Buildings in Conversation with the City

Four Opportunities for Commercial Offices to Build Connection Among Tenants and the Community

July 9, 2020

Principal, ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Emily Webster, Chris Niederer and Tim Johnson.

 

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

As our cities reopen following the pandemic, they feel much quieter than usual. The coronavirus has disconnected us from each other and our urban spaces. Given this shift, how can we re-engage with them in meaningful and effective ways?

One of the first places we will return to will be commercial office buildings, which can serve as powerful catalysts for reconnecting us with our communities. To create more engaged and healthier urban centers, our buildings can provide experiences that celebrate, amplify and augment these spaces. Below we outline a series of experience design ideas and strategies — which can easily shift and evolve — that commercial buildings could employ to reinvigorate civic life.

 

Rethink the Lobby

It is important to prioritize elements that reduce stress for tenants who return to the office building, beyond communicating social distancing protocols. One way is to employ nature’s science-backed calming effects. Numerous studies demonstrate looking at nature — even simulated — is proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Digital views of nature that respond to people’s movements can provide a rejuvenating enclave in a busy urban environment — and greet building lobby visitors with delight even when there is no front desk staff present. Immersive installations can provide a comforting animated landscape inspired by local surroundings, with digital flora and fauna welcoming and interacting with visitors as they walk by. Light installations can also simulate the supremely calming experience of sunlight hitting water ripples to create unique meditative moments.

These digital layers could be customized at any time, not only to create a livelier environment, but to act as a communications platform that offers an air of exclusivity never experienced before in a multi-tenant building. Lobby media architecture could be tailored for specific tenants to provide unique branding experiences. In a world with proposed timed tenant entries for high rises, lobbies of multi-tenant buildings could become intimately branded for one tenant’s arrival time via specific messages and graphics for their employees to create a more personalized experience. On the weekend, these displays could engage the surrounding neighborhood by showcasing local public art, environmental data, or educational information.

Meanwhile, digital installations can also reinvigorate lobbies in aging or historically-significant buildings, while also providing visibility to street passerby. Media architecture that changes with the weather, seasons, and other neighborhood inputs can bring dynamism and sophistication to urban icons that a static art piece cannot. Custom human-scale lighting installations can also bring warmth to landmark buildings and transform areas of frequent movement (people entering and exiting) into destinations too by inviting tenants to sit and take in the digital art.

 

Address the “Front Porch”

Consider the space outside your commercial building. How can you create a more welcoming presence that invites not just tenants, but passersby to stay and linger in a safe and socially-distanced manner? While a plaza filled with seating and chairs provide places for people to sit, consider an element of surprise or serendipity to maintain engagement. Temporary graphics and pop-up interactive digital “sculptures” which can also serve as seating, exercise equipment or play structures for children, can encourage people to explore and linger in their neighborhood throughout the week and weekend.

Design that engages the senses — through thoughtful and dynamic exterior lighting, soundscapes, landscaping and water features installed outside commercial buildings — could help reunite us with our cities. Interactive multistory digital façades can enliven barren spaces while offering a sense of respite for building tenants and the community. An LED light trellis can become a living wall, simulating dappled light through trees via data-driven animations. This type of installation can transform a former concrete wall into soothing lights to create a peaceful moment, both during the day and at night, at the center of a busy city.

Neuroscience shows “prospect and refuge” — the ability to both survey a space and also find shelter — is hardwired into our brains. More permanent exterior design solutions could provide this. For example, iconic entry canopies can protect people from the elements, while small roofed structures placed in plazas can create socially-distanced niches for reading, lounging and people-watching, as well as areas for farmer’s market stalls. To redefine the street-front, immersive digital entry portals can serve as a neighborhood anchor and branding experience. An exterior-interior multimedia installation can create a new identity that is both a lighting surface, content display and architectural enhancement. Unique digital displays can wrap around building exteriors and move into the interior to offer a dynamic media element that can evolve as needed. Etched glass layered on top of different LED resolutions can create a seamless digital experience that renews an aging building.

 

Be a Good Neighbor

To help reactivate the city and extend the network of building users on a daily basis, commercial buildings could host a series of rotating platforms that artists can use to enliven empty or underutilized commercial space. In addition to independent artists, these vacant commercial spaces could also allow cultural institutions to show more of their collections. In New York City, the Museum of Modern Art only has space to display 30% of its full collection — which contains more than 200,000 pieces — while the Guggenheim Museum only shows 3% of its works. By distributing these artworks throughout the city, taking advantage of newly released real estate, museums could utilize highly visible spaces and extend where and how people see art. For example, the Rijksmuseum store at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam utilizes empty retail space, and was the first art museum in the world to open a new branch at an airport.

Art walks have long been a popular urban event. In this spirit, commercial buildings could go a step further and develop partnerships with local civic or business improvement districts (BID) or even each other to bring amenities outdoors and repurpose underutilized areas, sidewalks or vacated parking spaces for outdoor dining, pop-up retail and more. In New York, the Madison Square Park Conservancy produces a popular culinary pop-up market, Mad Sq. Eats, which draws local restaurants from around the city into an underutilized plaza. This program brings the kitchen to the street to not only create a welcoming public outdoor dining experience, but also bring greater visibility to the community and neighboring businesses.

Temporary educational signage posted on or near commercial buildings can also encourage people to reconnect with their urban communities. For example, sidewalk decals can provide self-guided tours that help people learn about the history and significance of local architecture. Philadelphia’s robust wayfinding system features color-coded maps throughout its diverse urban neighborhoods to spotlight the city’s iconic built environment, orient visitors and help locals better navigate their city.

With dramatic drops in car traffic due to stay-at-home orders, some cities are temporarily and permanently closing their streets to serve pedestrians, bikes and other social-distanced activities. Some of these spaces have transformed into neighborhood greenways or linear street “parks.” Adjacent commercial buildings can take advantage of these areas to better connect tenants, residents and visitors alike. To create a safer pedestrian environment, LED mesh street overlay lights can provide greater visibility and direct cars away from these areas at night.

 

Build Community via the Skyline

Commercial buildings can create conversations with their cities and differentiate themselves in a crowded skyline. Digital exterior screens, perhaps even sponsored by tenants, can convey engaging messages for the city that could rotate monthly. Large-scale media installations across a set of buildings can create an expansive canvas for storytelling.

While cities and buildings have used crown lighting to show support for holidays, the expression is limited to colors and patterns. What if urban residents and visitors could contribute imagery, or words, to the installation? Could there be an audio component that people could tune into to hear stories or oral histories? Through these elements, city residents could see themselves represented in the buildings that surround them. Currently, the artist Jim Campbell captures daily recordings of city life in San Francisco and displays them on the top of the Salesforce Tower, which can be seen up to 20 miles away at night. National Geographic has projected wildlife photography on buildings around the world, from the Empire State Building to the United Nations headquarters via its Photo Ark initiative.

What if we transformed our skylines through user-generated content and through community engagement? To create space in the skyline that reflects the people who inhabit each urban neighborhood allows residents to simultaneously become the directors, performers and audience of these installations. By prioritizing the collective and setting aside our individualism, we may better unify our communities. Ultimately, it’s not about how a building can stand out on the skyline — it’s about how our buildings can contribute to the greater good of the city to become part of the identity and fabric of our city centers.

 

In Summary

The coronavirus has changed the urban experience and the way we interact. To create more livable and resilient cities, commercial office buildings are an important piece of the puzzle. They must open themselves up to their communities and engage their urban centers in more expressive ways, through opportunities that support social engagement, culture, health and wellness. The resulting economic benefits, but also social and environmental ones too, could help reposition a building’s assets and strengthen our neighborhoods.

 

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 ESI Design, an NBBJ Studio.

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Fear Factor

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

May 20, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

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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Is Your Real Estate Strategy Prepared for What’s Next?

Questions to Consider and What to Do If You Don’t Have a Strategy in Place

May 19, 2020

Senior Associate, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Jonathan Bahe and Kelly Griffin.

 

The coronavirus crisis and social distancing are reshaping how we work on a global level. For some of us, our homes are now our offices. Even when it’s safe to return to the workplace, some will feel most productive completing solo tasks from home at least part of the time.

As such, the workplace may evolve to become the “central nervous system” of organizational culture and collaboration, offering people the flexibility and professional trust to find spaces that serve their needs best. While the office of tomorrow will look different for each company, the COVID-19 crisis presents a moment for all organizations to pause and ask key questions about their real estate strategy. Below are a series of nine questions to help determine the right pivot approach, if you have a strategy in place, as well as ideas on how to help adapt the workplace — not just in the short term, but for the long term as well. If you don’t yet have a strategy in place, we also outline steps to create one toward the end.

 

Re-Think Existing Real Estate Strategies

1. Is your real estate strategy aligned with your workplace strategy? Do you distinguish between the two? For many organizations, a real estate strategy might be more financially and macro-scale focused, while the workplace strategy might be more people and micro-scaled focused. These are both critical components to a robust plan for the future.

2. Has the pandemic shifted long-term business priorities for your organization that would also require changes to your real estate and workplace models?

  • Perhaps you are a healthcare organization that has both heroically supported our communities through one of the most difficult times in our history, and yet face significant financial headwinds. How might this moment shift thinking about your real estate strategy and portfolio? Do people need to work on campus all day, every day? Can organizational hierarchy in the assignment of real estate give way to creative models for allowing people to do their best work?
  • Or perhaps many members of your organization were already out of the office frequently, meeting with clients or executing client work. Will the realization and acceptance of video conferencing at scale actually keep people in the office more frequently?
  • Or perhaps the economic headwinds have slowed the growth projections of your company, and you are asking what’s next? How do you be smarter about real estate costs in the future?

3. Is your existing real estate strategy focused on financial metrics or on people metrics?

  • If financial metrics are your biggest driver, you might choose to take this moment to re-examine what and how you measure success. Newer, modern workplaces, particularly those that embrace a more flexible workplace, will have different metrics than traditional cost per SF or SF per person than previous environments.
  • If people metrics power your business, how can your workplace support dispersed teams and flexible work modes, while still maintaining (or increasing) your organizational culture? What are existing people metrics — net promoter scores, employee engagement survey results, etc. — telling you about workplace environments, or about your culture that a new workplace might address?

4. Do your HR team members have a work from home policy in place that aligns with your real estate strategy?

  • If not, what steps might you need to take to align them?

5. What is your organizational approach to seat sharing and/or hoteling?

  • If seat sharing is part of your strategy, how will you operationalize the needed resources to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the workplace?
  • If seat sharing is not a part of your strategy, how are you going to effectively manage workplace capital spending for a future where more people will work remotely, versus being at their desk 100% of the time (which was already the case for many organizations pre-COVID)?

6. What elements of your strategy were already working well, and have proven effective as you’ve responded to COVID-19?

  • Maybe you already embraced flexibility, or had begun making investments in video conferencing and virtual collaboration platforms. If so, you’ve likely been more successful than others at the transition.

7. What are key elements about your culture that you want your workplace to reinforce, and is the design of your current workplace doing that successfully?

  • Will it still be successful if you have a blended approach to working from home and working in the office?
  • Do you have the right mix of collaboration spaces, focus spaces and amenity spaces to support your culture in a more flexible work environment?

8. Have you reviewed upcoming leases to see if any shifts in strategy might be implemented immediately and generate near-term savings opportunities, versus those which might be implemented on new projects moving forward?

  • Do you have any lease termination rights, or the opportunity to exercise an early termination option on part of the portfolio? Or perhaps you are in a position to negotiate an early extension with your landlord in return for concessions?
  • Having a committed team in place as a key part of your real estate strategy can help you answer the variety of questions and scenarios that will support the implementation of your new approach.

9. For projects currently in the design and construction pipeline, what shifts (if any) might you need to make to adapt to this new strategy?

  • If you are currently planning a 1:1 approach to seating, but your new strategy indicates that hoteling (at even a small ratio) might be a good fit, what redesign or renegotiation might need to happen to support that change?

 

Create a New Real Estate Strategy

Of course, the questions above are only relevant if you’re among the companies that already operate with a real estate strategy in place. If you don’t yet have a strategy, which would put you in good company as the majority do not, it’s not too late! Whether you are the CEO, the COO, a corporate real estate executive, or a leader in your organization, the development of a real estate strategy can: 1) Provide your organization with a clearer map for the future; 2) Better align your talented staff, the way they work and your organizational culture; and 3) Better project, manage and perhaps even reduce CapEx and OpEx real estate expenses for your organization. A win, win, win all around.

An integral step in developing a real estate strategy is establishing an effective workplace strategy, highlighted in the “congruence model” below. This model aligns multiple systems to create a holistic workplace experience and enhance human performance. Once you determine how your space will be utilized now and in the future — as well as how remote work policies and virtual collaboration tools will be deployed — your teams can make better decisions about their real estate needs.

 

Embrace Uncertainty to Adapt to the Future

No company could fully prepare for the difficulty of our current times. How we recover and go back to work (pre-vaccine) will continue to be debated, tested, and adapted as we learn more. The next 12-18 months will be filled with questions, uncertainties and unknowns — all of which will increase stressors on leaders and our workplaces.

Yet with a robust real estate strategy as your guide, organizational decisions about the future will become clearer. As optimists, we’re excited about workplaces that nurture employee health, connection and creativity, while also aligning design strategy with organizational strategy. Leading organizations will embrace this moment as one of the many inevitable, unknown disruptors to their best-laid strategic plans, and flex their organizational muscles to adapt for a new future.

 

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 Edmon Leong.

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