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What do post-pandemic offices look like? This Houston expert explains

In-office working isn't going away — but it'll look different for decades to come. Photo courtesy Eric Laignel/IA Interior Architects

Reflecting on what we have all recently experienced, our physical relationship with the workplace has out of necessity become more fluid. However, we believe that this pandemic will be the catalyst that will accelerate positive change in workplace design.

The shift ahead in workplace design will not simply be driven by performance measures. There is a renewed longing for a workplace that is driven by direct human experiences – one that enhances face-to-face encounters, offers spaces tailored to the moment, and deliberately fosters health and wellness. We all are reexamining the next generation of office buildings in search of a solution.

Emerging diagnostics

Prevailing strategies assume we will return to physical offices after the delivery of vaccines. However, projections for herd immunity across the world, based on the current rollout policies, vary widely — up to 10 years. As such, this disease will likely be impacting our lives and our livelihoods for much longer than we had ever imagined.

It is critical for us to now consider how to build resilience into the design of our buildings in order to confidently and safely welcome people back to the office this year. Ultimately, workplace safety will be a baseline with a winning workplace experience that truly beckons people back to work.

The human experience

For those professionals able to work from home, the past year has been reduced to living in a physical silo, reliant on technology to facilitate connection and as a substitute for community. Research has reaffirmed the extraordinary value of in-person human connection to solve complex problems and provide a sense of wellbeing.

The average office worker spends up to 35 percent of their work day collaborating and directly engaging with others. It is in this context that breakthroughs and innovation actually happen. It comes as no surprise that, of the people surveyed, the majority consistently express a desire to return to their office and colleagues.

Successful design will also be measured by the ability for space to address other needs such as social interaction, flexibility, comfort, and wellness. Intentionally blurring the boundaries between living, working, and playing benefit the experience.

Business leaders have now received unprecedented insight into employees preferences and they witness firsthand their work lives at home. For those that leverage these insights, there is a payoff. Employers see a 21 percent increase in performance and 17 percent increase in employee health. These desires are age agnostic and invite inclusivity according to research from Brookings.

Modeling for a shifting agenda

The new workplace will again become the center for collaboration and human engagement. While employees have the possibility of working anywhere, as designers, we need to deliver a workplace that offers a compelling, safe, and healthy experience. Our goal is to create a workplace environment that allows people to be healthier and feel safer than they may be in their own homes. By integrating superior smart building technologies, thoughtful planning and innovative design, the next-generation workplace experience has the power to realign priorities within our built environment to best serve the health and wellbeing of its occupants and users. Below, we outline a day in the life of a hypothetical workplace that exemplify this new approach.

The Ground Floor and Lobby Experience. Upon arriving, generous and clear pathways will intuitively lead to the main entrance. As the central node bringing people together and serving the entire complex, a spacious day-light filled lobby will establish the entire circulation experience for the building. Proper design of entrances will reduce touchpoints, contamination, and user anxiety. Automatic sliding doors, automatic revolving doors, and swing doors with touchless actuators will facilitate a touch- and stress-free arrival and circulation experience including interface with security. Elevators with destination dispatch will safely deliver employees to their selected floor.

Connections & Conveyance. Corridors and stairs are not just important means of conveyance, but they also inherently activate spaces and multiply the face-to-face encounters people pine for. By encouraging the use of stairs, elevator demands can be reduced. Furthermore, welcoming open stairs, when paired with atriums or other common areas, encourage communication and collaboration between employees. Stairs offer an excellent alternative for trips down to the ground level or between adjacent floors. To encourage stair usage and create a safe, anxiety-free experience, several design elements might be considered, including: improved visual connections between a stairwell and floor for users to see those entering and exiting; providing larger landings as waiting areas for slower users; and, where requirements allow, incorporating exterior stairs aid both natural ventilation and visibility.

Fresh Air. In the workplaces currently in design, employees will have enhanced access to abundant fresh, clean air as a result of the adoption of advancements in filtration strategies and technologies. Beyond the pandemic, these workplaces will actually be healthier environments with the ability to significantly reduce cases of air-transmitted illnesses such as the flu and the common cold. Employees will be healthier than before. In the transformed workplace, health issues that previously contributed to absenteeism will plummet and foster greater productivity.

Impact of Light. Our next generation buildings will bring employees closer to daylight and welcoming daylight into the building is invaluable by whatever means possible. Intuitive design can prioritize occupants' health and comfort with a number of passive and active strategies. A daylight-filled atrium breaks down isolation between floors, provides visual connections between people, and channels daylight deep into the buildings. In fact, throughout Europe, planning guidelines suggest that no employee should be farther that 21 feet from a window. While reducing solar heat gain, a high performance enclosure can maximize daylight harvesting, provide occupied spaces with abundant natural light, and offer users access to outdoor views. The significant health and productivity benefits of providing users access to natural light and outdoor views have been well documented.

Outdoor Places. User-oriented outdoor spaces, such as plazas, patios, and green roofs, offer a place for respite, fresh air, sunlight, and nature. The value of which has been underscored by the pandemic. While many recent office developments have incorporated such spaces to some degree, in a post COVID-19 world, they have become a must-have amenity. There is already an increased expectation for significant private and shared outdoor terraces, roof gardens and balconies. These outdoor spaces should be flexible enough to support a variety of uses as occupants increasingly look to these spaces for dining, casual meetings, fitness, and a variety of other social activities.

Digital engagement

Smart buildings are just the beginning. Yes, the smart building is an important piece, but connecting the building systems (HVAC, lighting, solar, water, security) to a secure infrastructure that will benefit mobile employees.

When we connect all those dots (building – network – human experience), it pays off in the long run in regards to overall company wellness, happier staff, being more sustainable and in control of our real estate portfolio.

Looking ahead, tomorrow's buildings will need to evolve more than ever before; similar to the Tesla car, these buildings will constantly update according to our preferences. It's exciting to see it learn and offer new features as we become more acquainted. This is the level of design that will be incorporated into the future workplace and make it successful. The building will predict our needs and become our home away from home.

Rewriting the rules

Solutions to a brag-worthy workplaces will embrace the opportunity to rethink design conventions. They will make the human experience the first order of importance to reactivating our buildings. It starts with a proven design process to crunch the data collected on habits and preferences to create fresh concepts for both destinations and passageways. The term "mixed-use" will take on new importance to define our new workplace experience.

Private development and investment will drive such innovation to achieve market interests; ideally with the support of public policy. In Houston, we famously have less restrictive zoning requirements which can foster the advancement of our buildings, businesses, and neighborhoods. It has been an advantage for the city when competing with other U.S. cities for the attention of business leaders from both coasts. Houston is also promoting Smart Cities technologies to local leaders to boost economic development and human experience. These investments are critical to keeping the office experience safe and relevant to our futures.

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Based in Houston, Mark Gribbons is the principal and design director at IA Interior Architects. This piece was co-authored by Jon Pickard, principal and co-founder of Pickard Chilton.


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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Zimri Hinshaw of BUCHA BIO, Kelly Klein of Easter Seals of Greater Houston, ad John Mooz of Hines. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.

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