10 years later: Weber Thompson’s HQ is better with nature

Originally published in the Daily Journal of Commerce on September 27, 2018.

By Myer Harrell, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Homes

This year Weber Thompson is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of The Terry Thomas, the award-winning, LEED gold, passively cooled office building we designed and have been inhabiting since it opened. As part of that celebration, we thought it worthwhile to back-check our project against two frameworks for biophilic design, equipped with new vocabulary, science and best practices.

The building design started in 2003. As Weber Thompson was both the architect and prime tenant, the firm’s leaders surveyed employees to elicit the “must-haves” in the core and shell building and interiors. The design strategies that rose to the top were ample daylight, natural ventilation and cooling via operable windows.

Like many LEED projects at that time, we engaged an integrated project team and stakeholders early on, kicking off with an eco-charrette. The result of our integrated design process was a high-performance building with a minimal, modern aesthetic. During design and construction, most of us talked about the building using terms from LEED: energy savings, water efficiency, indoor air quality, materials toxicity and resource use.

The way we talk about our building has evolved since then. In addition to technical systems improvements, we now talk about how the building makes us feel, and often in relation to nature. Biophilia (literally “love of nature”) was an intuitive aspect of our building design, even if we didn’t call it that at the time.

Two design frameworks

To introduce the first framework for our back-check: The Living Building Challenge is a deep green building certification administered by the International Living Future Institute. To certify a project, a biophilic plan must address how the project will deliberately incorporate nature and nature’s patterns, be uniquely connected to place, climate and culture. It must also address how the project will provide sufficient and frequent human-nature interactions in both the interior and exterior.

The Terry Thomas is especially strong when we look at the Living Building Challenge biophilic design strategies dealing with light and space. The interior is flooded with abundant natural light and the courtyard with reflected light.

The building was designed from the beginning with daylight in mind, as an O-shaped floor plan increases the exposure of occupied space to windows. Filtered and diffused light enters the workstation areas and conference rooms through “sunglasses” (fixed, translucent glass shade fins) and operable exterior blinds — architectural features that block out the sun to prevent overheating.

Light and shadows track through the corridors and common areas throughout the day. Overhead lighting is tied to sensors on the roof to automatically dim when the sun is sufficiently lighting the space. Accent lighting and task lamps at desks round out a dynamically lit environment.

On the second framework: In 2014, the environmental consulting and strategic planning firm Terrapin Bright Green issued “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health & Well-Being in the Built Environment.” This paper not only helps incorporate biophilic design into projects, it ties each strategy to scientific studies with tangible benefits to human beings.

From 14 Patterns, we learn that thermal and airflow variability is an asset to our building. Manual awning windows and automated louvers provide all our fresh air and cooling. Therefore, unlike most conventional office spaces, we are keenly aware of the outdoor air temperature, breezes and weather phenomena outside our building “skin.”

While some might bemoan this variability, humanity evolved biologically with these changing conditions. This variability has been scientifically shown to positively impact comfort, well-being, productivity and concentration. It also provides an improved perception of temporal and spatial pleasure (also known as “allesthesia”).

We were not meant to be in hermetically sealed boxes and until relatively recently didn’t need sweaters in summer when we went indoors. So, we occupy The Terry Thomas like many of us live in our Pacific Northwest homes — we wear layers, crack open windows and sometimes turn on desk fans.

Building on biophilia

Some biophilic design strategies were not included in the original building design, but came about with later improvements. A few years after the building opened, we added courtyard planters filled with bamboo and maples, underplanted with autumn ferns, golden Japanese forest grass, fragrant sweetbox and other highly seasonal plants. In the short term, this softened a courtyard dominated by concrete pavers and provided additional privacy screening. In time, these plantings have functioned as animal habitat, specifically for hummingbird and junco nests.

Because of our floor-to-ceiling glass, every view into the courtyard give us a dose of nature.

The exterior feature stair in the courtyard was initially part of the building design to decrease energy use as an alternative to the elevator, and increases chance encounters between people. With the added dwarf aucuba and evergreen clematis vines, it became one more place to notice the seasons change.

The benefits to a visual connection with nature are lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved mental engagement/attentiveness, and positively impacted attitude and overall happiness. When we hear the birds, we also receive benefits, as non-visual connections with nature have been shown to reduce systolic blood pressure and stress hormones, positively impact cognitive performance, and provide perceived improvements in mental health and tranquility.

So, here’s the takeaway: Even our modern glass and steel office buildings can successfully incorporate biophilia and have a positive impact on people (the greatest asset of any company).

When we first occupied the building in 2008, we found evidence of a healthier environment. Our post-occupancy evaluation (required for our LEED certification) showed reduced sick days and symptoms compared to our previous space. In the survey, the overriding responses to “What do you like most about the space?” were variations on “connection to nature.” Only later would we call this biophilia.

The next step for our firm is to apply these two frameworks early in our design process, building on lessons from the space where we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 10 years.

Myer Harrell, AIA, LEED AP, BD+C Homes, is a principal and director of sustainability at Weber Thompson focused on boutique, sustainable commercial office projects. He was with the firm when it moved into The Terry Thomas building in 2008.