The Outside Comes In

August 15, 2018 | | View Comments

Written by James Robe

Design Museum Workplace Innovation

If you are like me, you probably work in an office.

With cubicles and carpeting the color of storm clouds, it can be a bit of a rain on your parade – especially as these first days of summer fall upon us.

Americans spend around 90-percent of their time in buildings, with time spent outside commuting between various interior locations. It’s a wonder then that indoor environments are often unhealthy to people. Constant sitting is generally bad for our health, and many building materials are actually bad for us.

But do not despair! Trends in architecture and interior design show that the great outdoors may be creeping their way into our cubicles and corridors. Here are some recent cool trends to get our hopes up.

Air: Parts per Million and That Third Cup of Coffee

Are you sleepy? It could have been that 3:00 PM coffee to supercharge the last few hours of work, and consequently another sleepless night. Instead of doing some office jumping jacks to clear the fog, the culprit may be something a little more subversive.

Simply opening a window may clear your head. According to a recent Harvard study, people in well-ventilated offices have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores than those in typical office spaces. Put simply, outside air is much better for our thinking capabilities, while stuffy offices may be causing that 2:00 PM slouch fest.

One way to address this issue is to use fresh air instead of re-circulated air to condition the building. Though this can involve a large increase in energy use, innovative solutions have been developed to exchange the heat from the outcoming air to the incoming air. A more widespread solution is the inclusion of carbon dioxide and oxygen sensors throughout a building, constantly monitoring the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide to keep you alert and awake.

Light: LEDs Got Nothin’ on Sunlight

Design Museum

If you have ever slept in a room with a window facing the rising sun, you may be familiar with that electrifying, kettles of coffee level of awake those beams bring. As sunlight enters your closed eyes, it actually stimulates special receptors, starting a wake-sleep cycle called the Circadian Rhythm.

Artificial lighting just doesn’t cut it for our biology. Natural sunlight helps to wake us up but also stimulates Vitamin D production.

Architects and engineers are following suit, installing measures in buildings meant to mimic or even just bring in natural sunlight. Daylighting, a strategy older than electricity, uses the natural sunlight of the day to light an interior office. Some lighting systems even become warmer at night, as blue, cooler tones, light can be straining on the eyes and messes with our sleep cycle.

Green: Plants are for more than decoration

Design Museum Boston

In my office we have one plant, yet to be named, dutifully watered by my colleague. It seems to get closer to the edge of the desk every time we have a meeting. Despite our lack of biodiversity in the office, trends in architecture are bringing the forest back into our buildings.

Plants produce oxygen but also seem to affect us psychologically. Leafy greens were even shown in one study to make office workers as much as 15% more productive.

The trend is part of a larger movement called biophilia, which aims to bring greenery back into our working and living spaces. This goes beyond productivity increases: offices with greenery seem more beautiful. Examples of this stretch the globe, from the Singapore Super Trees, which are enormous structures celebrating the integration of architecture and environment, to living plant walls in places as close as 888 Boylston street in Boston.

The Outside Comes In

Buildings are supposed to represent a boundary, separating us from the elements and providing arenas for human interaction. As the understanding of human health and biology evolves, architects and engineers are finding that elements of buildings can be detrimental to our health.

The boundaries of the built environment are starting to blur as elements of nature come back into our workplace. With new light, air, and plant life, our living spaces might just be getting a whole lot more natural feeling.