The journey back to the office continues to unfold with all sorts of incentives, from companies offering free lunch, allowing pets into the office, or shelling out for a private concert with Grammy-award-winning artist Lizzo. Employers are baiting the hook like never before, and for good reason. After two years of remote work, two-thirds of the global workforce said that they would be prompted to look for a job elsewhere should their employers demand returning to in-person work five days a week, so companies feel immense pressure to gild the lily as best they can. The seismic shift in the labor market has office landlords feeling the pinch, landlords are competing for tenants as the U.S. office market grapples with the highest vacancy rate in almost three decades.
Last year, Fitch ratings determined that office landlord’s profits could dip as much as 15 percent should the company that rents their space allow their employees to work from home part-time. Office landlords have a real need to get employees away from their home offices and into their buildings, but few would be hard-pressed to pay Lizzo’s seven-figure booking fee to coax staff back. Instead, many landlords are investing in more pragmatic avenues to keep employees happy. Reportedly, one of those measures is to spruce up their buildings using biophilic design, a concept in the building industry that seeks to bring occupants closer to nature. While elements of biophilic design include natural light, fresh air, and feeling connected to a larger system of life, the most popular application of biophilic design is to cover a space with as much greenery as possible.
Landlords can get swept up in the idea that biophilia can boost their property value because, well, it’s been scientifically proven that plants make people happy. Study after study shows that the presence of plants creates a soothing environment that lowers stress and improves cognition. Synthesizing nature into the workspace might sound like a mere aesthetic choice, but companies can see a tangible return on investment when it comes to biophilic design. Office managers see biophilic spaces as a solid financial investment since plants are mood-boosters, and happier workers are generally more productive, ultimately leading to wider profit margins for the business. So much so that industry leaders are beginning to realize that a well-designed office with natural features makes it simpler to recruit outstanding personnel and can give them a workplace that is energizing rather than draining. Case in point: Google.
Google is putting all of its eggs in the biophilia basket. While many of Google’s offices are stuffed with lush greenery, the St. John’s Terminal building in Manhattan, which Google dropped a cool $2.1 billion to buy in the biggest single-building commercial-real-estate deal in the city since the onset of the pandemic, has made headlines for the sheer scale of greenery the space will have. Acres of indigenous fauna will be planted on the building’s enormous wraparound terraces on the twelfth, eleventh, and fourth floors. But that’s not the end of it, Google took it upon themselves to hire the Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Eric Sanderson, to consult on which species of native plants attract more caterpillars (and consequently, more birds) onto the terraces.
Like Google, large occupiers are beginning to demand biophilic spaces, or at least the ability to renovate a space into a biophilic one. Last year, tech giant Amazon unveiled plans for its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The centerpiece of the complex is slated to contain a jaw-dropping glass building in the shape of a helix that’s dripping with greenery. Last August, an investment company by the name of Nuveen jumped on the biophilic bandwagon. Nuveen’s office at 730 Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan underwent a $120 million renovation to include biophilic building amenities like nature-themed lounges, vegetable plots for employee use, and two beehives.
It’s clear that office workers don’t want to go back to the “old” office, so if they have to return to in-person work, they want to be assured that they’ll be entering a human-centric workplace that revolves around the people that work there and caters to their specific needs. Since horticulture innately improves the health and wellbeing of people, a biophilic office has become a green flag, so to speak, for workers and an advantage for office landlords as businesses contend with a competitive labor market. Now, landlords can charge more for office spaces that have an outdoor area, but office landlords who don’t have an outdoor space on their property may find themselves leaning harder into the biophilic design trend to compensate for that. But blindly putting up vegetation without taking the natural environment into account can be a costly mistake, as developers in one complex in China discovered.
On paper, the Qiyi City Forest Garden looked like an eco-paradise. The experimental green housing project in Chengdu, China promised prospective residents to live in a “vertical forest,” with tendrils of vines cascading down the walls, and manicured gardens on every balcony (included in every rental unit). In theory, the plants would buffer the noise of the surrounding city and purify the polluted air, offering residents a pastoral respite from urban living. This Thomas Kinkade fever-dream attracted buyers for all 826 units, but only a handful of residents lived in the space. Why? All those plants welcomed a disastrous mosquito infestation. You can imagine the hellish experience that Forest Garden’s residents were in for as there was no escape from the growing horde of blood-suckers, which is why most of them refused to move in once the property opened up.
Forest Garden’s disastrous attempt at biophilia stemmed from developers not thinking the design through. In an interview with Curbed, Daryl Beyers, a landscape architect and gardening certificate program coordinator at the New York Botanical Garden, pointed out that Forest Garden’s failure started with some misleading marketing of the phrase “manicured gardens.” “You can’t have a garden without a gardener,” Beyers explained. “If it’s manicured, someone has to do the manicuring.” Apparently, Forest Garden’s developers only sent gardeners four times a year to tend to the plants, but according to Beyers, the plants that developers had set out (residents did not have a choice on which plants sat on their balcony) required weekly care.
With too few people available to care for the plants in each rental unit, apartments were overrun by them, and mosquitoes proliferated in the overgrowth. After examining pictures and videos of Forest Garden, Beyers concluded that the complex’s balconies lacked sufficient drainage. This means that any time a resident or infrequent gardener waters the plants, the water would pool and stagnate. Mosquitoes flock to areas with lots of water, and Chengdu’s humid climate, coupled with Forest Garden’s inadequate drainage, created a perfect storm for the species to thrive in.
Now, the complex is largely abandoned and regarded as a huge financial blunder. But Forest Garden didn’t fail because biophilia is a bad idea, hardly. In Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy, the two residential towers drip with greenery but don’t have a problem with swarms of pests. The building is billed as a “tower for trees, populated by humans,” with two trees, eight shrubs, and 40 bushes for each tenant, and the residents love it. Like how Google relied on Eric Sanderson to optimize the plant life in St. John’s Terminal, the architects of Bosco Verticale consulted an architectural botanist to ensure that each plant they grew would not only look good but complement the local climate. As long as property owners work closely with ecologists and landscape designers just as much as building architects, large-scale biophilic designs can be successful. Alas, that wasn’t the case with Forest Garden.
The [garden] plot thickens
Data for how plants impact property value is limited to the residential market, but it’s clear that plants are one of the hottest amenities for office occupiers. In order to pry employees away from their homes, offices need to focus on the people that work in them, and intentional greenery has become the symbol of a human-centric workplace.
“Even prior to the pandemic, landlords had begun to incorporate biophilia into their schemes, but all too often it has been as a token gesture,” said Katrina Kostic Samen, Head of Workplace, Strategy and Design for Savills, a British real estate services company. But after two years of remote work, plants have gone from a pretty decoration to an office amenity for landlords in an increasingly competitive tenant market. But, as Samen points out, a smattering of potted plants or a living wall isn’t enough to compel a productive workforce, so office landlords need to be more proactive in how they implement biophilia into their properties.
Office landlords who want to go in the biophilic direction for their spaces need to understand that nature is complicated, so the local flora, fauna, and climate all need to be taken into consideration. Not to mention who will maintain the plants (and how often). As we saw with Forest Garden, forgoing that due diligence can have messy consequences. But landlords who are willing to get their hands dirty (with topsoil, sheesh), or at least consult the right experts, may find a huge return on their investment when they find an occupier willing to pay top dollar for the space.