The effect of our built environment on our psyche.

How big tech is embracing environmental engineering; and it's effects on employee efficiency.

As a Civil Engineer, I have spent years thinking about how we can better optimize our built environment. From makeshift shelters to coal burning factories, to towers that scrape the sky, man has forever sought to create a better environment. Now, big tech is leading the way in taking us full circle and integrating nature back into the fold with the advent of three pioneering facilities.

Lauded as they are by engineers and architects, these buildings are often criticized by those of the anti corporate persuasion as wasteful displays of opulence, or by the more cynical as monuments of propaganda, built to dispel the image of the ruthless ever hungry beat of corporate America. In this article, I’ll showcase three unique and captivating buildings and highlight how they are actually investments in employee efficiency, and examples we can study in order to build healthier and more stimulating environments,

The newly announced Helix building, part of Amazon’s HQ2 project in Alexandria Virginia, has my local metro area abuzz with excitement. It’s design features a double helix shape, inspired by the structure of DNA, and it integrates indoor and outdoor space to create an environment that “promotes well-being and physical exercise, agency (the ability for employees to choose when, how, and where to work), and a strong connection with the local community.”

The Helix features two spiraling walking paths, planted with local flora, reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It doesn’t stop there though, the three surrounding 22 story buildings are also built specifically to “prioritize areas for collaboration, natural light, and a constant interaction with nature.” Set to be completed by 2025 the entire complex is powered by a paired solar farm in southern Virginia, and has earned a LEED Platinum certification.

Another prominent Amazon investment in the space are “The Spheres”. Inspired by the philosophy of biophilia, The Spheres are nestled in the skyline of Amazon’s downtown Seattle HQ. The Spheres serve as an employee lounge and workspace, where Amazon employees can be surrounded by nature. Housing 40,000 plants as well as the continents largest plant wall among the meeting spaces, walkways, and coffee shop, The Spheres do not shrink from their mission.

Construction on The Spheres began in 2015, and included challenging problems such as integrating the waste heat of a neighboring data center into the environmental controls of the building, as well as balancing the humidity and temperature needs of humans with those of the plants. Also of note during the construction was the challenge of hoisting a 55 foot tall Ficus Rubiginosa tree through one of the dome panels.

The last of the three case studies I’d like to exhibit is the infamous Apple Park. With a price tag of 5 billion dollars and a footprint larger than that of the Pentagon, Apple Park is a monument to the school of environmental design. The campus features over 80% greenspace, as well as a 17 megawatt solar roof, and dynamic shutter systems that optimize exposure to natural light. As always with apple, they were ahead of the curve, and began construction on the Cupertino California facility in 2013. There are 3.2 kilometers of walking trails on the campus, as well as 9000 custom planted drought resistant trees. Employees are encouraged to take part in outdoor yoga classes, and there is even an outdoor amphitheater.

Apple Park earned a LEED Platinum certification and is touted as one of the most energy efficient buildings in the world, and has a unique passive ventilation system that for 9 months of the year uses convection currents to brings in outside air, naturally cooling the building by creating drafts.

So lets get down to brass tacks. Do these specially built environments have real effects on employee efficiency? The answer is unequivocally yes. Studies have shown that the simple act of walking can exercise not only our legs, but also our brains, working like an antidepressant, learning aid, and creativity booster. Having green colors in your peripheral vision, especially in the zone of vision known as the “canopy line” has also been shown to aid in long term concentration and increase job satisfaction. Then we get to the integration of plants into the workspace. Having plants in the immediate vicinity of a workplace was been found in A U.K. study to increase productivity by up to 15%.

Already, the effects on worker psychology are huge. Even more significant are the effects on worker health and physiology. Studies have shown that one of the most influential factors in cognitive health is air quality, with accumulative exposure to air with higher particulate counts accounting for stark differences in verbal communication skills on adults and are likely even more pronounced in developing brains. Even an act as small as burning a candle in a small room can decrease short term cognitive function by a statistically significant margin.

In summary, especially if you consider the workers at these top tech firms to be particularly productive, it is easy to see how an investment in the health and wellbeing of their employees benefits big tech firms, and that this effect is easily accomplished by methods of environmental engineering. Eventually, as implementation costs come down and new infrastructure is cycled into use, I hope to see systems like these working to unlock everyone’s potential.

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Until next time,

-Connor, Of All Trades

Further reading and sources:

https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/amazon-offices/the-next-chapter-for-hq2-sustainable-buildings-surrounded-by-nature

https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/amazon-offices/inspiring-innovation-with-biophilia

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/130628-richard-louv-nature-deficit-disorder-health-environment

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/neuroscientist-walking-is-a-superpower-that-makes-us-smarter-healthier-happier.html

https://time.com/3247391/a-leafy-office-is-a-happier-office-study-finds/

https://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9193