It is an issue whose solution has evaded architects and designers for generations, more so today than ever before: how do we incorporate and promote wellbeing in the design of our offices and workplaces? It's a tricky question that a panel of experts from various disciplines hoped to solve at an event last week hosted by Hines and Tridel and sponsored by Rockwool, held at their Aqualuna presentation centre as part of their Thought Leadership Series at Bayside.

Sitting on the panel was keynote speaker Kåre Stokholm Poulsgaard, Head of Innovation at GXN/3XN; Gary Madaras, Acoustics Specialist at Rockfon; Joanne Chan, Principal at SDI Design; Meaghan Kahnert, Senior Consultant at Arup; and Sabrina Sdao, Senior Manager of Strategic Initiatives at Deloitte. The discussion was moderated by Terri Peters, Assistant Professor in the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University.

The panel, from left to right: Madaras, Kahnert, Sdao, Chan, Poulsgaard, and Peters, image by Julian Mirabelli.

As one would expect, the conversation touched upon the traditional aspects of what contributes to wellbeing in the workplace—acoustics, daylight, air quality, fitness facilities, and so on—but more surprisingly perhaps, the discussion focused mainly on the social aspects of wellbeing, and how the architecture and design of our spaces can have a significant impact on fostering social interaction to improve wellbeing.

Poulsgaard kicked off the evening with a presentation of 3XN projects and how his team's research informs their design. Poulsgaard actually works for GXN, the innovation arm of 3XN that focuses on research in materiality, technology, and design which feeds into the architecture that 3XN produces. As he described their symbiotic relationship, 3XN's company mantra is "Architecture Shapes Behaviour", whereas GXN takes the approach that "behaviour shapes architecture".

Poulsgaard explained that a huge part of their research is taking the simple yet surprisingly rare step of revisiting the firm's completed buildings years after they've been occupied to study how people use the building. Tracking movement, behaviour, and social interactions throughout the building, they are able to map out use of the spaces to pinpoint the successes and failures of their projects, and to then use this information to deduce what aspects of the design inform this behaviour.

Poulsgaard presenting at the panel discussion, image by Julian Mirabelli.

Poulsgaard pointed to several design features incorporated into their buildings that have contributed to increased social interaction, which has led to increased wellbeing of the users. The first is visual transparency, he explained, as "seeing others and the awareness of others is really the first step toward creating a sense of community". The trick is creating spaces where people are likely to see and meet others which encourage informal and chance encounters, and then creating spaces that allow people to stop and talk once they've established that informal connection.

Central to this is the issue of privacy and choice. Through his research, Poulsgaard has found that providing users with the ability to choose or adapt their environments to cater to their specific privacy needs has a huge impact on the ability for informal conversations to start, continue, and lead into something more. As Poulsgaard described: "For me, the notion of privacy is all about choice. It’s about the relationship between you and other people, not between you and the space. And it’s really about being able to choose where you are going to have different relationships with people—different conversations and different types of engagements—and you get to choose different spatial settings that you can have them in."

Pouslgaard then used their upcoming T3 Bayside as an example of how these ideas can be implemented. Snaking its way through both T3 buildings is a linear staircase within a continuous stepped atrium leading from the ground floor all the way up to the top floor. Though they expect multiple tenants to be housed within the buildings, these atrium spaces will be open to all, and are designed to encourage informal and chance encounters to happen between different users as people move along the staircases. At each level, expanded landings provide co-working spaces that offer a variety of open and more private workstations, where people can choose as an alternative space to their own offices, or as a space to stop and chat with those they have met on the stairs or elsewhere in the building.

Rendering of the continuous atrium at T3 Bayside, image courtesy of Hines and Tridel.

Sabrina Sdao agreed with much of what Poulsgaard presented, using Deloitte's new offices in the Bay Adelaide Centre as an example. When designing their new space, Deloitte did away with all office spaces - not even the CEO or CFO has their own dedicated office, instead providing a variety of 18 different types of workstations spread across every floor that cater to different levels of privacy. Sensors tell employees how many people are on each floor, much like a parking garage, so that users need not stress about being unable to find an available workstation. Much like many of 3XN's office buildings, Deloitte's offices are also punctuated by a central atrium with a continuous staircase, designed to be wide enough to accommodate people stopping to chat on the stairs during informal encounters.

As Sdao explained: "We know scientifically that if people have a friend at work, they are more likely to stay, they are more likely to be happy, and they are more likely to be productive. We created spaces where people are more likely to interact with others and make informal connections." On the topic of wellbeing, she adds that, "the four walls won’t do it alone, a gym won’t do it alone, healthy snacks won’t do it alone. You can't say that you are fostering wellbeing unless you are actually thinking about how the technology intersects with behaviour, whether you’re emailing people at midnight, and whether your performance management program has face time on it, because if it does, then having people in an office at standard desks doesn’t work."

Image of the central atrium at Deloitte's offices in Bay Adelaide Centre, image by Craig White.

Joanne Chan explained that through their work, they have discovered that the cafe and kitchen areas of offices play an often underestimated role in daily life around the office. They found that most of the casual interactions at the office happened in the kitchen, much like how people often migrate to the kitchen at house parties, and they have been working to convince their clients to dedicate more and better-located space for their cafes or kitchens rather than sticking them in small, forgotten, windowless spaces at the back of the office. Sdao agreed, explaining that their research indicated most interactions were happening in the kitchens, leading them to place a kitchen on each floor of their new Deloitte offices with plenty of space to linger and socialize.

Gary Madaras expanded the conversation to include the social implications of acoustic design. He began his speech with a call to action: "We need to elevate the position of what we hear in the design environment. It's the first sense that's active in the womb, it's the last sense before we die, it's the only sense that receives information while we are in the womb, and every day in between we cannot shut our sense of hearing off. It's the only sense that we cannot voluntary control. Our sense of hearing and what we hear affects our respiration rate, our muscle tension, our blood pressure, our heart rate. It should be receiving at least as much attention and detail as the visual design."

With this in mind, he brought up the idea of "designed background noise" and the soundscaping of spaces. Tying into the notion of privacy, he pointed out that different people, such as extroverts and introverts, are attracted to different spaces acoustically for getting work done or for having different types of conversations. He also brought up the example of a cafe as a space that should never be silent, and that would in fact fail if it were silent. In that case, designed background noise plays a huge role in the success of the space and the wellbeing of its users.

Rendering of T3 Bayside, image courtesy of Hines and Tridel.

All panel members agreed that the design of contemporary office spaces are shifting toward a more fluid and open concept, which both helps and poses challenges in designing for wellbeing in the workplace. But they all agreed that, in addition to technical aspects like daylight, acoustics, and air quality, the social wellbeing of users is key to creating an environment that fosters happiness and productivity in the workplace.

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Related Companies:  3XN, Hines, Janet Rosenberg + Studio, The Mitchell Partnership Inc., WZMH Architects