Human-centric, buildings that put people before form and function are the key to creating productive workplaces and functional city environments.
Scott Wyatt, partner of NBBJ, a global architectural and design firm, believes that architecture can and should be transformative. When it comes to architecture, Wyatt believes that the profound effect of design on people’s lives and habits is universal, and now that is being verified through modern neuroscience. Furthermore, Wyatt believes design is key in helping us design environments that help people thrive. NBBJ’s latest project in downtown Seattle, the Amazon Spheres, follows this philosophy. PSFK sat down to speak with him more in-depth about this project, as well as others:
How did you get started in what you have really pioneered as “human-centric design”?
My first job happened in the 1970s, I was working in Tehran for the Shah. The rich history of architecture in Iran showed me how design can bring about powerful emotional reactions in people, it also showed me its effect on behavior. To me, architecture has always been less about monument building and more about its impact on people.
Without discounting the importance of technical aspects of design, you believe that city environments can flourish if officials, architects and builders put human needs first? How do we do that?
In high school, I would study the patterns of how students used our school facilities. What I observed was that the students used the buildings in ways that related to their personalities. It was fascinating to see how their patterns differed based on who they were in addition to what they were doing. It became clear to me that something was going on between them as human beings and their immediate surrounding environment. That is why I say that architecture is as much of an experience as it is a thing. That being said, designing cities based on human needs has two components –– one is from a business standpoint and the other is from a civic standpoint.
- From a business standpoint, your labor force is your biggest cost. Staff costs make up roughly two-thirds of a company’s overall operating budgets, facilities costs are generally less than 10%. Leveraging facility to impact human productivity can yield significant return. Science now shows that healthy environments produce better results at work. In business, when you treat people better, you get better results and greater business ROI. There is a powerful case for human-centric design.
- From a civic standpoint, the largest migration in human history into cities is happening now. It is a good thing and the perfect time to think about how we are designing every aspect of these urban environments. Better education and more ideas are natural outcomes of cities, but there are challenges to them as well, such mental health and stress. Stress is directly related to crime. Today, we need to ask ourselves how we make inspiring cities versus stressful cities. It is critical that we do this well. What we see, who we see –– shapes how we think. We can design cities from a human experience perspective that will result in happier and healthier cities.
What does this collaborative process look like?
The history of cities has always been a struggle between private self-interest and civic good. We need to look at examples where those two things align. We are getting more and more proof from science that helps make the case that there is less conflict and more alignment than we previously understood. I find that more and more of our clients are increasingly interested in understanding and leveraging human-centered design. I see that large, global scale developers want to know how we make healthier environments for the people in them – as a business strategy. Seeing this happening gives me optimism about the future of our cities.
You have done work for Samsung, Google and Boeing, how have you taken this process into your corporate offices?
We are focusing on designing generative buildings. In traditional design, corporations operate in buildings that can isolate themselves from the world and silo their employees from one another. To design a generative building, we rethink circulation and sight lines to diminish siloing and enable and encourage new connections and interactions. Generative buildings help generate new relationships each day, each week, all year long.
We also aim to reduce stress and improve performance by bringing nature (plants and sometimes animals) into the workplace, and taking the workplace outdoors whenever possible. That along with a deeper understanding of the role of traditional design elements such as form, color, texture, light, we can positively impact people’s lives. Healthy happy people are also more productive people.
How did this work in the Amazon Spheres?
The Amazon Spheres are designed to provide a place where people can think and work differently. The concept of biophilia, which essentially states that we share an inherent bond with nature, is an example of this concept put into action.
Why did Amazon want to create this sort of environment? What were the interesting insights that the people involved have come to discover?
Many leading companies are aware of the importance of designing great spaces. For its part, Amazon is committed to creating wonderful environments for its employees and the city, which makes them a great neighbor and partner in Seattle. The spheres are a result of this line of thinking and are designed to promote new ideas, conversations and activities.
What are companies getting wrong today? How are they solving this?
I think we sometimes make the mistake of looking at all work as the same. Here is a tactical example: High ceilings impact and improve a worker’s conceptual thinking. For jobs that may involve more tactical or mathematical thinking, lower ceilings increase performance. Certain types of features are better for specific job types. If companies do not understand what their workforce needs to perform the best, it can create unhealthy, low-performance environments. Thus, it is important to assess what is necessary from the beginning.
Today, there are a lot of companies rethinking their work environments. It has been great to see the increased demand from clients for higher performance workplaces. This is in contrast to a purely cost-driven approach. As I mentioned before, there is too much to gain from thoughtful human-centered design. The density of our corporate workplaces are higher than ever. That can be good. It can promote energetic, highly connected workforces. It can also negatively impact concentration and personal space if not done right. We have seen lowest first cost approaches result in unhealthy, unhappy workplaces that result in lower productivity.
How should a company approach balanced architectural projects?
A short answer to that big question –- focus on culture and experience:
- Culture: Know your culture and design your culture. Smart leaders know that culture is not static and it <culture> is a powerful ingredient to success. Designing facilities is an exercise in enhancing and designing the future of that magic ingredient – culture.
- Experience: It is important to not think about architecture as just an object, but instead as an experience that shapes outcomes. A leader needs to know and communicate what he or she wants out of that experience. Simply asking “What is it going to be like when I work here?” can go a long way.
Personally, I always ask our clients “If this building could speak to your people and your customers, what would it say? It is going to speaking to them every day.”