences. We’re more similar than most realize.

What surprised me most was an aligned belief that people — not algorithms — are still the foundation of great companies. Here are six takeaways — my own summaries of presenters’ talks — that have nothing to do with coding and everything to do with being more human:


Be wary of iterating at the expense of being bold.
Data is everywhere. We are fascinated by how it can help us heighten performance while predicting if outcomes will be positive. But at a higher level, we need to understand the difference between what constitutes a design problem versus an engineering problem. Data is fantastic for the latter. But if we rely solely on data for the former, it can lead to “analysis paralysis” and strip us of the healthy, creative tension the design process demands for dramatic change. It’s important to evaluate not just the outcome — which may benefit from data — but also the process it took to get there. That is, was it uncomfortable enough?

From “The Coder as CEO”
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo


Don’t forget art.
What should children study in school: coding or art? Certainly a question that we’ll continue to volley as we strategize about the future workforce. Fortunately there is, and always will be, a marriage between art and technology. They go together. We have an interesting purpose in trying to capture and convey the juxtaposition between the two.

From “The Art and Science of Code”
Padmasree Warrior, Former CTO and Strategy Officer at Cisco


Technology can make healthcare more human.
Throughout history, people have been fascinated with the human body and its associative wellbeing. Vitruvius focused on the whole body, wherein its entirety was either healthy or not. Medicine looks to parts of the body as opportunities to improve areas through artificial elements or foreign implants. DNA is now enabling us to recreate bones that are true, living extensions of our specific bodies, not fabrications that our bodies might reject. We can finally think of the body as a living system. Can we do things with cells, not machines?

Also, can technology enable “selfcare” versus healthcare? People don’t want to spend more time at a doctor’s office, at the pharmacist, at physical therapy. If anything, Silicon Valley has helped the healthcare industry understand the potential for frictionless service. There is an emerging sense that in making treatment individual and personal, we empower people with chronic diseases to live better.

From “Code as a Cure”
Nina Tandon, Co-Founder and CEO of Epibone

From “Health Apps: Upgrading the Ultimate Personal Technology”
Glen Tullman, Chairman and CEO of Livongo Health


Hack the management structure.
What do hackers know that managers don’t? Speed, adaptability and no barriers. They have open, frank conversations at any level. They have responsiveness in reacting to new information. Hackers don’t do the same repeated tasks over and over.

What can managers do better? Frame an exercise in the language of “an experiment” and not as a task. Share the goal as opposed to sharing the plan. And be prepared to have the outcome be entirely different — and better — than what was first charted.

From “Management Tips from Hackers”
Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO of Redhat + Gina Bianchini, CEO and Founder of Mightybell


Make the most of ideas (and make a lot of them).
There is a small window where you have enough investment in an idea to defend and believe in it, but not enough that you can’t change it. That’s when you should critique it. Successful people are those who draw well, are fast, play well with others and ALWAYS have another idea. In a company of 4,000 people, there’s no shortage of great ideas. Learn as fast as you can, and don’t hold on to dogma.

From “How the Animation Studio Uses Technology to Solve its Problems: Building Tools for Telling Stories”
Michael Johnson, Pixar

From “One-on-One with Dick Costolo”
Dick Costolo, Former CEO of Twitter


Be kind, not nice.
The average company is too nice, almost “terminally nice.” In the tech industry, you can’t take things personally. You need to be gritty, resilient and incredibly self-aware. People deserve to know where they are failing, where an idea is not worth pursuing. We spend a lot of energy dancing around this topic because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. That’s our “nice” side. Instead, think about how much energy could be gained by being kind, by working with people to, as William Faulkner said, “kill their darlings” and create something better.

From “One-on-One with Dick Costolo”
Dick Costolo, Former CEO of Twitter

From “Management Tips from Hackers”
Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO of Redhat + Gina Bianchini, CEO and Founder of Mightybell


Image courtesy of Panca Satrio Nugroho/Flickr.

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This Sensible Workplace Senses You

Five Principles for Rethinking the Office Right Now

May 27, 2015

Partner, NBBJ


When Fast Company asked NBBJ to contribute to its “Future of Work” series, our design and research team thought about the features that make employees happier, healthier and more productive. We identified five key considerations that should be implemented into workplaces in the not-too-distant future: motion, technology, nature, mobility (of both people and amenities); and choice.


1. Motion

The need: physical activity is great for the body, but it is especially important for cognitive performance. Research shows that people who perform walking meetings are more alert, focused and innovative than people who sit in traditional conference rooms.

The solution: The office of the future will provide easy access to ramps, stairs, exercise equipment and maps that suggest routes for walking meetings (a.). Offices will include bike paths that allow cyclists to ride directly from the street to their desk (b.). Ramps are also good for the elderly and disabled, allowing them to ascend and descend without the need of stairs. In addition, ramps will better connect employees between floors; by removing the psychological barrier of being on different levels, they address companies’ common complaint that employees do not interact enough and do not have enough physical or visual connections between floors (c.). Progressive employers will totally eliminate car parking in favor of 100% parking for bikes and scooters. Expect juice bars, bike repair shops and locker rooms to be better incorporated into the workplace.


2. Technology

The need: Environmental factors such as daylight, temperature and sound have a remarkable effect on memory, comprehension and even mood.

The solution: The office of the future will integrate customized sounds into common spaces like lobbies, cafes and walkways to stimulate activity, conversation and emotion. Unique sounds might be played to celebrate the first snowfall of the year or peak stock performance. In addition to sound, mobile technology will be better utilized in offices. Employees will be able to use their smartphone to see which parts of buildings are in use or vacant, or to understand current noise levels, sunlight exposure and temperature. Shades and other elements will also be adjustable via phone, giving office workers more control over their environment (d.).


3. Nature

The need: Workers are more productive and focused when viewing nature or interacting with it physically.

The solution: The office of the future will better integrate indoors and outdoors, with daylight entering from both sides of narrow floors as well as filtering down from the ceiling (e.). Expect to see buildings that fold into preexisting landscapes (f.), as well as workplace environments filled with hundreds of plant species and regulating temperature and humidity to ensure a comfortable environment for employees and their guests. At the same time, research shows that, per capita, people are more innovative and environmentally efficient in cities than in suburbs. The future of the office will prioritize urban environments and how they connect to the natural world.


4. Mobility (Buildings and People)

The need: Work takes place everywhere, anywhere on a corporate campus — if it even happens on campus at all.

The solution: Buildings are no longer static assets. Advancements in plug-and-play modular architecture allow buildings to expand, contract, move and even be deconstructed as necessary. Amenities like conference rooms will come to employees vertically or horizontally (g.), rather than employees needing to find them. These kinetic amenities remedy a common problem in office design: over-utilized spaces in some areas of a building and underutilized spaces in others. They also reduce real estate costs by increasing broad-based utilization. There will also be a focus on mobility of people: fewer desks, but more “third places” to get work done.


5. Choice

The need: Say goodbye to the tired argument of open vs. closed offices. What workers really want is choice. There is no one-size-fits-all office: depending on personality, job function and even mood, employees have different needs.

The solution: the office of the future will accommodate choice, with spaces that are bright and dark, quiet and loud, comfortable and uncomfortable, inside and outside. The office of the future may include phase-change materials (h.), which alter the look and feel of a building throughout the day. For example, exterior and interior panels can be developed to change color depending on the angle of the sun and the outside temperature. By responding to variations that the human body senses throughout the day — especially daylight and temperature — these materials enable the built environment to provide choices in tune with our bodies’ natural responses, in a visibly dynamic and thought-provoking manner. Finally, superstructures could be built over offices that move throughout the day (i.), giving employees variety and delight as the building changes each hour.


All images courtesy NBBJ.

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Architectural Shelf Life

Should Buildings Have Expiration Dates?

September 5, 2014

Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on re:form, the design blog of Medium.

I’m dying. This isn’t news I received from a doctor, it’s just the truth. I hate to break it to you, but you’re dying too. In fact, we can be fairly certain that almost anyone reading this will have taken their last breath by the end of this century. Believe it or not, the same holds true for our buildings.

I’m not stating this out of some obsession with death. I don’t have a fatalist sense that life will pass me by without a chance to leave a strong legacy for the generations that follow. Rather, I’m concerned that the places we are building won’t do the same.

A large percentage of our built environment has a surprisingly high “mortality” rate. In fact, the lifespan of a building — made of concrete, steel, wood — is shorter than that of a flesh-and-blood human. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average office building lifespan in 2008 was 73 years. In contrast, human life expectancy in the U.S. was 78 years [PDF]. Given their similar life expectancy, one would assume we spend a comparable amount of money on a person’s shelter as we do on other essential aspects of their life, right?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2008 the average cost of living on food, shelter, transportation, and healthcare to be around $35,000 per year — or more than $2.7 million during a 78-year lifetime. We spend that on ourselves simply to survive. And what about the office environment where, for 45 of those 78 years, we will devote more than 50% of our waking hours? We currently spend around $200 per square foot for a conventional office building, with each worker needing roughly 200 square feet to do their job (direct work, collaboration, breaks, storage, etc.). That’s a total cost of $40,000 per person for every new building built. Additionally, according to the Building Owners and Managers Association, the average annual operating costs are about $8/sf (or $1,600/sf per person each year), which over a 45-year career yields a total operating cost per person of $72,000. In total, we’re allocating about $112,000 per person on buildings during an individual’s career.

The quick math? We spend 24x less on the facilities shaping our daily experience and health than we do on the bodies that inhabit them. Yet I’ll wager most people expect buildings to outlive them many times over.

This seems like a misalignment worth exploring, especially as we aspire to improve the health of both our cities and their citizens. Are we expecting too much from our buildings, or are we not spending enough money on them? Either way, here are two approaches that may help us start the uncomfortable conversation on the merits of “architectural euthanasia.”

Option 1: Long Live the Short-Lived
As humans we’re predestined, eventually, to return to earth, ashes, and dust. Based on their similar lifespan, should buildings have the same fate? When buildings cease to change, when they cease to give back, when they cease to learn, they die. Yet we have a tendency to put them on life support, often for long periods of time. Instead of investing in “permanent” materials that, ironically, will be deconstructed in less than a century, let’s instead focus on lightweight, rapidly constructible and dismantle-able solutions as part of a flexible, component-driven system.

For instance, lightweight tensile structures are deployed throughout the globe to house sports, social venues and even laboratories, and can more broadly be considered for day-lit envelopes or inflatable facilities that disappear when not in use. Or imagine the beauty — both literal and figural — of exterior walls where reusable felt panels become both insulation and rainscreeen. Explorations in paper materials such as cardboard have become more prevalent, while 3-D printing affords us the opportunity to experiment with soluble materials that simply wash away after serving their purpose.

Materials for short-term buildings don’t necessarily have to be less durable, but they likely need to perform more than one function. A single material serving as structure, enclosure and window is faster and simpler to assemble — and therefore more likely to encourage a project to go up or come down. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from millennia of nomadic lifestyles.

Option 2: Forever Young
We started designing for human health centuries ago, and the outcome on the built environment has been noticeable. The term euthenics — the study of the improvement of human functioning and well-being by the improvement of living conditions — was coined in the 1890s when society began to stress the importance of natural light, fresh air and open space in the buildings that shape everyone’s daily life. Cast-iron façades and long-span timber elements were effective approaches to freeing up both the exterior and the floor plan. Not by coincidence, the buildings that succeeded in doing this best a hundred years ago are some of today’s most sought-after real estate investments.

Some of our biggest challenges with structures derive from our failure to foresee the continual changes that occur in how we live and work. Architecture that uses an exoskeleton — or structural elements on the exterior — is a strong first step towards accommodating such change, eliminating internal columns and walls that often constrain the uses around them. Moment connections at columns can do the same while enabling future flexibility for the placement of elevator cores and floor openings. Taller floor-to-floor heights invite daylight deeper into a space — making it more comfortable and usable — while providing a greater range of opportunities for evolving programmatic needs, from offices, to residences, to loft-like workspaces or even labs or industrial use.


Interestingly, it’s not the materials in long-term buildings that need to be more durable, but rather the forward-thinking ideas about how space will be used. Perhaps this conceptual trajectory might force us to rethink our criteria for sustainable features, so that conversion and adaptive reuse would trump bicycle storage and recycled materials.

We can spend less on shelter and, like buying furniture at Ikea, know we will get something that is decently crafted but will last only a few years. Or we can spend more on design, materials, mechanical systems, exterior walls, floor-to-floor heights, and so on and guarantee that our buildings will outlive us and the generations to follow.

Think of it like the sell-by on a grocery item. Perishable foods must be used up quickly, while shelf-stable foods are labeled for the longer term, packaged as nutritional insurance for the future. Perhaps it’s time we establish the same expectations for our buildings, designing with the knowledge that they, too, have an expiration date.

Image courtesy of Philms/Flickr.

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I Watched the World Cup on the Radio

Technology Is Shrinking the World. Is It Also Shrinking Our World Perspective?

August 12, 2014

Partner, NBBJ


A few weeks ago I listened to the World Cup final. On the radio. In Spanish. And I don’t speak Spanish. I couldn’t find the match on a local sports radio network or on the local news, and for ten minutes I scanned every AM and FM station for an English broadcast, but to no avail. So instead I listened to the enthusiastic announcers in Spanish, straining to discern terms like “pelota” and “Lee-oh-nell Mess-ee” — and of course waiting for that universal cry of “Gooaaallll!”

Later it struck me how revealing it was that the only radio station carrying this event did so in a language other than English. Here is a single event, held only every four years, that truly captures the world’s attention. It’s estimated that more than a billion people tuned in to catch at least a few minutes of the match, a size almost equivalent to the entire population of North and South America combined. The game was being played by a Spanish-speaking country on a continent where Spanish is a major language. I was quickly reminded, by sharing the experience with such a large population on their own terms, how skewed our tiny, often self-centered perspective of the world can be.

What’s more, listening to the radio made me reconsider the role technology plays in our lives.

Does convenience trump experience?

Technology is so incredibly adaptive, geared towards heightening a user’s experience. I too enjoy the “seek-and-be-rewarded” approach of uncovering the hidden attributes of games on everything from an iPhone to an Xbox. However, I get frustrated when such attributes are too buried. There is an almost Pavlovian expectation that discoveries should be convenient, that they should occur within certain time frames, and if they do not, there must be a glitch in the system. Fortunately my exposure to the World Cup wasn’t guided by convenience, and as an outcome, I not only heard the game, I experienced it.

Germany-Soccer_1505x663“Alemania! Alemania!” (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

In closing the information gap, is technology increasing social inequity?

Even with 50 radio stations at my fingertips, I still couldn’t find the match through the simplest — and perhaps cheapest — means. Many Americans were certainly able to catch it on their big screens or in the local sports bar. Yet a bigger question loomed. What about those who can’t afford a television or the expensive cable contract that usually accompanies it? Fortunately, in our country’s shifting demographics, a growing population did have access to the game in a language they fully understood. As a key tenet of technology, access to information is the objective. However, for global equity, mere access itself is imperative.

As the match played on, I felt a sense of camaraderie, an invitation to participate even if I couldn’t entirely understand. All 1 billion of us had access, regardless of ethnicity, race or class. Technology can a wonderful enabler to understand, communicate and address a great spectrum of world issues. Empathy guides us to ensure we are doing it together.

Does technology make us curious enough? In a world of increasing familiarity, does it provide enough wonderment?

Although I was limited to hearing the game, I saw how well the power of sound, not image, can turn the wheels of both imagination and reminiscence. In my mind, a faster-than-life match with super-human athletes played out. And then it recalled for me, as a 7-year-old, listening to baseball with my grandfather. This didn’t come instantly, but rather after I finally ceded control to the “scan” button and allowed myself to let go.

So, who had the best perspective of the game? Even without my dominant sense guiding me, perhaps I did. A barely understandable event — in a sport that isn’t my favorite — did as much to fill my senses as a walk in the park, and through one of our oldest technologies (thank you Nikola Tesla). How did I know when the game was over? Easy. The boisterous repeat of Alemania! Alemania! was a simple yet beautiful cue. And I didn’t even need Google Translate — my French helped me with that one.

Banner image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Why We Should Use Less Ink When Drawing Cities

April 9, 2014

Partner, NBBJ


In 1551, Leonardo Bufalini’s representation of Rome took a first step in representing the urban landscape for centuries to come, as constructed walls became thickened black lines. Giambattista Nolli furthered this in the mid-1700s, demonstrating the importance of public space as open and accessible. He also depicted the majority of buildings as solid objects, laying the foundation for the figure-ground diagram advocated by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter in the 1970s. Black is the built, white is open infrastructure. Frederick Gibberd proposed a reversal of this, focusing on open space as the object. Having spent much of my career studying — and emulating — these tactics, I have tremendous respect for each of these means of representation. However, I’m wondering if it is time to rethink how we draw the city.

Presently, across the globe, civilization is building 5 billion square feet of new construction annually — just under 1 million square feet every week. Yet I’m struck by the notion that if we continue to render — and design — buildings as static black objects in a figure-ground, we are not advancing beyond 18th-century representations. We need less black ink on the paper. We can obviously achieve this through greater open space and infrastructure, but what if we consider it from a different angle, leaning more heavily on the built environment?

A few years ago, some colleagues and I experimented with a concept we termed “greyscape.” We were developing a competition entry for the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and noticed during several visits how severe the transition was from the “white to black” of the figure-ground drawing. The traditional portico or courtyard did not exist; the front porch was nowhere to be found. Doors opened directly onto sidewalks, leading to uncomfortable exchanges between the public and the personal. Landscape and building rarely met, and the hard edges of Soviet-era construction exacerbated such abruptness. Our proposal explored a melding of the city plan, pressing for an interstitial zone that was both programmed and loose, both black (object) and white (infrastructure) — and therefore inherently “grey.” We envisioned an area that was both space and surface, both inside and outside — and thus “scape.” Our outcome was a true organic campus that invited the city to participate with it, not around it.

Likewise, we felt, buildings should not be static, unmoving, unconnected, “black” islands divorced from the sidewalk and the street. They should instead accommodate and move with the living entities that inhabit them. The built environment should be a platform where inhabitants are not constrained by envelope, but rather free to expand and contract, to evolve and transition. Humans aren’t intended to be sedentary, to sit at a desk as buildings sit on a property. Humans are meant to move, to breathe, to interact. Science is revealing the truth to what we’ve always suspected: the more we move, the greater our creativity and curiosity, and of course the better our health and well-being. Design should encourage this.

I still believe in “greyscape” as a transitional need within our cities. However, I have a new perspective on how to reflect that in our drawings. The next time we roll out a city plan, studying it for pattern and movement, our first lines should be just that: thin black lines — the thickness of an exterior wall — framing the interiors of buildings as “white” kinetic spaces similar to the adjacent sidewalk and street. For all our efforts over the centuries to enclose space, what separates us from the freedom white space offers is still just 12” of exterior wall. Can the pen liberate our minds to see this opportunity?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Fast-forward to Pause

Why Computational Speed Fosters Greater Design Creativity

March 6, 2014

Partner, NBBJ


“Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it.”
— Albert Einstein, 1931

Imagine a clock where each hour is only fifty minutes in length. Ten minutes — the time to stretch one’s legs, make a cup of coffee, read this commentary — is extracted. Scientifically, this sounds like a non-starter. Psychologically, it feels as if it’s already occurring.

Technology’s elusive promise to the architectural community has been an increase of speed and precision. Projects, even the most complicated ones, should be completed in less time with fewer errors — ideally at a higher quality. Our access to information and means of interface should enable instant collaboration among diverse disciplines. The result should directly translate into better ideas faster… Right?

In reality, schedules aren’t increasing; neither are budgets. In fact, the expectation outside the profession that technology will deliver better ideas faster has compressed schedules, even as big data challenges us with infinite variables to explore. Yet if architects proportionally shrink efforts during both design and construction, every phase effectively suffers. If we shorten conceptual phases to maintain a construction timeline, we essentially de-prioritize the critical thinking that inherently makes us human, gives architecture its identity and moves society forward. Neither approach is sustainable, and neither reflects — or respects — the influence design has to improve our world. The time to think is being stolen. The fifty minute hour has been realized.

Remember the insistence that technology would reduce the workweek, leaving more time for things we love? Somewhere between 24/7 accessibility and the redefinition of the word “unplug,” that notion went horribly awry. Or did it? Technology may not have reduced our workload, but it can increase our time for creativity. If the digital design tool returns to its roots as a sophisticated, hyper-speed calculator — assessing temperature, light, view, energy, code, proximity and cost in the blink of an eye — it becomes both the efficient abacus and the blank napkin. The faster it helps us understand quantitative impacts, the quicker we arrive at informed decisions that prove our thinking. This ideally translates into more time to explore how design changes the world for the better. The faster we churn the analytical, the more we can access the creative, the intuition that enables the needle of innovation to move from the incremental to the transformational.

Back to that 50 minute work-hour… If we get past the unnerving thought of “losing” time, you may have realized that eight 50-minute hours result in more than one full hour of “found” time at the conclusion of a conventional workday. Technology may not shorten the workweek for designers, but it is crucial in finding us time for what matters most.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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