Forget skyscrapers: nature inspires the next generation of New York offices

Rick Cook was looking for a cotton-white egg box that the resident mantis had spun around a reed in his garden. It was hidden among the free-flowing Sedum plants, near the apiary, where Cook’s bees produced about 165 pounds of honey this year. And it was, a little unlikely, on a rooftop terrace in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by a corporate jungle.

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

For Cook, the city garden on the terrace of his company’s office is both a personal refuge and an example of the biophile design that underlies his work. The term refers to designs that satisfy human beings’ innate desire to connect with nature. Biophilia, he is convinced, is the new frontier in office facilities – in addition to table football tables, bicycle lockers and yoga studios – that forward-thinking companies are implementing when competing for young talent.

If that sounds imaginative, then Google’s something else. The technology giant recently agreed to pay 2.1 billion. USD for the Cook-designed St John’s Terminal on the west side of Manhattan. The campus features a colossal 1930s industrial building where freight trains once swallowed their wares to Manhattan. Cook’s design for Oxford Properties, the site’s developer, called for the brick facade to be cut off and replaced with glass to reveal old rail beds and allow sunlight to penetrate as the view of the Hudson River expands. The building will prioritize descending stairs over elevators because Google believes they facilitate the discussion. And it will be draped in acres of natural gardens, including a terrace on the fourth floor that spans several town blocks.

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

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

Neptune and her colleagues maintain a “biophilic framework” for the company, which is now in its third edition. While some may see this as a gimmick or extravagance, there are economic reasons for even a hardline capitalist to introduce more nature into the workplace, she argues. In short: biofelt design gives happier workers, who are then more productive.

“We seek to create jobs that reduce stress, improve cognitive function, increase creativity – all of which make our employees healthier, happier and more engaged in their work,” says Neptune. “It’s something that Google believes in… And it’s something we invest in.”

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has put an even bigger premium on fresh air in offices and functions, which realtors now widely refer to as “wellness.” Well executed, natural design also communicates a company’s green values ​​to potential customers or employees.

“All of this, make no mistake, is about recruiting and retaining talent,” Cook explains. “People will take a tour and say, ‘Do I want to be in that glass and steel tower or the cool Google building?'”

The term “biophilia” became popular in a 1984 book by American biologist Edward O Wilson, in which he explored his own relationship to the natural world.

Twenty years ago, Cook and his colleagues did not spend much time describing their work. They were focused on designing a new generation of office buildings that were 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 early “green” skyscrapers.

Cook and Fox then teamed up in 2003 to design the Bank of America Tower for Dursts. It was the first office tower to receive a plating green certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program when it was completed in 2009. Cook refers to all of this as “the ‘compact fluorescent era’ of low-carbon design.”

Over time, the couple discovered that design choices designed to meet sustainability goals had daily appeal to residents: people like cleaner air and water and natural light. These days, biophilia-inspired design runs the gamut from gestures like green walls or an aquarium in a corporate lobby to Google’s team of ecologists. “With everything in life, people explore it in different depths,” Cook says.

Rick Cook goes to a beehive in his apiary in his townhouse studio in Manhattan
Rick Cook goes to a beehive in his apiary in his terraced studio in Manhattan © Monique Jaques / FT

The CookFox studio, on the 17th floor of the old Fisk deck building, is a bio-felt showroom. It begins with a passage from the elevator lined with bamboo to create a transition from the bustle of the outside world.

The studio is surrounded by outdoor terraces at both ends. Cook starts his day by catching the early light at a “harvest” kitchen and gradually wanders towards the second terrace, where he has the setting sun and the company of mantis. Occasionally, the office space is decorated in pods named after environmental heroes like ecologist Rachel Carson. The sections are separated by means of ceramic planters that can be moved to offer more or less privacy. (The correct partition height and how it affects the collaboration is a major issue for Cook.)

CookFox’s rigorous interpretation of biophilia means that it is increasingly concerned about its building materials. For example, it tries to identify how a tile or fabric was made, with what ingredients and under what working conditions.

CookFox and Google crossed paths in 2010. At the time, the architectural firm was in the process of “green” the building at 111 Eighth Avenue, when the technology company, which was a tenant at the time, bought it for $ 1.8 billion. Google’s recent acquisition has been hailed as a vote of confidence in Manhattan’s offices at a time when the pandemic and telecommuting have cast a cloud of existential uncertainty over them.

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But it is also an example of how tech companies are changing the look and feel of a city whose offices have long catered to the tastes of financial services customers. While banks have tended to favor skyscrapers screaming corporate power, Google and their ilk are drawn to “basic scrapers” like the horizontal St John’s Terminal. Its large floors can be easily rearranged to accommodate ever-changing teams. They reject traditional ideas of corporate hierarchy. “A long, low building is more common,” Cook explains.

Outdoor space – whether for work or socializing – has become a must. It’s also what Dean Shapiro, Oxford’s head of development in the United States, calls the “authenticity factor.” Google and other technology companies tend to be indifferent to the prestige that an address on Fifth Avenue provides, but are excited by the character of an old biscuit factory or a remodeled freight terminal. For that reason, Oxford and CookFox spent months occupying certain bricks and mortar while renovating the building.

“Tech companies were probably at the forefront of visualizing and demanding the modern workplace,” says Shapiro, describing it as “more relaxed, more functional, more collaborative, more holistic.” But he predicts that people like “JPMorgan may be right behind” as they increasingly target the same talent pool.

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

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