Forget about skyscrapers: Nature inspires the next generation of office space in New York

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Rick Cook was looking for a crate of white cotton eggs that the resident praying mantis had circled around a reed in his garden. It was hidden among the free-flowing Sedum plants, near the apiary where Cook’s bees produced some 165 pounds of honey this year. And it was, somewhat improbable, on a rooftop terrace in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by a jungle of businesses.

“The bees are just very, very happy here,” says Cook, co-founder of the CookFox architectural firm, in reference to the exceptional honey harvest.

For Cook, the urban garden on the patio of his company office is both a personal refuge and an example of the biophilic design that underpins his work. The term refers to a design that satisfies humans’ innate desire to connect with nature. Biophilia, he’s convinced, is the new frontier in office equipment – beyond foosball tables, bike racks and yoga studios – that forward-thinking companies deploy as they compete to attract. young talents.

If that sounds fancy, Google thinks otherwise. The tech giant recently agreed to pay $ 2.1 billion for the Cook-designed St John’s terminal in western Manhattan. The campus includes a gigantic industrial building from the 1930s where freight trains once disgorged their goods to Manhattan. Cook’s design for Oxford Properties, the site’s developer, called for the brick facade to be sheared off and replaced with glass to expose the old rail beds and allow sunlight to enter while expanding the view of the Hudson River. The building will prioritize cascading stairs over elevators, as Google believes they make the discussion easier. And it will be draped in acres of natural gardens, including a fourth-floor patio that spans several city blocks.

A rendering of St John’s Terminal on the west side of Manhattan, New York © Courtesy of Oxford Properties

Google was so fascinated by biophilia that it hired environmentalist Eric Sanderson, director of the Mannahatta Project, which aims to document the Manhattan landscape before European settlers arrived in 1609, to consult it on native plantations. “My favorite part was having conversations about which tree species attracts the most caterpillars, and therefore more birds,” says Michele Neptune, member of Google’s sustainability team.

Neptune and his colleagues maintain a “biophilic framework” for the company which is now in its third edition. While some might see this as a gimmick or an extravaganza, there are financial reasons even a hard-headed capitalist would bring more nature to the workplace, she argues. In short: the biophilic design makes workers happier, who are then more productive.

“We seek to create workplaces that reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity – all of these make our employees healthier, happier and more engaged in their work,” says Neptune. “This is something that Google believes in. . . and that’s something we invest in.

On the contrary, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed even greater emphasis on fresh air in offices and the features that real estate agents now generally refer to as ‘wellness’. Done well, nature-inspired design also communicates a company’s green values ​​to potential customers or employees.

“Make no mistake about it, it’s all about recruiting and retaining talent,” says Cook. “People are going to walk around and say, ‘Do I want to be in this glass and steel tower or this awesome Google building? “”

The term “biophilia” was popularized by a 1984 book by American biologist Edward O Wilson in which he explored his own relationship with the natural world.

Twenty years ago, Cook and his colleagues didn’t use it much to describe their work. They focused on designing a new generation of office buildings that are more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. In the late 1990s, Cook’s friend and co-founder Robert Fox, then of Fox & Fowle Architects, was commissioned by The Durst Organization to design the 4 Times Square office tower. The building was celebrated as one of Manhattan’s first “green” skyscrapers.

Cook and Fox then joined forces in 2003 and designed the Bank of America Tower for the Dursts. It was the first office tower to receive platinum green certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program when it was completed in 2009. Cook calls it all the “compact fluorescent era” of low-carbon design. . “

Over time, the duo discovered that design choices aimed at achieving sustainability goals have daily appeal to occupants: people love cleaner air and water, and natural light. These days, biophilia-inspired design spans the gamut from gestures like green walls or an aquarium in a business lobby, all the way down to the team of environmentalists at Google. “With everything in life, people explore it at different depths,” Cook says.

Rick Cook attends a beehive in his apiary in his terraced studio in Manhattan
Rick Cook attends a beehive in his apiary from his studio terrace in Manhattan © Monique Jaques / FT

The CookFox studio, on the 17th floor of the former Fisk Tire building, is a biophilic showroom. It begins with a passage of the bamboo sheathed elevator to create a transition with the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

The studio is surrounded by outdoor terraces at each end. Cook begins his day by catching the morning light with a “harvest” kitchen and gradually migrates to the other terrace, where he has the setting sun and the company of the mantis. In between, the office space is organized into modules named after environmental heroes such as environmentalist Rachel Carson. The sections are separated using ceramic planters which can be moved to provide more or less privacy. (The proper partition height, and how it affects collaboration, is a big deal for Cook.)

CookFox’s strict interpretation of biophilia means it is increasingly concerned about its building materials. He tries to determine, for example, how a tile or fabric was produced, with what ingredients and under what working conditions.

CookFox and Google crossed paths in 2010. At the time, the architectural firm was “greening” the building at 111 Eighth Avenue when the then-tenant tech company bought it for $ 1.8 billion. of dollars. Google’s latest acquisition has been hailed as a vote of confidence in Manhattan offices at a time when the pandemic and remote working have cast a cloud of existential uncertainty over them.

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But it’s also an example of how tech companies are changing the look of a city whose offices have long served the tastes of financial services customers. While banks have tended to favor skyscrapers that cry out for corporate power, Google and their ilk are turning to “skyscrapers” like the horizontal terminal in St John’s. Its vast floors can be easily rearranged to accommodate ever-changing teams. They refute the traditional ideas of the corporate hierarchy. “A long, low building is more common,” says Cook.

Outdoor space, whether for working or socializing, has become a must. So it is with what Dean Shapiro, head of developments in the United States of Oxford, calls “the factor of authenticity”. Google and other tech companies tend to be indifferent to the prestige conveyed by a Fifth Avenue address, but are moved by the character of a former cookie factory or a converted freight terminal. Because of this, Oxford and CookFox spent months obsessing over particular bricks and mortar as they remodeled the building.

“Tech companies were probably the most advanced in visualizing and demanding the modern workplace,” Shapiro says, describing it as “more relaxed, more functional, more collaborative, more holistic”. But, he predicts, the likes of “JPMorgan could be right behind” as they increasingly target the same talent pool.

Cook agrees. “There is a general feeling that young people want authenticity,” he says. “They don’t want their parents’ office building. They want bees – and honey.


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