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.

Neuroscience Is Optimizing the Office

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

July 3, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

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

 

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

 

Keep It Down — Unless Brainstorming

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

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

 

Go Green

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

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

 

Seek Visual Relief

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

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

 

101014_00_Samsung_N9_mediumGet a Move On

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

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

 

Eat to Think

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

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

 

Banner image courtesy of NBBJ.

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The Sophistication of Amenities

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

August 10, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

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

@ryanjmullenix

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!

http://distributehack.com/

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

@ryanjmullenix

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

@ryanjmullenix

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

@ryanjmullenix

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.

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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.).

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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.

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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

@ryanjmullenix

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

@ryanjmullenix

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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Figure-Grounded

Why We Should Use Less Ink When Drawing Cities

April 9, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

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

@ryanjmullenix

“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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