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Natural materials help make office work more appealing

Companies asking architects to use wood, plants, lots of daylight

Cathy Dobrowal manages SWBR’s Interior Design Department. (Photo by Kate Melton)

Cathy Dobrowal manages SWBR’s Interior Design Department. (Photo by Kate Melton)

Rochester-area architects say more and more of their business clients want to incorporate natural elements and materials into their workplaces

“They are looking for a connection between the outside and the inside,” says Nate Rozzi, vice president of Hanlon Architects P.C. and president of the Rochester Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

That connection can boost employee productivity and workplace satisfaction as well as reduce operating costs.

Standard office designs once made relatively little use of wood, plants, sunlight or other parts of the natural world. Executives occupied windowed spaces on the periphery of office areas. Those working for them could spend their days in “cubicle farms,” bathed in fluorescent light.

“In general, in the ’80s and ’90s, the office was looked at as being kind of cold and corporate,” says Robert Fornataro, a senior associate at the architectural firm SWBR.

Today’s business owners, and their employees, tend to be less accepting of that style of workplace.

“People work a lot of hours, and they would like to have some balance there with their work environment,” says Cathy Dobrowal, who manages SWBR’s Interior Design Department.

Businesses might seek to achieve that balance by a number of means.

“One of the primary things that has been around for the last number of years, and that seems to be gaining significance, is daylighting, or natural lighting, in office buildings,” says Dennis Andrejko, who heads the Department of Architecture at  Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability.

As part of that trend, new office layouts are letting more of the sunshine in.

“Now, private offices are placed in the center of spaces and given glass office fronts,” says Kate Anderson, an associate at HBT Architects. “The open office space is at the perimeter, to give access to natural light to the most people possible.”

Architectural features can also shed more natural light on office spaces.

“We’re doing a lot more with daylight, through skylights,” says Peter Wehner, senior project architect at Passero Associates DPC.

Diffusing skylights, for example, are translucent, and admit daylight without causing the heat losses and gains that clear skylights bring. They give those in a workplace one of the benefits of the outdoors without increasing demand on the  HVAC system.

Businesses can also spread the sunshine by placing more or larger windows in their buildings. Passero Associates’ downtown Rochester headquarters began life as a factory at a time when the daylight coming through its relatively large windows helped illuminate the place. The Rochester City School District reduced its windows to about two-thirds of their original size when it converted the building to a school. Wehner’s firm went in the opposite direction when it renovated the building.

“We kind of restored it back to those factory days,” he says. “That again leads to daylighting.”

That sunlight illuminates natural interior elements, according to local architects, particularly when it shines in older buildings.

“More than ever, we have clients interested in adaptive reuse and renovation of existing spaces that truly take advantage of materials such as brick walls, exposed steel or wood columns, concrete floors…to name a few,” Anderson says.

Other natural elements have been brought in from the outside. Reclaimed wood, harvested from boards or timbers that were once used in barns, factories, warehouses or other structures, is growing in popularity, as are some old standbys.

“A lot of materials that were old are new again,” Wehner says. “Linoleum products, wood, plants—all of those things come into play.”

Most of us probably didn’t know that linoleum is made of solidified linseed oil, pine rosin, ground cork dust, a kind of flour made of wood and other natural materials.

Though some businesses use potted plants or other common forms of foliage to bring the leafy outdoors into their offices, HBT, Passero Associates and a number of other businesses have erected greenwalls. Covered fully or partially with greenery, the interior walls confer many benefits.

“Bringing natural elements inside leads to cleaner air inside,” says Wehner, who can enjoy his firm’s 320-square-foot greenwall whenever he comes to work. “It can add moisture to the building. It just in general creates a more welcoming environment.”

A greenwall can introduce much more to a workplace than cleaner air and closer contact with nature.

“In a recent restaurant we did, we provided space for a plant wall with fresh herbs that can be harvested for cooking,” Anderson explains. “It was an attractive and functional display.”

Though most local architects could not precisely say how the inclusion of natural elements might affect the cost of erecting a building or operating a business, their presence can save money in the long run. Admitting more sunlight, for example, should cut electric bills.

“Lighting in office buildings can make upwards of one-third of the overall energy demand of an office building,” Andrejko says.

Coupled with other sustainable measures, bringing parts of the outdoors indoors generally increases workplace satisfaction.

“Providing space that is well-designed, with access to natural light and views and finished with materials that are safe for people and the environment, leads to healthier, more engaged employees,” Anderson says.

And, those employees tend to be of greater benefit to their companies.

“Attendance at work and employee productivity is shown to be higher in offices with better a connection to the outside world,” Rozzi says.

That connection can also reduce employee turnover and lead potential new employees—especially younger ones—to set their sights on the firm involved.

“The aesthetic of your office impacts hiring,” Anderson says. “Millennials care about the environment they are going to work in.”

Such factors, coupled with changes in the construction materials market, could increase business’s demands for natural elements.

“As more products are available, I think natural materials will become a baseline for material selection,” Anderson says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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