Healthy offices make sense in Austin | Crain's Austin

Healthy offices make sense in Austin

The idea of office space designed for wellness is probably a “no brainer” given the increased emphasis on work-life balance, especially among millennials.

Businesses have an incentive to buy into the “well office” movement. It boosts office morale, encourages employee camaraderie and promotes healthy lifestyles. So out with the ubiquitous windowless cubicles, vending machines and corner offices. And in with the social staircases, open space with views and multipurpose wellness rooms.

CTA ArchitectsIEngineers designed Google’s consolidated space in 500 West 2nd with a 5-story greenbelt staircase, rotating menus and a rooftop dog park. CTA interior designer Sandi Rudy said healthy offices make sense in Austin’s competitive IT companies.

“Free coffee and free food is great, but if you’re not looking after the well-being of the employee, with all these long hours, their health starts to suffer,” said Rudy, talking about the new wellness trend in office space. “They may start to look for other places to work. So, really, it’s a driver to retain good talent in a competitive market.”

If current trends continue, an estimated 86 percent of adults will be overweight in 2030. Two design industry efforts have emerged to address workplace wellness: One is the non-profit Center for Active Design and, as of 2017, its Fitwell certification. The other is the International WELL Building Standard, a public benefit corporation launched by the Clinton Global Initiative.

Any single- or multi-tenant office building can download the Fitwel matrix, which scores design strategies in seven areas: impacts community health; reduces morbidity and absenteeism; supports social equity for vulnerable populations; instills feelings of well-being; increases physical activity; promotes occupant safety; and provides healthy food options.

For CTA, wellness means space with good acoustics and open light. Bike racks and showers are mandatory. And every project sets aside a space for wellness activities, whether that space is used for after-hours fitness classes or daily meditation breaks. Gone are the days the storage room is converted to space for nursing mothers. It’s not an afterthought, Rudy said.

Wendy Dunnam Tita, Page’s principal interior architecture director, rejects the idea that wellness should be limited to the young and active. Office design used to be making sure the bathroom, kitchen and copy room were as close as possible to your desk. The staircase was a four-letter word, something you hid in the corner to be used in a building emergency.

Today’s wellness-focused office is broken into zones of activity. Every space in the office should be a different kind of experience: different light, different view, different experience.

“I use the word ‘movement.’ Others might call it circulation,” Tita said. “Movement is about using all the time you don’t have to be in one place doing a task and making the rest of the space you use in the office engaging and healthy.”

The staircase in a healthy office is on the edge at the window, but prominent in the space, as a place where employees stop and chat or even take a moment for deep breath with a view.

“We have a staircase in the Dell Medical School’s Health Learning Building that’s four stories tall. It is all about the views and daylight and basically takes that thing that used to be obligatory and makes it an engaging amenity for everyone,” Tita said. “The staircase becomes an experience as opposed to just a checkmark that has to do with safety.”

Windows and rooms also are taller, with air conditioned along the windows and not the ceiling, to minimize temperature variations. Instead of a nine-foot ceiling with acoustic panels, the room is opened up as high as possible, which leads to a more work-conducive space.

“New research suggests higher ceilings activate the creative parts of the brain,” Tita said. “It takes more coordination with mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection, but the payback is huge. You get a taller ceiling. You get way better light. And everyone feels better.”

Younger, fitter employees in the millennial-age category like the notion of differing experiences, Tita said. So regardless of the type of project – office, academic or residential – Page builds zones across the building with differing amenities, be it a phone booth for private calls or a felt-lined booth for quiet collaboration. Space is built to be social.

The office’s typical multipurpose room used to have two configurations: large or small, with a kitchen or without. Today’s multipurpose room has more than one purpose and, in the case, of wellness or fitness, could be a place of cross-team collaboration, Tita said.

“The multipurpose room could be a yoga or meditation room, or a room for nutrition training,” Tita said. “I think now, more than ever, everyone is coming together on wellness. It’s not just building design or only the human resource people. Now you have HR people and accounting people and insurance people, who used to speak different languages, coming together.”

January 16, 2018 - 6:27pm