The Workplace Should Be Organic

Six Ways to Create a Strong Connection to Nature in Any Workplace

January 20, 2022

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson and Ryan Mullenix

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series on Healthy Buildings. The first post focused on lighting and how building design can support circadian rhythm, and the second explored the relationship between noise and productivity and healing in corporate and healthcare environments.


The very first buildings—and those for thousands of years after—were designed to shelter us from the elements. Walls, roofs, windows and heating systems overcome the unpredictability of nature by keeping it outside. Before buildings, however, our bodies grew so accustomed to the natural environment that our health still depends on our exposure to it. Time spent in nature yields measurable value to our lives, improving cognitive function, increasing creativity and decreasing stress. Yet despite its many benefits, incorporating nature into the built environment remains a challenge.

For example, even though some European hospitals integrate nature into their buildings, hospitals in North America are often required to eschew greenery indoors due to code requirements. Like healthcare buildings, the modern corporate office also acts as a barrier to nature, removing workers from green space and making it difficult to open a window or step outside. And although the pandemic and subsequent shift toward remote and hybrid work provide flexibility to embrace gardening, go for a walk, or at least gaze out a window throughout the day, many of us still spend much of our time indoors.

Integrating nature in the workplace (and all buildings, for that matter) is critical to the well-being of employees, teams and organizations. Here are six drivers that borrow characteristics from the outdoors to integrate nature into every workday.

1. The Workplace Should Be Organic
Establishing biophilic drivers for decision-making early on in a project leads to the thoughtful development of a calmer and more productive atmosphere. According to neuroscience research done with NBBJ fellow and molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms. Implementing a color palette that is associated with our experiences in nature, such as blues, greens and oranges, can offer motivation or focus, while rounded edges can make us feel safer than sharp corners.

2. The Workplace Should Change Frequently
On an even larger scale, hubs such as outdoor amphitheaters with movable walls or landscaped indoor spaces can support a range of activities such as group classes like yoga, gardening or cooking. These multi-use spaces can also serve as a meeting area or a place of respite, and if done well in harmony with nature, can offer diverse spaces that use zero energy. In addition, companies can explore the use of prefabricated or modular units—“offices in a box”—that can be easily nestled within the surrounding landscape. Not only do these spaces serve as diverse, autonomous places for work and meetings, but they can also be designed to easily open and close depending on the weather.

A prefabricated “office in a box” enables employees to immerse themselves in nature and can adapt to changing work needs or weather conditions.

3. The Workplace Should Be Green
We know the color green raises our cortisol levels, almost instantaneously reducing our stress. That same color also enables our brain to focus as it helps us relax. Lesser known is the improvement that plants can bring to our physical health through anti-fungal chemicals that boost immunity. Including greenery and plants in the office is the simplest way to bring nature into the workplace. At Korean fintech company Hana Bank’s headquarters—which will soon break ground—staff and visitors will be exposed to the health benefits of nature via immersive landscapes that include sweeping plantings, plazas and gardens extending from the existing landscape. However, even smaller planters or living walls offer enough benefit to warrant plants being incorporated into the office at any scale.


A plant-filled space can serve multiple workplace needs, from hosting activities and meetings to a quiet place for concentration or respite.

4. The Workplace Should Be an Immersive Escape
While living plants are preferable since the act of caring for them has a positive effect on happiness and satisfaction, even images of nature—whether digital or still—can improve overall mood and concentration. According to University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn, simply looking at images of nature can relax and calm us, while also keeping us engaged. Digital displays, either combined with natural elements or in place of them, can create an immersive experience. If possible, change the architectural program of the space to include a respite room that allows its user to be enveloped in digital sights and sounds of nature.

Immersion in nature, whether physical or digital, keeps employees relaxed and engaged. Hana Bank’s headquarters weaves nature into the workplace with a 12-story public “ribbon park” and outdoor terraces.

5. The Workplace Should Be a Threshold
One benefit of an office tower is the ability to optimize views and access to daylight. However, incorporating intuitive pathways to light and establishing moments to step outside make an even bigger difference in supporting employees’ circadian rhythms and overall health. At the campus of a Zhejiang-based large internet company, each employee’s workspace is located less than a minute from outside green space, and all workstations are close to windows that overlook greenery and open to let in fresh air and natural ventilation. Similarly, smartphone maker vivo’s nature-infused headquarters will feature an elegant spiral of exterior gardens, providing every level with easy access to green space for work, as well as paths for exercise.

Outdoor terraces and planted gardens provide every floor with access to green space at smartphone maker vivo’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China.

6. The Workplace Should Be an Instigator
Enacting policies and protocols that allow employees to take advantage of nature throughout the workday is also beneficial. Encourage walking meetings by providing suggested routes and the length of time it takes to complete them. Implement a video-optional policy for certain calls or meetings to allow people to take them outdoors.

Nature’s ability to support both mental and physical health in the workplace and beyond must not be overlooked. The well-being and engagement of employees is critical to an organization’s sustained success, especially now. Incorporating moments to connect with the natural world throughout the workday leads to a happier, healthier, more creative workforce and more successful, productive organizations.

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Humanizing Skyscrapers

Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction

January 6, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Fortress to Front Door: How High-Rises Can Attract Tech Tenants in a Highly Competitive Market

December 8, 2021

Partner, NBBJ

A version of this post initially appeared in CTBUH’s 2021 Journal, Issue IV.


By the end of 2021, the tech industry’s global revenue will reach US$5 trillion. Given this growth, the urgent need for tech companies to attract and retain talent amidst a highly competitive market is more critical than ever. One way is through investments in high-rise workplaces. Yet tech companies have different needs compared to the typical tall office building tenants: a unique culture of continual innovation, activity-driven work, non-corporate dynamics, generational preferences and agile-fueled project management, among others. So, how can tall office buildings better align with the needs of the tech sector?

First, an amenity-focused shift is transforming the tech high-rise. A decade ago, the traditional office building included anywhere from 85 to 98 percent workspaces and 15 to 2 percent amenities. Today, this percentage is steadily balancing out to a more even split, edging toward 50 percent workspaces and 50 percent mixed-use amenities. Strategies that engage the perimeter of a high-rise or commercial building can drive community connections between tech companies and the neighborhood. To be a more proactive part of the neighborhood, tall buildings and commercial developments can devote these exterior-facing areas to amenities.

This can include ground-floor spaces for non-profit, art and educational organizations to develop cultural partnerships and provide resources. Welcoming plazas and courtyards can host farmer’s markets to enhance food access and nutrition, while mobile pop-ups, such as galleries, gift shops and co-working spaces, can revitalize underutilized street fronts and alleys. In addition, changes to municipal codes, so that active street-front usage is encouraged or even required, could help incentivize these changes and even make them more profitable. For example, a building’s width could increase if programmed with street-fronting space for community organizations.

Another strategy to address tech company needs is to develop zones at the “front door” of a high-rise that encourage new connections and uses for a transformed public-private threshold. The entrance of a high-rise commercial development has the power to set the stage, and simple changes can help invite and welcome building inhabitants. A seamless drop-off and arrival experience that accommodates everything from concierge and child-care services to multi-modal accessibility and diverse delivery modes is key. With more online-to office and office-to-home deliveries—and in the future, food and package deliveries by drone—it can be helpful to provide designated areas for these services separate from car, pedestrian, scooter and bike access.

Furthermore, these elements can work in tandem with an integrated building-security approach to protect people and ideas. A high-rise should be secure, but approachable. Ditch the ground-floor “fortress” mentality and instead provide check-in points one level up. For instance, this can open up the first floor for public use, which can serve as a welcoming lounge for collaboration, discussions, and events, not just for building tenants, but locals and visitors as well.

The interiors of tall commercial buildings offer a multitude of opportunities to rethink space for tech tenants’ needs, from wellness to connection. First and foremost, buildings must breathe. Fifty-seven percent of sick leave can be attributed to poor ventilation.

One way to boost health and cognition is to provide access to fresh air through features such as operable windows. A mixed approach can offer flexibility in areas where pollution or wildfires are common, by blending operable windows with floor-by floor mechanicals that filter outside air if needed. Additionally, access to outdoor workspaces at multiple levels can support greater wellness, health and agency. Interspersed terraces, rooftop gardens and publicly-accessible ribbon parks can provide restorative moments for office workers and visitors alike. Taking the diverse needs of tech companies into consideration, tall building designs can offer both more uplifting work environments and more welcoming, engaging communities that give back to their neighborhoods, providing differentiation in the market for the developer and ensuring that buildings are more attractive to the growing tech sector.

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