How Can We Harness AI to Design a More Healthy, Sustainable and Equitable Future?

January 31, 2022

Managing Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Phillip Bernstein, Mark Greaves, Steve McConnell and Clifford Pearson

Editor’s Note: This whitepaper was originally published in the December 2021 issue of Architectural Record.


Architecture needs to do more than ever. It is no longer sufficient for buildings and places to meet Vitruvius’ rubric, firmitas, utilitas et venustas—strength, utility and beauty. Now architects must also respond to a broad range of environmental, social and community concerns.

Designing even a single-family home today requires attention to climate change, pollution, the carbon footprint of every material used in construction, fair labor practices throughout the building supply chain, affordability, racial equity, and the development of healthy communities—in addition to all the usual demands of the client and regulatory agencies.

An explosion of information and data on all these issues now influences every step in the design process, and simultaneously threatens to overwhelm the people running that process. How can architects meet the demands of this new class of design goals without losing sight of their less quantifiable aspiration to create inspiring and captivating buildings?

Recently, I joined forces with Philip Bernstein, strategic advisor to NBBJ, and Associate Dean and Professor Adjunct at Yale; prominent architectural journalist Clifford Pearson; and renowned AI scientist Mark Greaves to outline the increasing potential of AI integration in the design process. Not only can the use of AI help make sense of these growing complexities, but it can also have a positive impact on the built environment—supporting health, education and communities. In addition, we recommend the federal government take three important steps to advance the practice of design to more reliably create places and buildings that respond to national priorities for healthy, sustainable, and equitable places.

You can click here to read our full thoughts in the whitepaper titled “Harnessing AI to Design Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Places,” and you can also enjoy a companion piece about this subject in this recent article in Architectural Record.

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Our Coastal Cities Are Under Threat

Four Ways Designing with Natural Ecology—Rather Than Against It—Can Mitigate Climate Change to Create Beautiful, Just Cities

January 26, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Phu Duong, Margot Jacobs and Tom Sieniewicz


Coastal cities are central to discussions about our urban past, present and future. In the US alone, coastal areas account for 40% of America’s population—with population density far greater than the national average. And globally, over one billion people live in low-lying coastal regions. These cities and towns are intimately connected to our seas, oceans and other watersheds—economically, culturally and socially.

They are also under unique threat as they face acute and ongoing ecosystem destruction, stark environmental pressure and the impacts of climate change. In the near-term, this presents challenges related to either too much water (with 100-year floods and storm surges now becoming an annual occurrence) or too little water (with increasingly concerning drought conditions). And on the horizon, significant sea level rise and associated flood risks will deeply affect these communities and environments.

The way we think about, plan and design for, and live in coastal cities is changing rapidly. This imperative to rethink the way we design buildings and urban spaces in coastal areas is already driving toward a new kind of building and infrastructure. Here, we examine key considerations for designing for coastal cities.

Think and Design Across Scales and Perspectives

From individual buildings and streetscapes to corridors and districts to entire masterplans, designing for coastal cities requires thinking across scales and perspectives. It also requires acknowledging the relationship between buildings and their surroundings as a living system in which the built environment, infrastructure and bodies of water work together to maximize impact and combat climate change.

At the building and campus level, this shift means radically rethinking what resilient and community-oriented infrastructure can look like in response to future coastal flooding and extreme weather events. A healthcare system on the East Coast, for example, is currently imagining its more coastal and climate-adaptive future, with a new campus design that can self-sustain for up to 96 hours, and act as a hub and resource for the community in the event of hurricane force winds and storm surges. In New Orleans, the Southeast Louisiana Veteran Healthcare System’s Replacement Medical Center—which replaces the VA Medical Center lost to Hurricane Katrina—is designed to remain fully operational without outside support for a minimum of five days during a disaster, with enough provisions and accommodations for 1,000 staff and patients.

As a streetscape, advanced stormwater management strategies can reduce the negative environmental impact of buildings and hardscape in the hydrologic cycle, mitigating polluted runoff and promoting groundwater recharge. This includes permeable paving that reduces runoff and retention pond areas that capture water slowly and release it back into the ground. Once runoff is captured, remaining hardscape can drain via vegetated swales, runnels and landscaped terraces that move water across structures and sites while creating unique moments of interest and connections to nature for people.

Lastly, at the district and neighborhood scale, embedding ‘Sponge City’ design principles like those explained above—as well as clustering development; protecting, conserving and even restoring environmental features; and incorporating water related ecosystem—emphasizes porosity and connectivity.

Further, by studying the way that humans interact with the coastal edge and considering how layers of people, landscape and mobility flow together—from walkability and bikeability corridors to public transportation and vehicles—we can design cities focused on people and the environment rather than cars. This integrative approach can be seen in the design for Tencent’s Net City in Shenzhen, which collects water on campus, manages runoff and flooding, and plants mangrove trees at the shoreline’s edge. Most importantly, Net City prioritizes the needs of its inhabitants and the natural landscape at every step, from sensors that track environmental performance and flooding to the comprehensive transportation network that emphasizes public transit, micromobility vehicles and pedestrian access.

Tencent’s Net City in Shenzhen meets the goals of China’s ‘Sponge City’ initiative by collecting water on campus, managing runoff and flooding, and planting mangrove trees at the shoreline’s edge.

Rethink Infrastructure

Designing in anticipation of rising sea levels and storm events is inspiring elegant and unexpected new forms, typologies, materials and geometries with high performance outcomes. Closer collaboration between designers, engineers and consultants can also result in new solutions, such as elevating walkways, incorporating bridges or building direct passages and public spaces with greater visual access and sweeping views. On the Net City project, the design team worked closely with engineering consultant BuroHappold to design the new district to capture and harness sea breezes. The breezes baffle off the buildings, returning to and cooling the ground plane. This strategy, combined with additional tree canopy, results in a decrease of ambient air temperature by 10 degrees Fahrenheit during hot and humid months.

In addition, major new pieces of coastal protection infrastructure like parkland, wetland, levies and flood walls enable the introduction of new elements that are beautiful, functional and provide amenities such as recreational public space with walking and biking paths. This way of designing and planning for coastal cities offers new opportunities to expand the public realm and open greenspace while creating an attractive and accessible waterfront.

Finally, leveraging new data and technologies allows us to plan for and design around detailed information more accurately. For example, by tracking weather patterns decades into the future, or analyzing the parameters of materials (porosity, corrosiveness) and of context (wind and water capacity, temperature and humidity), parametric design tools are exponentially increasing the pace at which we can design innovative solutions for coastal cities.

Parametric design tools such as this Grasshopper plugin allow designers to address rising water levels due to climate change.

The complexity of designing and planning for coastal cities requires designing with—rather than against—our natural ecology and landscape. Understanding where water comes from and where it flows provides invaluable insights and directly informs design outcomes. Planning for the future of coastal cities presents us with an opportunity for unprecedented design innovation, balancing functionality and ordinary utilitarian goals with designs that make our cities more beautiful, habitable and just.

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Design an Office That People Want to Come Back To

Post-Pandemic Workplace Ideas Inspired by Pre-Pandemic Trends

January 24, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Robert Mankin, Andrea Vanecko and Jonathan Ward 

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was originally published by Harvard Business Review.


As the Covid-19 crisis enters its second year and the Omicron variant surges, organizations around the world are contemplating how, when, and even if to have their knowledge workers resume regular in-office hours. And they do so at a time when the views and priorities of their employees have shifted. A recent McKinsey study showed that well-being, flexibility and work-life balance are top of mind. A survey Microsoft conducted last year indicated that 41% of the global workforce would consider switching jobs in the next year, with 55% noting that work environment would play a role in their decisions.

Our firm was put in a unusual position in 2020:  we were hired to design the headquarters of the  Korean fintech company Hana Bank  during the very period when the pandemic was forcing business leaders to rethink the purpose of the office. But the process—and the resulting building—wasn’t a reaction to Covid. Rather, the crisis highlighted and accelerated trends that had been bubbling under the surface for years, including an increased focus on employee mental and physical health, the needs of a multi-generational workforce, greater emphasis on corporate purpose, and the shift to remote work.

The pandemic raised the stakes for companies looking to retain top-tier employees and build thriving cultures. Here are some of the principles we employed and lessons we took away from the Hana Bank project as well as our recommendations for how organizations can implement both small and large-scale changes in enticing people to return to in-person work.

Ask what the office is for — and name it accordingly

It might sound simple, but nomenclature matters. For knowledge workers, the office shouldn’t be a place to tackle a to-do list. It’s a place for collaboration, creativity, and learning, where an employee feels nurtured and a sense of belonging. Names of buildings, floors, areas, or rooms should reflect this intent.  Terms like “learning center” or “innovation space” communicate the new perspective, shape design changes, attract talent, and influence behavior.

Hana Bank calls its new HQ “Mindmark” to acknowledge the creative work happening inside. Cutting-edge tech companies like Facebook and Google have “campuses” for the same reason; they want their engineers to experiment just as they did when they were students. Even UPS recently renamed its corporate headquarters building—from the Plaza to Casey Hall—as CEO Carol Tome recounts in this HBR article to emphasize a more warm, inviting, collaborative environment.

Hana Bank calls its headquarters “Mindmark,” emphasizing creativity and knowledge. As one of the first offices fully designed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Hana’s headquarters enhances well-being and community through access to nature and diverse, inspiring workspaces.

Listen to what your employees want and need

Think of Covid as a catalyst to talk about what the best employees want from their workplaces, even if you can’t execute on every idea. For most organizations, reverting to the status quo won’t be an option. People will expect more flexibility, better technology, and incentives to come to the office, and companies must heed that call.

Salesforce, for example, reduced its desk space by 40% and embraced a floor plan that features more team-focused spaces that encourage a balance of individual and collaborative work. The Hana Bank HQ caters to various modes of working, including the kind of heads-down individual work that happens at a desk, flexible seating for when people need a break from their desks, collaborative spaces that encourage focused team interaction, and lounges for socializing. This combination of experiences encourages worker agency while still providing structure.

A variety of work spaces and configurations allow Hana Bank employees to choose where and how they work best. To enhance creativity and offer respite, alternative focus work areas include private alcoves, wine bars and outdoor terraces, while collaboration spaces support typical teamwork sessions and more informal social activities. 

Experiment within your own organization

Some companies will create a new headquarters post-pandemic. But most can design a more thoughtful office environment. To start exploring ideas for your own organization, our recommendations is to start small. Repurpose conference rooms, invest in a new teaming table, or refurbish a floor instead of an entire building. You might also incorporate multimedia technology to bring people together and breathe new life into your office.

WarnerMedia’s new headquarters features an immersive media experience that incorporates content from the company’s vast universe of networks to create a sense of brand identity and community. Many companies have invested in smart hybrid meeting technology as well. Look also for multi-use opportunities. For example, the circuitous indoor/outdoor ramps that stretch from the bottom to the top of the Hana Bank building can be used for one-on-one walking meetings, individual exercise, or social breaks in nature and fresh air. Finally, be sure to focus on safety and sustainability by following healthy building guidelines.

Hana’s headquarters is focused on restorative work—the idea that people can leave the workplace feeling better than when they arrived. A series of looping pathways traverse the building from top to bottom, creating a “ribbon park” that unites employees and visitors with the health benefits of nature. 

Activate partnerships based on insights

For younger knowledge workers, the office is as much a place to learn and socialize as it is a place to meet deadlines. Nearly 60% of Millennials report that opportunities to discover new insights are extremely important to them when applying for a job, and they may also stay longer at a company if they get involved in social causes. Smart companies make this happen by partnering with outside organizations to provide such programming.

Activities like yoga or meditation, community service, or continuing education are a good place to start Even small initiatives like a hanging work from local or student artists in rotation, canned food drives in the lobby, or pop-up food trucks outside can fuel employees’ sense of purpose. Gravity—a mixed-use development in Columbus, OH, that houses a large-scale creative office building in addition to residences—employs a full-time amenities curator to seek out partners and programs that feed curiosity and build community.

In conclusion

The workplace trends that accelerated and employee preferences that crystallized during the pandemic aren’t going away. We urge corporations to use this moment to think about how they can improve work environments in a way that boosts employee engagement and well-being, thereby encouraging attendance, increasing retention, and attracting new talent. Now is the time to act.

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