It was as far back as 1998 when Gary Evans and Janetta Mitchell McCoy wrote an article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology entitled ‘When Buildings Don’t Work: The Role of Architecture in Human Health’. In their piece, they examined the potential of a building to reduce stress and inspire wellness – insight which was both well-timed and ahead of its time. Today, organisations are increasingly focused on finding ways of keeping employees happy and well and this has led to a quiet revolution in the ways in which offices are designed and working spaces laid out.
It was in the 1950s that the open plan office was invented, it was also the era which heralded the arrival of the controversial brutalist architecture form which saw buildings made from raw concrete and brick arise, squat and rugged, on the office block horizon. Today’s open plan office may be a far cry from the rows of sullen desks lining a room in the 1950s, but it isn’t that different in terms of privacy, noise and enforced uniformity. It is an effective use of space, especially for the cost-conscious business, as it squeezes as many souls as possible into as little square feet as possible, but it doesn’t have an effective impact on people.
Today open plan is being re-thought and refined as architects recognise the impact it has on employees.
“The problem with open plan is that it creates a ‘sweat shop’ type scenario with unpleasant acoustics and a negative impact on productivity and wellness,” says Lood Welgemoed, Associate Director, Boogertman + Partners Architects. “We’ve gone from convincing our clients that they have to go open plan because it gives them more bums on seats from a development perspective, to exploring multi-use spaces.”
It’s a view shared by Jonathan Hall, Director at Tower Bridge: “The nature of work requires employees to be a lot more flexible and the workspace has to adapt to that. It’s no longer about one desk or one open plan space.”
Tower Bridge has developed a solution which divides the working area into six distinct spaces. The first, and possibly the most important, is the Task Node. Here there must be absolute quiet with no distractions, where colleagues recognise that those in this space cannot be disturbed.
“Disturbances are one of the biggest issues around wellbeing – they impact on the employee’s ability to do their work and can take three to four hours of productive time away from each employee every day,” says Hall. “This pushes up cortisol levels which then dampens health and wellbeing, and if they have a lot of work to do, then this will only add to their stress levels.”
The other six spaces include a collaboration space, a communication area where people can make calls privately, a planned meeting space, a presentation space and a social space. Each of these areas recognises that people work differently and need various stimuli to be more productive and happy at work.
“There is a trend of people going out to coffee shops and restaurants to get a change of scenery when they work,” adds Hall. “Now these types of spaces are being built into offices, creating areas that keep that need in mind.”
Another architectural concern for the office block and employee is the availability of sunlight. NASA found that people who didn’t have access to natural light during the day would lose around 45 minutes of REM sleep every night – that translates into a bunch of employee zombies, coming to work feeling tired and demotivated because they spend their days in lightless cubicles.
“Absence of natural lighting has been associated with altered levels of fatigue and disorientation as well as seasonal affective disorders, depression and psychiatric disorders,” says Ian Gray, Craft of Architecture Founding Partner.
Welgemoed adds: “The base building should be designed to optimise climatic conditions, daylight and views, while the interior tool looks at the design qualities of the office fit-out, including use of materials, life cycle costing and also the impact the construction would have on natural resources and the environment.”
Other elements which are essential to consider include temperature, noise, colour and space. Cramped architecture can make people feel crowded and stressed while dark colours and loud, echoing environments can impact on wellbeing and the ability to cope with pressure.
“Research has shown that colour impacts humans in a variety of ways – psychologically, neuro-psychologically and psychosomatically, and has a potential impact on healing. It also serves as a primary means of communication and visual ergonomics so architects have to consider colour during construction,” concludes Gray. “Architects can contribute to how the workspace is perceived by the design of brighter spaces, high ceilings and mirrored walls. As the world of wellbeing within buildings rapidly advances and changes with new ideas and studies, architects have to keep abreast of research so that buildings and design can keep pace.”
The Wesbank and FNB building in Fairland, South Africa, is a good example of architecture done with the employee in mind. It has more than a hectare of glass surrounding the building and light wells strategically placed throughout to ensure there is enough natural light. The new PwC building currently being constructed beside the Mall of Africa in Johannesburg is to have social and recreation facilities along with an amphitheatre, an interactive fountain and a stage. Then there is South African home and fashion brand Mr Price’s head office in Durban which has built a rooftop garden which is accessible from the offices using a walkway, bringing that little bit of green to the working day. Slowly but surely, South African offices are finding ways of bringing wellness into the very fabric of their design.