How Tech Companies are Rethinking the High-Rise Workplace

Eight New Ideas for the High-Rise of the Future

April 24, 2017

Design Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post, adapted from a talk delivered at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) 2016 China Conference on October 18, 2016, in Shenzhen, was originally published by NAIOP.

Seventy percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. This is a dramatic change over one and a half generations, and it will require us to rethink how we build our cities.

At the same time, many tech companies — Amazon, Tencent, Google, Samsung and others — are infusing digital technology into how cities are built and operated. They’re introducing different thinking about what defines a high-rise and a city.

The traditional high-rise building paradigm is simplistic: stacked floor plates, disconnected from each other, with little integration of technology and disconnected from the life of the city, except as an urban icon or a passive lens from which to look out. Most tech companies, however, as well as companies in other industries, are looking for a more social workplace, more interaction between employees and a work experience that reflects their brand. Cities are also changing, as they toss off the “inner city” stigmas of the previous generation and become places to live, work and play. As a result, the high-rise building paradigm needs to change into something more porous and highly networked.

Here are just a few possibilities:

  1. The high-rise building typology is highly ossified, but if we can deconstruct it, we can create seams in which people actually talk to each other, interact and generate new ideas. One way to accomplish this objective is by moving the core from the center of the building to the edge and creating common space at the center. The more we promote visual and physical communication in buildings, the more we can move towards community, innovation and happier places to work.
  2. The vertical, linear nature of elevators also reinforces the disconnection of people and the ossification of the high-rise. If we can look at movement systems from a more multivalent or “grid” perspective — with “skip-stop” elevators that force people to interact on higher floors, with more stairs and escalators between floors, and with multistory atriums for visual connections — we can open up a lot of possibilities.
  3. If the high-rise building is a city-planning problem, maybe public spaces, legislated vertically, can change the way we interact with buildings. Through planning and zoning we can create vertical urbanization purposefully. Just as traditional planning and zoning regulations for setbacks and heights are purposeful, we can open new possibilities for purposeful public space, green spaces and street volumes.
  4. Green facades are a simplistic way of incorporating nature into a high-rise. The more interesting possibility is to think of the building as a true ecosystem — which, again, is human- or life-based. If we can include plants and fresh air in the workplace and make our buildings more organic, it will change the way we interact and perform in buildings. Perhaps we could even grow food for a building’s inhabitants within the frame of the building itself.
  5. A lot of companies are broken into teams. If we think about those teams as “neighborhoods,” we can create connective tissue — almost like a plaza, a park or a square in a small city — between them to bring people together in a type of “village-ification” of the high-rise.
  6. Another priority: daylight for all. If towers are covering the city in shadows, what can we do about it? If we start thinking about geometry, technology and materials to bring daylight down to the street, we can start using buildings to solve problems that everyone experiences — even those who never set foot inside a building we design.
  7. At the same time, super-light towers are becoming possible. What can we learn about new materials — carbon fiber, for instance — from companies like Boeing? Studies suggest we can reduce steel and concrete in supertall towers by 35 to 40 percent. In an era of sustainability and scarce resources, those are things we should be thinking about.
  8. Finally, can the high-rise building become a technology platform? The internet giant Tencent, the most valuable company in Asia according to Fortune, is using its new headquarters tower as a lab for their own product portfolio, integrating elevators, lighting, conferencing, parking and security with their own WeChat-based products. By testing their products on themselves, they are not only making their workplace more efficient, but also learning how to create better products for their customers.

The basic, underlying principle for tall buildings and workplaces in the future will be to connect people and make life in our cities more sustainable. How can we, in ways we never could have imagined in the past, create a better, more human experience in the city and in the high-rise building? Therein lies the challenge. Solving it will spur us to greater innovation, synergy and new ways of thinking.

Banner image of Tencent headquarters © Terrence Zhang, courtesy NBBJ.

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Learning from Tech Workplaces

Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

January 23, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Workplaces around the world are evolving as organizations like Apple, Google and Amazon seek to design offices that increase collaboration, integrate new technologies and help employees work more efficiently. This ethos is now making its way to the buildings where scientists and researchers work. Here’s why:

Research is going digital…

The methods scientists use to conduct research are changing. Labs are traditionally divided into three segments: clinical work, “wet” lab spaces (lab experiments using liquids) and “dry” lab spaces (labs using computers). Analysis and discoveries are becoming increasingly computation-based, or dry, compared to traditional wet laboratories.

From 2013 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health’s dry research funding for networking and IT R&D increased 40%, growing from $521 million to $729 million. The past decade has seen an explosion in data-intensive life sciences, including genomic research and medicine centering on healthcare customization and treatments based on patient DNA sequences.

The focus on data and computing in science fields is creating a shift in roles. There are close to twice as many dry bench scientists — including computation, informatics/clinical outcomes and clinical scientists — than wet bench scientists working today. Dry labs also require about 20% less space, at a little under 100 square feet per person versus close to 125 square feet per person in a wet lab.

Data creation, metadata (data about data) management and data curation are increasingly becoming the domain of the scientist. Lab benches are drying out.

What does this mean for lab design? In a forthcoming post, I’ll examine some of the implications for designers and laboratory planners.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Virtual Reality: The Architect’s Next Great Productivity Tool

NBBJ Is Incubating a New Virtual Reality Start-up Named Visual Vocal. Here's Why.

January 9, 2017

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was coauthored by Steve McConnell and John SanGiovanni and originally published by DesignIntelligence.

Virtual reality (VR) is transforming businesses and dominating media headlines as the technology becomes increasingly popular and surpasses $6.5 billion in annual revenues. Yet that number pales in comparison to what is predicted for the future: research shows that by 2025, the industry could be worth $110 billion, a 1500% increase.

Today, VR is synonymous with companies like PlayStation, Oculus, Vive, and Samsung, who have used the technology to develop devices and experiences which are focused primarily on entertainment. Meanwhile, the use of augmented reality, VR’s “sister technology,” is also on the rise as demonstrated by Nintendo’s Pokémon GO, which became an international sensation and boosted the Japanese company’s stock price to its highest level in six years.

Another area where the potential of VR is just now being realized is the construction industry, which accounts for $8.5 trillion globally in annual revenues. While development and building construction represent a small proportion of VR’s overall use today, we surmise that its market share will grow at a rapid pace as architects, developers, general contractors and clients become more familiar with its use. In fact, we predict the next generation of VR tools in development now will make the overall real estate industry more productive, efficient and engaged in the design process.

The Creation of Visual Vocal
That is why, earlier this year, NBBJ began incubating a new virtual reality startup, making it the first architecture firm in the world to do so. Called Visual Vocal, the namesake of which represents the core features of the project — visual and audible communication — the company is one of the first to actively pursue a new productivity platform through virtual reality.

The need for the tool is simple. Architects deal with complex visual datasets such as renderings and drawings. But getting those files into the hands of clients is difficult not only because of their size, but also because they are not often legible to people outside the profession. As it stands now, there is not a tool that can sufficiently communicate design intent in an immersive three dimensional format and easily collect feedback.

Here’s how the tool works. Let’s say a major healthcare system hires an architect to design a new hospital. Under the current methodology, hospital stakeholders — which could include executives, facilities managers, doctors and nurses — would meet with the design team at regular intervals, reviewing drawings and renderings to determine if the project is headed in the right direction. When changes are made, it would then take architects time to redo the design and present new options.

With Visual Vocal, a new process emerges. Using the tool, stakeholders would download an app on their Apple or Android smartphones, attach an inexpensive pocket-sized folding viewer to the screen, and immediately immerse themselves in a fully-rendered 3D environment that shows different versions of the hospital.

Users would be able to visualize major spaces throughout the new healthcare facility and, while doing so, select preferred design options and outcomes. At the same time, users will also be able to listen to embedded audio of architects narrating the design so users have a greater understanding of its concepts and intended outcomes.

During these processes, stakeholders can also use their own voice within the VR system to annotate more detailed feedback to the design team. The system also offers a patented “Immersive Survey” feature, to quickly capture feedback from very large groups of stakeholders. Best of all, clients can experience what the project will feel like, and provide their feedback, anytime, anywhere.

Project leaders using the tool are no longer required to be in the same place or even the same time zone in order to experience a project’s design and provide feedback. This feature alone could be a major time saver for busy executives. On the back end, the Visual Vocal tool allows user feedback to be quickly tabulated, calculated and organized in an easy-to-understand system that can be accessed in real time by the design team.

Driving Better Value for Clients
The benefits of this new way of doing business are numerous. First, the tool is a way to increase collaboration between members of the design teams themselves and, importantly, between the architecture firm and its clients, subcontractors and other consultants. Second, the tool saves time and money, by reducing the number of meetings required to come to a design consensus. Finally this approach makes the design process more inclusive and enjoyable for all participants.

Because everyone has a smartphone and downloading apps is easy, the Visual Vocal tool gives architects the power to solicit feedback from hundreds or even thousands of users. For example, while the tool might be used on a corporate headquarters project by only a select group of company leaders, a waterfront redevelopment project for a city could allow the tool to be accessed by hundreds of people. Citizen engagement has always been important, but it is especially so today, and the Visual Vocal tool gives governments and community organizations the power to solicit feedback from people everywhere.

Looking Toward the Future
Since its debut in May 2016, the Visual Vocal team has grown its staff from 2 people to 10 and has secured seven figures of venture-backed funding. As partner and investor, NBBJ has helped the company develop, test and refine the product and is in the process of integrating the mobile-based VR platform on projects in the US and Europe. These projects range from a large technology headquarters in the US to a research lab at a prestigious university in the UK. Beyond Visual Vocal’s architectural collaboration platform, the venture sees vast opportunities for its core VR communication technology as the landscape of Virtual and Augmented Reality continues to expand. Forthcoming innovations will only make VR communication patterns more commonplace, such as Google Daydream in late 2016 and AR systems like Magic Leap in the future.

Later this year Visual Vocal will be available to the industry at large. The architecture industry is ripe for innovation, and disruptive technologies that bring greater productivity to the process of design should be encouraged. By making this tool available to many, it has the potential to boost the output of all architecture firms, thereby increasing the industry’s relevance to clients around the world.

What’s next for Visual Vocal and VR in general? After expanding to the architecture industry at large, the team will develop similar platforms for other industries that could benefit from its application, including aerospace, manufacturing and even molecular biology. In the meantime, look out for VR on your next architecture project, and see how it can make collaboration more effective and engaging than ever!

Steve McConnell, FAIA, is managing partner at NBBJ, named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, and the architecture firm of choice for tech companies by Wired. John SanGiovanni is CEO and co-founder of Visual Vocal and a serial entrepreneur, strategist and inventor, having founded three ventures and co-authored more than 20 patents in the areas of AR, VR, and mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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