Entering the offices of CookFox architects in Manhattan, you can almost leave the city behind.
The horseshoe-shaped work pods are plant-fringed havens, warmly lit by the late afternoon light. Terraces on three sides of the office are planted with native trees, vines and grasses and replete with bee apiaries that are tended by the employees, who are encouraged to work outdoors in season.
This unusual Midtown workplace, at 250 West 57th Street, was designed to be a showcase for a new kind of green building inspired by what architects call “biophilic design.”
The term, from the Greek for “love of living things,” was popularized by the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, who argues that humans are hard-wired by our evolutionary biology to be emotionally attracted to the natural world. Advocates of biophilic design say that to be called green, a building needs to do more than just use energy efficiently and have a minimal carbon footprint. Rather, it needs to be a health-promoting place for the people who live and work there.
CookFox projects have included the iconic Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, which incorporates features like planted green walls and a wealth of natural materials. But the point is not just to spruce up urban offices with splashes of green, says the firm’s co-founder, Richard Cook. It is to use principles of natural design to help bring the health benefits of the outdoors indoors.
Americans spend over 90 percent of their lives indoors. Until recently, little was known about how this was impacting us. But evidence is now mounting that we are paying a physiological price for spending all those hours cooped up unnaturally within four walls.
Design that ignores the natural requirements of the human body is to blame, says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist who has studied workplaces and their impact around the United States. “More time and creativity has gone into designing natural habitats for zoo animals,” she observed in an online post, “than in creating comfortable office spaces for humans.”
But that is changing. Dr. Heerwagen, who now works for the United States General Services Administration in Washington, has helped the agency plan government buildings that include green roofs and atriums, as well as day-lit offices with expansive views of the outdoors. It is also designing spaces that encourage employees to move around and engage with one another — adding healthy exercise to work days spent largely sitting behind a desk.