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Outdoor Space Is the Hottest New Office Feature

We are about to witness the most legendary game of tug-of-war this side of your local firehouse fundraiser. On one side, we have the workplace, with its spaces designed for optimal efficiency, concentration of coworkers allowing for easy collaboration and opportunities for socialization. On the other hand, we have the remote work arrangement, with its flexibility, tech industry new car smell, and promise of employees working from Bali or Cancun or, more likely, their beds. 

Of course, for every true digital nomad sharing photos of the “view from their office,” you have a remote worker who for whatever reason just can’t make the working part of work from home work for them. And for every remote worker who wished he had an office to go to, there’s an office-bound employee who wishes she could see the sky while typing into Excel. 

Unlike most tug of war games, there probably won’t be a clear resolution to the question of which side will win. Instead, we will have to find hybridized methods to bring the fun loving “work-from-anywhere” atmosphere to the professional setting. The best way to do this may be by creating more usable outdoor space. Why not? We already have recaptured the outdoors for almost every other kind of activity. The first outdoor music festival took place in the U.K. yesterday, for whatever that is worth. I have even seen a gym in my home town that has completely relocated its equipment onto the parking lot. Before you roll your eyes and tell me “big deal, I have that in my town too,” I should say that I live in Tuscon, Arizona, and as I write this I am looking at my thermometer as it breaks the 110° mark. But, you know, it’s a dry heat and all that. 

There are practical reasons to want to turn to the outdoors, too. Outdoor spaces have proven to be safer than indoor ones since the risk of HVAC systems recirculating disease particles is absent and people have more room to stay spread out. So why shouldn’t we invest in outdoor spaces for our offices? The value of these investments would likely last long past the pandemic. According to a survey from outdoor-focused clothing company L.L. Bean in partnership with Industrious, 86 percent of surveyed respondents want to be outside more during their workday. 

Some forward thinking landlords are already throwing their money out the window. One of Vornado’s new properties, the 172,700 square foot 512 W 22nd office buildings in New York City, has a substantial amount of outdoor space on site. According to David Greenbaum, Vornado’s New York division President, “Every floor in the building has an outdoor space attached to it.” Plenty of other offices have taken the same approach, too, from tech companies to co-working spaces. Industrious themselves, with L.L. Bean, launched an outdoor co-working pop-up space in Madison Square Park back in 2018. Jamie Hodari, CEO of Industrious, said that “People thrive in coworking spaces, and we think there is potential for even greater benefits if they work together outside.” 

There are plenty of financial reasons for commercial buildings to invest in outdoor spaces, too. A growing body of research ties time spent surrounded by nature to greater energy levels, and time spent viewing images of nature to better memory and attention. Plus, it is simply nice to have the chance to get some fresh air during the workday.  Outdoor work areas can also mean an added high-visibility marketing perk for leasing. Done right, these spaces can decrease energy costs, as the Target Center Arena did in Minneapolis to the tune of $300,000 annually with a green roof. Once the virus outbreak is behind us, they can even be leased out as event spaces.

There are, of course, challenges to developing high-quality outdoor spaces. For one thing, they are largely climate-dependent. In most places, people will not use these areas during the cold of winter or the heat of summer in warmer areas. Not everyone is as intrepid as Tucson Strength’s gym members. They are also expensive. They require their own maintenance and upkeep, can require permits and have significant install costs. 

And on top of it all, they require a close attention to detail while planning and designing them. There are many ways to screw up an outdoor space: too much sun, not enough sun, insufficient noise attenuation, too many bugs, poor access from the interior of the office…the list goes on and on. However, there are solutions and technologies to many of these problems. Portable heaters keep patios open well into the colder months. Rolling overhead garage-style doors can open or close off outdoor areas based on the season, time of day, and occupant usage levels, allowing the indoor and outdoor spaces to be connected in a much more complete way than a simple, single door or even revolving door ever could. And fans, misters and the proper shade installations can make even the hottest months of summer more bearable. 

For solving these challenges, inspiration can be drawn from the world of restaurants. In Chicago, a city buffeted by strong winds, ferocious winters, and brow-soaking summers, some eateries, like Roots Pizza, are beginning to offer year-round patios equipped with season-proofing tricks like a retractable roof. Others, like Il Culaccino, are using comprehensive outdoor heating and cooling systems to make the outdoors a year-round proposition. 

Not every office building will be able to plan and develop outdoor spaces, but as we trudge forward through 2020 toward a new understanding of work and workspaces, the owners that take the jump and commit to building great outdoor areas will probably reap the rewards long term. Outdoor spaces are the ultimate multifunctional space, both during the outbreak and in perpetuity after. Want to get away from your desk? Go outside. Want to entertain clients? Go outside. Want to meet with a group of coworkers for a group project? Go outside. And so forth.

We have yet to see how creative owners can be with their outdoor spaces. Potentially, they could install glassed-in areas with projectors, whiteboards, and screen doors to serve as an augment to the traditional indoor conference or breakout room. One of the big losses from Google’s decision to scrap their Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto is that we will never get to see the clear retractable wings that they had planned to deploy on cold days to give the sidewalk sun but block the wind. We are still in the very early days of innovation when it comes to outdoor space design. Thanks to both the coronavirus and the tug of war between that work from home feeling and our office addiction, never before have we had such a strong need for well designed outdoor spaces.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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