More and more companies are seeing the benefits of biophilic design and timber-built architecture, as research suggests it can boost employees’ morale, productivity and sense of wellness.
“We wanted a building that reflects our image,” says Fanny Truchon, CEO of Creaform. From the onset, the company embraced biophilic design—defined as an incorporation of natural materials, natural light, vegetation, views of nature and other experiences of the natural world into the built environment. The choice to build with wood was a big part of
achieving that, Truchon confirms.
“We see a difference on a cultural level and in lifestyle habits,” as a result of the new design, she adds. Specializing in portable 3D measurement and analysis technologies, the Quebec-based company headquarters saw the use of wood, natural materials and sustainable design as a sound investment in their employee culture and morale.
Truchon goes on to explain that the building has become more a living space than an office, and “we believe that wood contributes greatly to this feeling.” She says it is not unusual for people to stay longer after office hours or on the weekend to use the fitness facilities or participate in social activities. “People have really adopted this living space.”
Triple Duty: The Biophilic, Structural and Aesthetic Benefits of Wood
Wood is an ingenious invention of nature. It can serve triple duty within the built environment, delivering biophilic, structural and aesthetic benefits. It is light and strong to build with, and warm and welcoming to live with. And unlike plants, wood does not rely on access to windows and natural light. As a result, its biophilic health benefits extend even to windowless rooms where no natural light or landscape is present. For design teams interested in this approach to design, wood provides a high level of flexibility both in design and in application.
Putting Nature to Work
Truchon’s anecdotal observations at Creaform are in fact bearing out in several research studies. For example, a study with employees of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Call Center revealed that workers who have a view of the natural environment handled six to seven percent more calls than those who did not have a view. The cost of revamping offices to give each employee an outdoor view amounted to $1000 per employee, while their increased productivity amounted to $2900 in increased revenue per employee per year. So, the initial investment was recovered in just four months.
Research suggests the presence of wood can contribute to higher levels of employee satisfaction. In Australia, an online survey carried out on a sampling of 1,000 workers revealed that there is a close connection between the rate of employee absenteeism, their satisfaction at work, and the presence of wood in their workplace. The more wood surfaces there are, the more people found the workplace pleasant and the more they felt connected with nature.
Moreover, the study’s participants identified wood as a natural material that is both relaxing and enjoyable and that promotes wellness. They also reported better concentration, more optimism, less stress and greater productivity. Overall, the research suggests that wood in the workplace could contribute to higher employee satisfaction.
Microsoft’s Office in the Trees
Inspired by such studies that conclude that nature (and wood) can have a beneficial effect on creativity, concentration and well-being, software juggernaut Microsoft had the idea of building workspaces outdoors—and more specifically, in the trees.
In the summer of 2017, the construction of these unusual installations created a wave of curiosity amongst employees. “People couldn’t believe that this was really happening: there was a lot of excitement in the air,” recalls Shannon Bernstine, a sales manager who collaborated on developing the new workspaces located on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus.
These rustic cabin-like wood structures in the trees come complete with many of the modern necessities of an office: electricity, meeting spaces, Wi-Fi access and ergonomically designed seating. Hand-carved wooden doors open at the swipe of a badge to a selection of meeting spaces.
“The first thing that people notice about this space is that everyone is very quiet,” explains Bret Boulder, Head of Capital Assets. “You stop talking and you’re just there. It’s fascinating. People absorb the environment and that completely changes the perception they have of their work and how they can do it.”
That relationship to nature is rooted in the company’s history. Four years after it was founded in New Mexico, Microsoft made the move to the Pacific Northwest to form its 500-acre Redmond campus, now comprised of 125 buildings. A guiding document spelled out criteria for a headquarters, including an attractive “park-like” location for employees.
The buildings are made to flex and expand as the trees grow, and while they will hopefully last at least 20 years, said Boulter, they will have a finite lifespan, “like any living thing.”
As workers see what nature has to offer, Bernstine said, horizons are already being expanded.“Being more creative and flexible with our workspace allows us to be more creative and productive in our work and the products we create. It’s like a little getaway.”
Timber Tech: Software Start-ups and Giants Embrace Biophilic Design
Many Silicon Valley-based tech companies, big and small, are embracing mass timber and biophilic design with enthusiasm. In addition to Microsoft’s office in the trees, the Redmond-based tech giant is also in the planning stages of an uber-sustainable campus for their Silicon Valley offices. Along with ambitious environmental targets such as net-zero water consumption and photovoltaic roofing panels, the facility will feature a cross-laminated timber structure—and become the largest of its kind to date.
Amazon is an anchor tenant in T3 Minneapolis, a seven-story mass timber building that was the tallest of its kind when it was completed in 2016. And the online retailer’s newest Seattle-based headquarters features plant-filled spheres, literally bringing nature indoors in a dramatic fashion.
Buying in to Biophilia
As all these examples demonstrate, companies are buying into biophilic design and see it as a wise investment in their brand, corporate culture and for some, their customer’s retail experience. And for good reason—research indicates that paying attention to these things can pay off.
Research consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green points out that in the United States, salaries paid to employees are on average 112 times higher than the cost of energy, so anything that increases worker productivity and reduces absenteeism can have a positive financial impact on the company.
A study carried out at the University of Oregon led to the conclusion that 10% of employee absences could be attributed to poor architectural design and a lack of connection to nature. Integrating biophilic elements into the work environment could generate savings of close to $2000 per employee per year, according to these estimates.
Canadian companies are also driving this trend. A thirty-year veteran developer, Cary Soloman, President & CEO of Next Property Group, has had great success attracting start-ups and tech-oriented tenants through the conversion and adaptive re-use of century-old timber brick-and-beam buildings. This led him to ask his design team at BNC Inc. Architecture + Urban Design, “what if we took a 1920’s timber brick-and-beam building and put it in a time machine, taking it out in 2020? What would that building look like? How can we achieve its same warmth and character, while incorporating the best and latest technologies?”
The result is 77 Wade, a modern Toronto-based office complex to be constructed of mass timber, with nail-laminated timber ceilings and glulam columns, reminiscent of timber structures of the past. The seven-story building, with its generous exposed wood, will attract what Soloman calls “a new kind of urban professional” that is looking for a vibrant, natural, warm and sustainable workplace.
Banking on Biophilia
Hidden in a nearly forgotten woodland glade in the heart of Wilmington, N.C., the 36,000 square foot Live Oak Bank Headquarters sits lightly in the arboreal splendor like a shimmering Tolkienesque “cathedral of wood.” The dramatic play of wood provides a relaxed, “unbank-like setting” to help attract and retain top financial talent to the Wilmington area. Bank staff now claim a workplace that’s second to none for personal performance, comfort and efficiency.
Live Oak Bank Headquarters’ interior features nail-laminated timber (NLT) in the ceiling with custom millwork for the workstations. Oak is used for the flooring and southern yellow pine for the exposed glulam columns, beams and trusses. Large, exposed glulam columns serve as major design and structural elements across the building’s exterior and interior. It’s not uncommon for no more than task lighting to be used during the day by bank employees. The proximity of nature and the use of natural, locally sourced wood lift spirits and enhance productivity.
Thinking Outside the Cubicle
The vast majority of Mountain Equipment Co-op’s (MEC) newer stores, as well as its head office, have embraced the use of wood and natural materials as a reflection of their corporate values. The Vancouver-based headquarters of Canada’s largest outdoor gear retailer is a spacious open concept plan, maximizing the warmth and beauty of its nail-laminated timber construction.
Interior Douglas-fir millwork screens offer an inviting alternative to traditional office cubicles. A double-beam configuration serves double duty: the exposed beams give warmth and architectural interest to the interior and their increased stiffness reduces deflections and floor vibrations. This acoustic benefit helps minimize distractions in an open office environment.
In speaking about their head office, Sandy Treagus, chief financial officer for MEC, said, “the vision was really about creating a space for our staff to show up on a daily basis and bring their best stuff. What we are trying to do is bring the natural environment inside the building and by using wood as our material of construction, we felt we were able to achieve that.”
THINK OUTSIDE THE CUBICLE | A recent trend in workplace design is more open informal spaces for impromptu collaboration and community. Wood can offer attractive alternatives to cubicle cages of the past and a connection to nature. (Courtesy Proscenium Architects | Photo: KK Law)
Check out these resources:
 Wood as a Restorative Material in Healthcare Environments, FP Innovations, 2015, p.16, https://www.woodworks.org/wp-content/uploads/Wood-Restorative-Material-Healthcare-Environments.pdf, p. 14
 Workplaces: Wellness + Wood = Productivity, Pollinate, 2018, p.3,9-10 https://makeitwood.org/healthandwellbeing/wellness-study.cfm