Sleek new office spaces bring the outside in

The trend for indoor-outdoor offices is taking root as the impact of plants on our wellbeing is acknowledged. While many of us still slog out long hours in stuffy boxes, leading companies are taking a nature-inspired approach.

Ingrid Bakker, principal of Hassell design studio, says corporate clients are calling for healthier workplaces incorporating greenery, fresh air, natural light and access to outdoor areas.

Here it is the plants, not the employees, climbing up the walls.

"Often the outdoor spaces are adjacent to the social zones and offer a place to refresh, enabling people to return to their task feeling more focused," Bakker explains. 

Graeme Armeni from indoor plant specialist Ambius cites recent research undertaken by the University of Technology Sydney. "Studies found that a leafy office can reduce stress and negativity by up to 60 per cent and improve productivity by up to 30 per cent," he says.

This is because plants absorb headache-inducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by synthetic materials, and can reduce levels of 3pm-slump-producing carbon dioxide.

Climbing the walls

Sydney property group BresicWhitney has taken this message to heart in its hip new 1000 square metre office space, designed by Chenchow Little architects within an existing Darlinghurst building. Here it is the plants, not the employees, climbing up the walls. Golden pothos – a vine noted for improving indoor air quality – creeps up staywires to form living screens.

Director Shannan Whitney says 60 additional plants including dracaenas are potted in rows between desks to bring an element of softness in an otherwise hard-edged urban environment. "When the greenery was planted three months after moving into the new premises, the whole energy [amongst the 70 staff] changed," he says. "It was quite dramatic."

Despite perimeter windows on three sides and an internal light-well, the plants require ongoing maintenance. "They are a substantial [financial] investment. A gardener comes in for three hours every weekend to tend them but the recompense in staff wellbeing makes it worthwhile." 

Offices in a new light

Another ground-breaking workplace is the Hobart offices of GHD (a global engineering, architecture, environment and construction services company). Located in part of an old quarry, the backdrop for the 110 workstations is a 12 metre rock face. Abundant natural light from a glazed roof atrium washes over thriving palms and ferns, and spills across the adjacent office area. Louvres with sensors manage the glare.

"The feeling is of being outside and enjoying daylight," says finance manager Mark Trusselle. "The breakout space at the base of the rock is a relaxing area to be in and we use it for informal meetings and functions."

In Melbourne, toll road owner/operator Transurban has genuinely inside-outside offices. Located over two top floors in a Docklands tower, Hassell removed part of the building's façade to create a two-storey outdoor terrace workspace next to a casual meeting area. The terrace is open to the outdoors on one side while protected by the existing roof.

Green age dream

For Medibank's offices within a tower in Melbourne's Bourke Street, Hassell created multiple terraces where staff can work or chill out. Veggies and herbs can even be picked from an outdoor edible garden, and there are a whopping 2300 plants incorporated into the joinery. "The plants were selected for their tolerance to shade and ability to absorb airborne toxins," Ingrid Bakker says.

Across the building's façade are numerous non-accessible planted terraces, two 25m-high green walls, plus hundreds of climbing plants that create a screen that assists with solar glare. "It has been proven that [exterior] plants can minimise [a building's] heat gain during periods of hot weather," Bakker explains.

Large corporations are not the only ones embracing greenery. In the Surry Hills office of Sydney's Collective Hub, the 17 full-time staff enjoy floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a 100sq m wraparound balcony featuring garden beds and pots filled with box hedges, colourful gardenias and orange, lemon and lime trees. Team and client meetings are held on the balcony.

Bringing it home

Home workers can adopt the trend, too. Landscaper Jason Hodges suggests creating an outdoor office to instil a calm atmosphere and inspire clearer thinking. "Pave a solid area to define the workspace and help separate it from the rest of the yard," he suggests. "Then look at shading options such as large umbrellas, shade cloth or pergolas so you can work through the heat."

Brian Myerson, a semi-retired urban planner and director of a not-for-profit, has done this and more. At the rear of his Sydney home, Myerson purpose-built a sheltered indoor-outdoor work area that's protected from adverse weather conditions. "The northern eve was calculated to keep all sun out during summer while allowing winter sun to warm the unglazed charcoal floor tiles," he explains. Completely open to the garden on its northern side, the space is shielded from cool southern winter winds by a solid wall on the south side and glazed concertina doors on the east and west.

"Working this way makes me feel connected to the environment and climate as the natural elements are harnessed to create a comfortable space for most times of the year."