HKS at SXSW 2024: Longevity Cities and Exploring Brain Health in the Workplace

HKS at SXSW 2024: Longevity Cities and Exploring Brain Health in the Workplace

Creative people from around the world will gather March 8-16 in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals. This seminal event is known for unparalleled opportunities for discovery, learning, professional development and networking.

Two sessions at SXSW 2024 will feature HKS design and research professionals. If you are attending SXSW, please join HKS at one of the following sessions:

Kicking Our Workstation Habit to Improve Brain Health

March 12, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. CT, Austin Marriott Downtown, Waller Ballroom DEF

Speakers: Liz Fallon, HKS Studio Practice Leader, Commercial Interiors; Case Lindberg, University of Colorado, Boulder; Avi Rajagopal, SANDOW Design Group; Tope Sadiku, The Kraft Heinz Company

Our workplaces enable multitasking and it’s taking a toll on our health. Research shows that multitasking impairs brain health, 43% of employees multitask frequently and 60% are dissatisfied with their control of their work environment. Employees on a flexible schedule say they do some types of work best at home vs. the office. What keeps us from applying that thinking within our offices? We’ve got to start asking what we need to do before deciding where best to do it. Join our panel discussion to learn how kicking the workstation habit will lead to better brain health and renewed purpose for the office.

Longevity Cities: Optimal Environments for Healthy Aging

March 12, 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. CT, Austin Marriott Downtown, Waterloo Ballroom 3

Speakers: Upali Nanda, Global Practice Director, Research, and Partner at HKS; Rajiv Ahuja, Milken Institute; Harris Eyre, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy; Marc Freedman, CoGenerate (formerly

Longevity cities could hold the key to longer, healthier lives. Listen to experts testing the interaction between health, environment and social factors that impact how we age. Their longevity vision prioritizes brain health to achieve economic prosperity and social progress. They also embrace neighborhood designs that promote healthy behaviors and intergenerational connections. From health services to connected communities, this panel will reveal the power of age-inclusive cities to foster healthy, more resilient lives.

HKS’ New Atlanta Office: What the Future Office Could Be

Brain Building Exhibit

Case Study

Brain Building Exhibit Merging Research and Design for an Interactive Experience

Dallas, Texas, USA

The Challenge

Global design firm, HKS, wanted to create a way to increase understanding of — and engagement with — our leading-edge Brain Health research. With this goal in mind, the experiential branding team envisioned a temporary exhibit that would elevate employee awareness about how the human brain interacts with the built environment. The exhibit would also empower our designers to incorporate brain healthy solutions into their current and future work. 

The Design Solution

The Brain Building exhibit, designed for initial placement at the Dallas HKS headquarters, activates an underutilized second-floor arrival area and other key spaces throughout the building. The exhibition has a pop-up format, designed with a sustainable panel system so it can be easily transported and used as a tool to share research findings and brain healthy workplace affordances with other HKS offices, clients and external partners. 

The exhibit provides a unique in-office experience that incorporates best practices for storytelling in corporate workplaces and design solutions inspired directly by the research it showcases. The logo and brand expression include handwritten and bold graphic text styles, and a variety of complementary graphics and illustrations. Informational design and digital animations include edited and prioritized research findings for easy comprehension in a physical exhibition space. The HKS experiential branding team and research team worked in tandem to ensure clarity of information and storytelling elements. 

Balancing content panels with transition spaces, the exhibit layout offers a comfortable, navigable visitor experience. The team created takeaway postcards, QR codes and a survey to extend the experience beyond the physical exhibit so people can learn more about the research and sign up for a Brain Health Experience Workshop led by HKS’ research team. 

The Design Impact

The Brain Building exhibit that is more than a physical design — it tells the story of an important research project and represents all the people who participated in the study with interactive, educational elements. Additionally, the exhibit provides access to vital information about brain health and the built environment for anyone who visits HKS and has been toured by our research collaborators from the Center for BrainHealth® at The University of Texas at Dallas, who were able to learn about the impacts of their scientific work.  

As the HKS experiential branding and research teams collect and share visitor survey results and the exhibit hits the road to other office locations, this project will play a key role in illuminating the importance of designing for brain health worldwide. 

Project Features

Five Design Trends Shaping Communities in 2024

Five Design Trends Shaping Communities in 2024

Advances in artificial intelligence, modular construction and other methodologies will bring renewed energy to the architecture, engineering and construction industry in 2024 despite economic and environmental challenges.  

In response to — and at the forefront of — current real estate and design trends, global design firm HKS is striving to revive and strengthen communities worldwide. In 2024, HKS will continue to create healthy, resilient, dynamic places that support peak performance and bring people joy. 

1 – Spaces for Healthy Living and Learning 

HKS is leveraging the firm’s research and health design expertise to help people navigate ongoing and emerging crises in health care, student health and well-being, and senior living. 

The Sanford Health Virtual Care Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is one of several exciting HKS health care projects opening in 2024. The telehealth center will improve access to care for rural patients, a medically underserved population.  

Clinical workforce shortages will be a continuing challenge for health systems in the year ahead, according to McKinsey & Company. HKS is designing facilities to address the health care staffing crisis. To further this work, the firm is partnering with design brand MillerKnoll on a study to identify factors that contribute to nurse burnout and to learn how these factors relate to the built environment. The study findings will be published this year. 

This year HKS will also participate in an impact study to gauge how the design of Uplift Luna Preparatory School, which is scheduled to open in Dallas in January, affects student outcomes. HKS’ design of the school was informed by research into how design can support social and emotional learning.  

At the 2024 Environments for Aging conference, HKS and industry partners will present a case study of Elevate Senior Living’s Clearwater, Florida community. HKS’ design for Elevate Clearwater is intended to help address the senior living affordability crisis. The number of middle-income older adults in need of affordable care and housing options is swiftly rising, as demonstrated by a study into the “forgotten middle” senior cohort, by research group NORC at the University of Chicago

2 – Commercial Office Reinvention 

It’s clear by now that hybrid and remote work are here to stay. Changes to work habits over the last four years caused major fluctuations in corporate real estate portfolios, leading to increased vacancy rates and diminishing valuations worldwide. But according to Deloitte’s 2024 commercial real estate outlook, newer, higher quality assets are outperforming older spaces and new construction projects designed to accommodate hybrid work strategies are on the rise.  

HKS commercial interior designers are creating offices with hybrid-ready technologies and attractive amenities for companies like Textron Systems in Arlington, Virginia and AGI in Naperville, Illinois. HKS’ advisory groups have also teamed with influential companies, including CoreLogic, to develop strategies and design concepts for their robust asset portfolios that help them keep up with the evolving real estate landscape. 

The firm’s industry-leading research on brain healthy workplaces has yielded exciting discoveries about how offices that prioritize employee well-being can be designed, delivered and operated. Piloting strategies in the firm’s own real estate portfolio and advocating for “breaking the workstation,” HKS researchers and designers are setting new standards for inclusive, productive office environments. In 2024, HKS will present these ideas to a global audience at South by Southwest® (SXSW®) and continue to design workplaces for new modes of working. 

3 – New Mixed-Use and Planning Match Ups

Fluctuations in the commercial office sector and retail are providing new opportunities in mixed-use development. PwC and ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2024 report indicates that real estate investors are increasingly diversifying or pivoting their portfolios to counteract disuse of downtown offices and regional malls.  

A shift toward developments with a variety of localized services and amenities is occurring — and HKS designers and planners are at the forefront of creating exciting new projects with unique anchors. In Hangzhou, China, the 2023 Asian Games Athlete Village Waterfront Mixed-Use is becoming a prime destination for retail and entertainment, not unlike HKS-designed SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park in Los Angeles with its newest attraction, Cosm. Beyond these new mixes, HKS designers are creating dynamic properties such as NoMaCNTR in Washington, DC, to join hotel and residential uses — a combination on the rise in many major cities. 

In 2024, HKS is expanding its ability to serve communities with mixed-use planning and design, fostering sustainable growth for cities in the years to come. The Austin Light Rail team — consisting of Austin Transit Partnership, HKS, UNStudio and Gehl — is set to finalize design guidelines for proposed station locations that will provide opportunities for Austin residents to live in more affordable locations and promote urban expansion into less dense areas. As the transit network expands, it will unlock real estate opportunities and give rise to a variety of diverse and exciting mixed-use properties. This work complements the Transit Oriented Developments projects HKS is working on to elevate the health and well-being of our communities nationwide.  

HKS designers are also set to craft a new master plan for the Georgia World Congress Center’s 220-acre campus in downtown Atlanta this year. The cohesive, sustainability-driven master plan will create a legible pedestrian-friendly environment that maximizes economic potential of the convention center campus. This will integrate the campus’ global canvas with surrounding historic neighborhoods using a comprehensive framework. 

4 – Adaptive Reuse Rising 

In their report on 2024 real estate trends, PwC and ULI write that that “the movement to convert existing buildings from office to multifamily (or any other asset class, really), offers a meaningful achievement in saving carbon emissions.”  

As part of HKS’ efforts towards sustainable and resilient design, the firm is igniting adaptive reuse for a variety of building types, such as ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Chengdu Hospital in China, a tertiary care facility created from a former shopping center. HKS’ design for Mount Sinai Beth Israel Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center in New York City reinvigorated a structure built in 1898 to create a new destination for behavioral health. HKS designers in London renovated a 19th-century office building into a 21st-century clinic. And for an expansion of Rusk State Hospital in Texas, HKS reinvented the hospital campus, which opened in 1883 to house a penitentiary, into a therapeutic and dignified behavioral health care setting. 

In a highly poetic adaptive reuse project, HKS reimagined a defunct airport terminal, which dated to the 1940s, as a creative, contemporary workspace for online travel company Expedia Group. 

In 2024, HKS will continue to advance adaptive reuse design across different markets and geographies. 

5 – Creating a Better World through ESG

Balancing holistic sustainability — including decarbonization, climate resilience, and equitable design practices — with business goals is imperative for commercial real estate investors according to 2024 outlooks by both Deloitte and PwC. Leading the architecture and design industries to a brighter future, HKS is committed to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). 

HKS leaders recently demonstrated the depth of the firm’s ESG efforts through thought leadership — speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital, and at the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) conference, where HKS was also a Diamond Sponsor. 

Driven by ESG goals, HKS designers strive to enhance human and environmental well-being through the places they create day in and day out. The firm’s growing portfolio of high-performing projects includes the world’s first WELL-certified airport facility, a COTE Top-Ten Award-winning campus in California and a IIDA Global Excellence Award finalist hospital in Saudi Arabia to name a few. In 2024, HKS architects, sustainable design leaders and advisors will continue developing building portfolio sustainability guidelines and high-performance designs for major tech companies and educational institutions.  

HKS will also align with the Science Based Targets Initiative, which recently established building sector guidelines, to ensure the firm’s carbon neutrality goals are science-backed and can be properly benchmarked. The firm will provide voluntary disclosures about its offsets portfolio to meet regulatory requirements, enhance transparency and improve accountability. 

Most excitingly, 2024 marks the 10-year anniversary of Citizen HKS, a firmwide initiative that impacts lives and drives change through design, community service and financial philanthropy. HKS designers around the world will celebrate the pro-bono design work and service projects they have contributed to through Citizen HKS and re-commit to enhancing their communities for years to come. 

How Staff Respite Space Can Help Address the Health Care Staffing Crisis

How Staff Respite Space Can Help Address the Health Care Staffing Crisis

Health care is experiencing a staffing crisis worldwide. The International Council on Nurses has estimated that up to 13 million nurses will be needed to fill the global nurse shortage gap.

The U.S. nursing workforce has lost at least 200,000 experienced registered nurses and 60,000 experienced licensed practical nurses/licensed vocational nurses since 2020, according to an estimate reported in the 2022 National Nursing Workforce Study. More than 334,000 nurses participated in the study, which revealed nearly 20 percent of the U.S. nursing workforce is likely to leave the field by 2027.

“Right now, there’s a huge need for nursing staff,” said Lynne Rizk, Partner and Health Studio Practice Leader at global design firm HKS.

To attract staff members – whether recent graduates or experienced nurses who have taken a leave of absence – health systems need to provide facilities that “give the ultimate staff experience,” Rizk said.

“In health care, there is such a strong focus on the patient’s experience that sometimes the staff spaces can be overlooked,” said Jessica Karsten, senior architectural designer, HKS London. “As the people who spend the most time in the facility, it is crucial to ensure the staff’s experience of the building is considered.”

‘Important Real Estate’

Staff spaces are a top priority at Royal Liverpool University Hospital, a recently opened replacement facility in Liverpool, England, that was designed by HKS and architecture firm NBBJ.

The hospital features multiple outdoor landscaped courtyards designed for staff members, patients and the public. Additional courtyards at the hospital are reserved for staff.

The courtyards help supply natural light and views to 90 percent of the hospital’s staff spaces. The building is roughly the shape of a figure eight, with patient floors surrounding the large interior courtyards. A central circulation spine crosses between the courtyards, to reduce travel distances in the hospital.

Staff support areas, such as changing space, staff resting areas, seminar rooms and offices, are located along the central staff circulation route, for convenient access outside the main hospital departments. Flanked by the courtyards, these spaces receive generous daylight and provide expansive outdoor views.

In addition, an entire floor of the hospital is dedicated to staff functions. The 9th floor, which includes administrative offices, on-call areas, resting space for staff members, seminar rooms and a staff dining lounge, has some of the best views of Liverpool available in the building, according to Karsten.

In the design of the facility, hospital leadership made sure “important real estate was given over to the staff,” she said. “Especially now, for staff retention and recruitment purposes, they really wanted to ensure the staff spaces were nice spaces to be in.”

‘Emotional Environment’

Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital demonstrated similar thinking on a recent expansion project designed by HKS. The children’s hospital, part of the South Florida-based Memorial Healthcare System, is a tertiary care facility in Hollywood, Florida, that treats everything from common childhood illnesses to highly complex conditions.

“Our staff does a wonderful job taking care of patients and families,” said Scott Singer, the hospital’s assistant administrator. “Pediatrics is a very emotional environment. They deal with a lot of heavy, heavy, heavy subjects.”

The culture at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital is focused on upholding staff “and making sure they have the things that they need,” Singer said. He added that facility design is one piece of this organizational strategy. “The building just looks beautiful, to support the wonderful work that the staff does. It was designed based on their input,” he said.

In a health facility, “square footage is very much at a premium,” Singer noted. “As we were programming the space, we felt it was important to include the employees.”

There is a staff lounge on each new patient unit at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. The hospital also reserved a separate block of space in the expansion project for staff use. This respite space includes a kitchenette and dining area; a zone for active socializing and games, such as foosball and darts; and a quiet space with massage chairs and dimmable lighting.

“Health care is stressful,” said Laura Thielen, Studio Practice Leader, HKS Orlando, and an interior designer on the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital project. A retired registered pharmacist, Thielen is one of several HKS staff members with frontline caregiving experience. She said that during her pharmacy career, “it was always nice to have some place where you could go to kind of get away, when things were just too much.”

New Approaches

Providing a variety of respite spaces can help health care staff access the supportive environment they need when and where they need it. Depending on the circumstances, this may be a nearby space to rest or regroup during a shift. An example of such spaces are the respite rooms located within each unit at the new HKS-designed Children’s Tower at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond (Virginia) at VCU.

Or another type of respite spot may be a space that’s removed from the patient unit, where staffers are less likely to be interrupted. They may need to be alone with their thoughts, gather with teammates or go outdoors.

“We have to think about (staff respite) in different ways,” said Deborah Wingler, PhD, HKS Principal and Research Practice Director, Health & Experience.

“It’s not just a room with a plant in the window. It’s about helping health care workers connect to wellness for themselves in a new way.”

HKS and architecture firm KPF are currently designing a renovation project at the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai, located on the Mount Sinai Health System campus in New York City. The renovation is slated to include a spa and wellness center that will be used by staff as well as patients. The spa and wellness center are designed to offer yoga, meditation, massage and salon services, such as hair styling.

The design for Tisch Cancer Center also includes a two-story meditation area for patients, family members and staff. The meditation area will feature natural light, comfortable seating and abundant greenery (lifelike artificial trees and plants, for infection control).

“If you’re a staff member and you’re on the floor and you’ve had a couple of tough back-to-back cases, you can go use that quiet space,” said Rizk.

Healthy, Supportive Workplace

In 2021, HKS partnered with the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth to investigate the role of place, process and technology in creating a brain-healthy workplace – one that empowers people to find purpose, reach peak performance and thrive.

“Brain health is not just about improving mental health, but also improving cognitive skills – allowing you the brain space to do what you’re good at in the best possible way,” said Upali Nanda, PhD, HKS Partner and Global Practice Director, Research.

The research project identified five brain-healthy workplace affordances, or design characteristics. These are: focus, exploration and ideation, collaboration and co-creation, rest and reflection, and social connection.

Focus is especially critical in health facilities, Nanda said. “Distraction is a key issue, especially for nurses. They’re always trying to do a lot of different things at once.”

Environments that afford health care staff the ability to focus, think, collaborate, rest or connect with their colleagues promote brain health, which helps people feel and perform at their best.

HKS is currently partnering on a research project with design brand MillerKnoll to identify factors that contribute to nurse fatigue, exhaustion and burnout, and to learn how those factors relate to the built environment. Wingler said that early results indicate that organizational support is essential to staff satisfaction. Staff respite should be integral to health facility design and operations, as part of overarching policies of respect and support for staff.

Last year, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company surveyed 368 frontline nurses providing direct patient care in the U.S. “Not valued by organization” tied as the number one reason the surveyed registered nurses gave for deciding to leave a job in the past 18 months. Providing dedicated quiet space for staff was one strategy the McKinsey report noted that had been successful in increasing staff retention and decreasing feelings of burnout.

“We have the most rapidly diminishing health care workforce that we’ve ever had,” said Wingler. “We have to start thinking about ways not only to extend our current workforce in health care, but to make it a place where people want to invest a career.”

Seven Considerations for Health Care Design in the Middle East 

Seven Considerations for Health Care Design in the Middle East 

The Middle East is steeped in rich heritage and cultural subtleties, so designing the region’s next generation of health care facilities requires a nuanced approach. Each year, the Global Health Exhibition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, brings health care professionals together to connect and drive health care innovation in the region. Please visit global design firm HKS at our booth at Riyadh Front Exhibition and Conference Center from Oct. 29 to Oct. 31, 2023, as we reflect on the various ways HKS addresses key Middle Eastern cultural and environmental characteristics through our award-winning health care designs. 

Responding to the Climate with Vernacular Architecture 

With temperatures hovering at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade for more than half the year, a building’s orientation is one of our first considerations when planning new structures. The site location of Kuwait Children’s Hospital required the HKS team to design patient windows to face east and west. Solar studies were performed to create sophisticated shading systems on both sides of the building to not only reduce solar gain but also reduce glare and enhance comfort within patient rooms. Catwalks on every other floor allow easy cleaning of the windows and shading systems after humid dust storms characteristic of the region. Canopies over outdoor respite areas are necessary for a large portion of the year, and HVAC systems need to be powerful, durable and efficient to minimize energy consumption. 

Water is a Precious Commodity in the Desert 

Because much of the region relies on desalination plants to provide water, irrigation is strictly regulated. Through the use of regional plant life such as Ghaf trees, we provide xeriscaping to minimize water usage. On-site water recycling plants efficiently irrigate green spaces. 

During transportation, water is warmed by intense heat and must be cooled before use. Brutal sunlight means that roof storage isn’t an option for cooling. Some jurisdictions, such as Kuwait, require water be stored in subterranean tanks or cooling towers before it is distributed. Pumps are then required to move water to its destination. Further, the use of large water features is discouraged due to the high evaporation ratio year-round. 

Designing for Cultural Subtleties and Privacy 

The Middle East can appear to be one large desert to some, but each country has specific cultural interests. Some countries are more conservative than others, and thus, understanding how varying cultural and religious customs can affect traffic patterns throughout a hospital is important. For example, some hospitals may include separate waiting rooms for men and women or an emergency room with an entrance split in different directions for men and women. Prayer rooms for men and women, and sometimes even mosques, are incorporated into convenient locations of our designs. 

Some clients prefer traditional architecture to help patients feel comfortable, especially as health care can be a sensitive topic in the Middle East — many patients prefer not to share details about their health. Health care facilities such as Prince Sattam University Hospital in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, are in conservative agricultural areas outside of urban centers. Sensitivity to the local community is important, so the team focused on developing a design that utilizes local stone for the exterior facades. To reduce the sense of anxiety while providing familiarity to the agriculture community, the project was organized around a wadi, or valley, including natural elements that blend into the lobby. The National Rehabilitation Clinic (NRC) in Abu Dhabi also employs vernacular architecture to ease anxiety.

Planning for Large Families

Families tend to be larger in the Middle East than in western countries, and rather than one or two visitors, a patient might receive six or eight at a time. Patient rooms are designed with patient, caregiver and family zones, and public areas are designed to accommodate multiple families. 

Incorporating amenities in public spaces is a priority. Kuwait Children’s Hospital’s five-story atrium stretches nearly 1,500 feet and includes a hollow whale where movies are played, cafes, and other elements that blend health care, hospitality, and retail. We developed outdoor courtyards for Prince Sattam University and the NRC to allow families, or even patients, to walk away and take a break from the hospital. 


Rising energy costs and a harsh climate mean that sustainability is being pushed to the forefront of the region’s unique challenges. Dubai, for example, requires a sustainability checklist when submitting building permits, and other countries require a minimum of LEED-Silver equivalent design for government hospital projects. Our exterior design for Prince Sattam resulted in a 30% reduction of energy. Designers must continue to encourage clients and peers to support energy efficient initiatives. 

Rapid Growth 

The Middle East has a large middle-income class with growing expectations, and HKS is creating the next generation of health care facilities to meet the region’s needs. Dubai and some other cities have almost quadrupled in size over the last 20 years, and health care investment is struggling to keep pace. 

Private providers are beginning to invest in new facilities. Hospitals such as Danat Al Emarat, a private maternity hospital, are successful examples of an efficient and financially responsible project meeting the needs of Abu Dhabi. HKS has been involved with several teaching hospital campuses, including CapitalMED Medical City in Egypt and Prince Sattam University Hospital, in the ongoing challenge to meet the region’s demand for experienced physicians.  

Part 2: How Do We Break the Workstation, and What Should We Design Instead?

Part 2: How Do We Break the Workstation, and What Should We Design Instead?

In the first installment in this series, we made a provocative, brain-based, and historically-informed argument for the need to break the concept of the open office workstation. This time, we’ll describe a case study of how we can break the workstation, and what we can remake in its place. In doing so, we’re also addressing the rule and tradition of the workstation – behaviors many workers have come to expect and accept without questioning why. 

First, take a look at Office Plan 1 below. Where do you go? Easy, right? You find your default seat amongst the banks of other workstations. Now, take a look at Office Plan 2. Where do you go?

Not as easy? If you’re like many experienced corporate employees, you’re looking at Office Plan 2 and not seeing what you’d expect. Your brain cannot predict where to go right now because you don’t see the traditionally placed bank of open office workstations. In other words, the concept of the default workstation you’re dependent on is no longer there. It has been broken. 

What you see instead are different groupings of desks and tables in varying sizes of space. A couple of the rooms look like they might be conference rooms, but what about the rest of the office?  

To Create Places that are Experiential We Need to Address Experiential Blindness

While trying to figure out what those other spaces are, and when you don’t have any contextual information from your past to try and make sense of the present, some neuroscientists might say that you’re in a state of experiential blindness

This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not – it’s a huge design and behavioral opportunity to change how you make sense of the intent of a space, and what it offers you when you use it (i.e., what the space affords you). Once your brain has the context it needs to understand that intent, your experiential blindness is resolved, and in its place, you have a new understanding of that space.  

Let’s look at this smaller space taken from Office Plan 2 as an example. Undoubtedly, you have plenty of contextual information from your past about chairs, tables, and monitors, but you don’t yet understand what this space, as a whole, is intended to afford you and your team.  

Imagine that your company (a knowledge work professional service organization) communicates that the intent of this space is to help speed up idea formation in high-pressure situations. This highly flexible environment is in a layout right now that functions best when approaching a deadline, and it provides a media center for projecting and sharing work with team members in other parts of the world. It is reservable for weeks at a time and has dedicated pinup spaces so that teams can take advantage of the benefits of spatial memories of artifacts related to a project for extended periods of time. 

If communicated effectively, you now have contextual information for the intended affordances of this space. In other words, you’re starting to form a new concept of that space. What’s more, if that concept is to become stickier in your brain, this space needs a name – we’ll call it the Rapid Ops room. 

So now, when you enter the office and you see this room, you no longer have experiential blindness – instead, you see the Rapid Ops room, and this concept will become stronger and more focused over time if you use the space with teams in high-pressure situations when deadlines are approaching.

Time as a Building Block

In the previous installment in this series, we argued that the open office workstation was a hangover from the industrial era, and that it has become the default building block of the modern open office. We proposed that an office design should instead focus first on people’s needs before physical solutions are proposed. 

When you viewed Office Plan 2 above, we asked you to consider where you’d go. This was difficult because you didn’t have context for the intent of each space. When you gain more context for what each of the different spaces afford you and your team, the question of where you’d go becomes more intentional because there is not a default workstation. 

But when you’re considering where to go, what you’re really asking yourself is where you need to go in that moment to meet the demands of a specific activity – this is an issue of designing your time

In other words, a key building block for office effectiveness is the time that individuals and teams plan for different activities, whether in advance or ad hoc. This is critical because time is the common denominator among known challenges in open office workstations. It is at the core of multi-tasking (i.e., performing more than one task at a time), and unwanted environmental distractions (i.e., performing an activity at odds with others’ activities in your vicinity at the same time).

By designing our time, we are both focusing on the tasks that need to be completed (the work itself) and deciding when to get that work done collectively. This moves the dimension of time from a problematic common denominator to an ally in the fight for a brain healthy workplace. Work that is best done as a team, for example, needs to be designed together.  

But we first must understand what the work itself is. Who needs to participate, what kinds of technology, resources, and infrastructure are needed? Then, when we match activities with available spaces designed with specific intent, we help utilize those spaces at their highest value toward the organization’s goals. In many ways this may sound obvious, but for most organizations, this method of designing time necessitates a new and more intentional way of thinking about space allocation.

Rethinking the ‘Me’ in Me / We / Us

Throughout the past several decades of workplace design, the Me / We / Us framework has been used more and more prevalently. Used to categorize space allocation and justify programming ratios in floor plans, Me / We / Us essentially describes three high-level, somewhat abstract categories to help users understand an office environment. 

‘Me’ space – historically the foundational building block of workstations and private offices – serves as the primary square footage allocation in most office designs. ‘We’ space typically includes group work settings, including open collaboration, conference rooms, and sometimes shared workstations and offices. ‘Us’ space is typically characterized by social gathering and other shared activities not necessarily dedicated to performing typical work tasks, such as café spaces, lounges, and lobbies. 

In our new paradigm shift, however, the definition of ‘Me’ space needs to be modified. If there is no longer a dedicated, default workstation where you go to drop your bag and park for the day, then what should ‘Me’ space be? Perhaps ‘Me’ space is no longer about allocation of space but the policy and agency to design your time for individual effectiveness within the work ecosystem at large – in Huddle or Focus rooms, shared ‘We’ spaces, public coffee shops, or home workspaces depending on individual effectiveness, preference, and the task at hand.  

One danger here is that employees may equate this loss of traditional ‘Me’ space with a loss of perceived ownership and presence of their office experience. This is why communication of the designed intent of all the different space concepts within the office is critical, as ‘Me’ spaces may imply that other spaces are not mine. 

But when employees can let go of ownership over just one tiny part of the office (their overstressed workstation) and shift their sense of agency toward the entire office complete with all its tailored ‘We’ and ‘Us’ spaces, the value proposition of the office itself becomes more evident. 

If designed well, the value of utilizing the office for those intended activities showcases how a space can help you and your team accomplish different work tasks better than you could anywhere else, including your home workspace, because it was designed with specific intent.

One of those value-driven intents for the office space in many organizations will undoubtedly be social connection (consistently cited as a top reason for why people want to come to the office post-pandemic). We know that the strength of social connections at work has shifted over the past few years, with second and third level connections suffering most. It is time for us to consider how a more intentionally designed office environment can bolster those in-person connections we’ve lost while keeping our newer virtual connections alive and well. 

Up Next

By designing our collective time in accordance with intentionally designed office spaces, we highlight the shortcomings of an oversimplified ratio for programming. There is not some magical ratio of workstations to conference rooms to focus pods that we’re all just oh-so close to nailing down for organizations to be most effective. 

By planning and aligning our time with our intent and our tailored workspaces, we can see that square footage is better considered as a design outcome, and not as a design driver. In this installment, we have shown a case study where overall square footage remained similar. But depending on the available work ecosystem of spaces (both physical and digital) and organizational goals, one organization’s intentionally aligned real estate investment may become much smaller (or even vanish), while another’s may need to grow substantially. 

Now that you’ve seen an example of how we can break the workstation and reinvent the office as an intentional part of the ecosystem of workplaces, next time we’ll show you how we can get to those solutions with you as a client.  

Here’s a hint: It’s not simple, it requires investment in the right people and resources, and it’s all about accountability in relationships. 

Demand for Healthier Spaces Inspires Innovation in the Built Environment

Demand for Healthier Spaces Inspires Innovation in the Built Environment

Well-being certifications have steadily risen in prominence and popularity since they were first introduced to the design and building industries about a decade ago. Spaces using WELL and Fitwel frameworks, for example, skyrocketed from fewer than 20 to more than 700 between 2016 and 2020, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

Setting standards for environmental quality factors such as air, light, water and mobility, these certifications are granted to spaces that incorporate building systems, materials, furnishings and operational methods that measurably support occupant health.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic accelerated interest in well-being certifications among building owners and operators. In August 2022, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) reported that the amount space using WELL increased fourfold in the prior 18 months, contributing to more than four billion total square feet (371,612,160 square meters) globally.

“We are seeing more clients express interest in and proceed with pursuing certification. It’s hard to deny that COVID-19 and some of its results are driving factors. People are much more aware of their health as well as the impact buildings have on their health,” said HKS Sustainable Design Leader Allison Smith, who leads the firm’s efforts on pursuing well-being certifications for design projects.

Another catalyst is that real estate investors, developers, and managers — and their design industry collaborators — are committing to Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) frameworks, weaving environmental, economic and human sustainability measures into their business practices.

“When we talk about ESG, most people in the architecture, engineering and construction industry think about environmental outcomes and health outcomes related to physical products. The harder pieces to unravel are the social and governance aspects,” said Yiselle Santos Rivera, HKS’ Global Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

Santos Rivera said that to achieve holistic sustainability and meet ESG goals, organizations can make efforts to embed well-being and social equity within their structures and operations in addition to the external work in which they are engaged. When it comes to design outcomes that support social and health equity, she believes sustainability certifications, emerging social justice toolkits, and well-being standards are carving an important path forward.

“I very much value these certifications as a designer, and I believe they are great baselines for best practice that we should all be aware of. They help us build consistency in terms of what we deliver and the metrics we align with so we can certify project outcomes in a more equitable way,” she said.

Designing for Well-being Across Sectors

HKS’ growing network of designers equipped with well-being credentials currently includes more than 100 WELL Accredited Professionals and 10 Fitwel Ambassadors. And the firm’s project portfolio includes several WELL and Fitwel registered and certified buildings in a variety of market sectors. Earlier this year, Downtown Dallas’ HALL Arts Residences became the first WELL Gold-certified multifamily building in Texas. And last year, Harvey Milk Terminal 1, Boarding Area B at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) became the first WELL-certified airport facility in the world, achieving Platinum certification (the highest level).

Harvey Milk Terminal 1, Boarding Area B is the first WELL-certified airport facility in the world. It achieved LEED Platinum certification in 2022.

Harvey Milk Terminal 1, Boarding Area B features exemplary air quality with an efficient outdoor air filtration system and complementary radiant heating and cooling. It supports occupant comfort, circadian rhythms, and overall well-being with dynamic glazing, ample natural light, acoustic management strategies, and healthy materials.               

With daily management practices including green cleaning practices and consistent tracking of environmental quality, the SFO project demonstrates that — even in the most heavily trafficked, operationally intensive environments — designing for wellness is possible. And that is good news for the industry currently showing the most interest in certifying buildings for well-being: health care.

As hospital design grows more complex, health systems continue to consolidate services in central locations, and public health crises like the pandemic occur, designing for the general well-being of patients, families, staff and administrators is critical.

“We’re seeing the biggest uptick in the sector because for health care clients, it’s an extension of their mission to create an environment that supports the health of occupants and staff. That’s a pretty clear connection,” Smith said, noting that HKS is working with several health clients interested in pursuing well-being certification on their upcoming projects.

Creating Healthier Offices

To date, well-being certifications have been most prevalent in office environments, according to Smith and Casey Lindberg, HKS Senior Design Researcher. Lindberg conducts research that influences design decisions and measures environmental quality and occupant experience outcomes in HKS commercial and commercial interiors projects.

In addition to the positive health outcomes for employees and tenants, these types of certifications are noticeably good for clients’ bottom lines, according to Lindberg. He said that commercial clients have begun to understand that when their spaces are designed for well-being, they can see higher long term property values and better retention rates.

“We are working with clients who are willing to be at the tipping point…those who will invest a small amount of money in research on design decisions or features that support well-being with the idea that the return will be way more than they put in,” Lindberg said.

HKS’ new Atlanta office features a design that emphasizes holistic well-being and brain health with social hubs, a wellness haven and idea theater.

As companies and organizations continue to adjust return-to-work policies and redevelop or reconfigure their real estate portfolios since the pandemic eased, they can rely on designers to help go beyond the minimum criteria or baseline certification levels.

“As a design firm, we’re interested in creating spaces that have beauty and meaning and also hit the checklists,” Lindberg said. “We’re here to make sure we’re at the intersection of art and science of supporting humans in the built environment. If it’s just a checklist, you’re missing something. We can help elevate the design.”

HKS is testing well-being design and research strategies within our own real estate portfolio. The firm has designed three WELL-certified buildings to date and is pursuing WELL certification for four of its own newly designed offices across the United States. Building upon living lab research launched at the HKS Chicago office and well-being and brain healthy workplace tactics deployed at the HKS Atlanta office, HKS is also bringing diverse design strategies to create workplaces that support the firm’s culture of design rigor and innovation.

“We want to have transparency available throughout the firm about how different offices are performing on metrics that we value…from environmental condition satisfaction to productivity and how well the space supports their work,” Lindberg said.

Collaborating for Positive Outcomes

Despite the value and positive outcomes that can come from using well-being standards in design, it’s important to note they do not guarantee success from a health, equity or human experience standpoint, HKS experts said.

“All of these certifications that look at wellness and health cannot alone recognize that when you develop great spaces and places, the system overall may still create negative outcomes for people,” Santos Rivera said.

Whether a space can achieve certification and enhance the wellness of people who inhabit it is ultimately based on successful operations and measurable results. Certifications require intensive collaboration between designers and building owner representatives throughout the design process, and then well after a project is finished because most certifications are only granted after occupancy. Plus, buildings or spaces that do achieve certification must be recertified every few years to maintain good standing, which requires consistent tracking and reporting of metrics over time.

“Industry-wide, designers are used to talking with their team as well as some of the design and construction team on the owners’ side, but we really have to expand the team and coordinate with Human Resources, facility management, and help set in place policies and procedures for them to be able to achieve the certification,” Smith said.

Smith, Santos Rivera, and Lindberg also said that certifications can be used as tools to have conversations and drive design and building operations to be more holistically sustainable. As the impacts of climate change and social inequities increasingly affect human health and well-being, the built environment has a big part to play. HKS designers and researchers are rising to the challenge, creating places that help people thrive.

 “The only point of a physical environment solution is to help humans do things better, collectively or individually,” Lindberg said. “Spaces that support well-being help people become the best version of themselves.”

How Do Built Environments Help Build Brain Capital?

How Do Built Environments Help Build Brain Capital?

For the past two years, HKS researchers, designers and innovators have been working diligently on expanding our thinking about health and well-being to encompass brain health.

The World Health Organization defines brain health as “the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders.” Another compelling definition in the British Medical Journal holds that brain health is “the preservation of optimal brain integrity and mental and cognitive function and the absence of overt neurological disorders.”

Brain health allows us to hyperfocus on the fundamental building block of human cognition and functioning — the human brain — and design environments that support and enhance it.

There is a strong economic imperative to focus on brain health. Our current global economy is often described as a “brain economy” where many new jobs demand cognitive, emotional, and social skills. Innovation is now considered a tangible outcome related to employee productivity. As automation increases, a premium is being placed on cerebral, brain-based skills that make us human such as self-control, emotional intelligence, creativity, compassion, altruism, systems thinking, collective intelligence, and cognitive flexibility.

Enter “brain capital,” an emerging imperative that pulls together brain health, brain skills, and concepts of the brain economy to enable people to realize their potential as productive members of society. It is being advanced by the Brain Capital Alliance, a public-private-people partnership to optimize the brain, brain health and brain skills in our modern economy.

The shift to brain capital in our thinking makes us pose this critical question: What if we could optimize our brains — not only to improve mental and physical health — but also to contribute to positive social and economic benefits that would increase individual and community well-being and advance our societal goals?

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are broad-reaching and holistic outcomes that require integrated, system-based solutions. Brain health and brain capital are clearly related to SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being), but it also intrinsically tied to SDG4 (Quality Education), SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG10 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG13 (Climate Action), SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) and SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

Through the innovation and creativity unlocked by a workforce and youth population empowered with brain healthy habits, we will make significant progress on all 17 SDGs. A new brain capital economy will require bridging previously siloed disciplines and expertise to understand, test and draft policy to assess and incentivize the outcomes we desire.

At the upcoming Science Summit at the United Nations General Assembly, we will convene a full day event focused on youth mental health, workforce development, economic security and resilience, sustainable futures, brain + building, neuro-science law, and food systems. Advocates, neuroscientists, medical doctors, psychologists and designers will lead conversations along-side academics, business leaders, elected officials, policy experts and real estate financers, owners and operators. The brain capital economy will help us amplify and institutionalize innovation to date, while also creating a platform to accelerate creative approaches for the next frontier.

As researchers and designers of the built environment, we know that places and spaces have a big impact on how we can build brain capital and realize the SDGs. Here are five things we encourage our teams, clients, and partners to do as we kick-start the journey to design for brain capital:

1. Explore the intersection between neuroscience and architecture to unlock new ideas for design.

In the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics (a movement started by the Academy of Neuroscience and Architecture), a growing evidence base links environmental factors directly to brain behavior. Air quality impacts cognitive health, access to nature reduces stress and anxiety, novelty in environments can improve memory, exposure to arts can activate dormant synapses in the brain — the list linking design to brain health outcomes is long — and growing every day. Designers can catapult pieces of evidence into channels for transformational change through the enriched environments they design and build

2. Invest in your own brain capital through brain-healthy workplaces.

A disproportionately large portion of our life is spent at work. Work, especially in the brain economy, relies on brain health. Invest in design and operational best practices that make your workplaces healthy for your brain.

3. Build your and your team’s cognitive fitness with the same passion as you build physical fitness.

We often think about our diet and exercise for physical fitness, but we need to be intentional about our mental, social and cognitive fitness, too. Connect with people, spend time doing creative tasks that push your thinking, learn new things, and consider brain health training programs such as SMART from the Center for BrainHealth to build your capacity.

4. Think of every capital investment as a project for brain capital.

Think about a design project you might be working on — a school, an office, a hospital, a hotel, a housing development or a new neighborhood — and then place a brain capital lens on it. Are brain health and brain skills important to the project’s outcomes? Could investment in people’s well-being lead to economic benefits? How can you create an environment that gets to the core of how someone learns, heals, relaxes, lives and flourishes? These questions will help you unlock design potential for exponential impact.

5. Dissolve disciplinary silos to work with scientists, economists, environmentalists, artists and policy makers.

The fundamental premise of brain capital is bringing professionals from a wide range of expertise together to make bold, systemic change. And that starts with creative convenings beyond disciplines.

Imagine a future where everyone has opportunities to fulfil their potential — at home, at work, in any place at any time. If we work together to invest in building brain capital, we can create a regenerative world where creativity and innovation thrive and life flourishes.

• A Brain Capital Grand Strategy: toward economic reimagination. By Smith, Erin; Ali, Diab;
Wilkerson, Bill; Dawson, Walter D; Sobowale, Kunmi; Reynolds, Charles; Berk, Michael; Lavretsky, Helen; Jeste, Dilip; Ng, Chee H; Soares, Jair C; Aragam, Gowri; Wainer, Zoe; Manji, Husseini K; Licinio, Julio; Lo, Andrew W; Storch, Eric; Fu, Ernestine; et al.
• World Health Organization Health Topics: Brain Health
What is brain health and why is it important? By Wang, Yongjun; et. al

Award-Winning Research Explores Facility Modifications for Future Pandemic Resiliency

Award-Winning Research Explores Facility Modifications for Future Pandemic Resiliency

HKS research exploring health facility preparedness has been recognized with two distinguished awards—‘CORE Merit status’ by the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) and the ‘research category’ winner by European Health Design (EHDC). EDRA and the European Healthcare Design Conference highlight the project’s valuable contribution to environmental design research and its innovative approach to addressing industry challenges. One jury member of the EDRA CORE committee highlighted that HKS’ research on pandemic resiliency “sets a good precedent for the industry,” writing that the study had a large scope and many sources of data. The project, “successfully infused data science into the workflow and delivery.”

HKS’ work was one of only three project teams to receive merit status by EDRA CORE this year. Their evaluation framework helps identify excellent environmental design research that adds value, addresses industry challenges, and promotes innovative thinking. It recognizes the importance of research in practice for all stakeholders involved. A panel of diverse reviewers assessed projects and awarded Merit status to those with high scores. EHD evaluates research according to its innovation, relevance, and practical application. They evaluate work according to its originality and how the work creates innovative methods to address existing issues.

The scale of the research is a differentiator, achieved through key partnerships. In collaboration with HKS and WSP, the U.S Army Medical Command conducted Functional Performance Evaluations (FPEs) of 15 medical treatment facilities (MTFs) within the continental U.S. to understand the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 modifications and to document recommendations for potential facility improvements to create a roadmap for future pandemic preparedness. The facilities we researched totaled over 15 million square feet. A framework comprised of five constructs: safety, flow, surge capacity, staff wellbeing and flexibility, was developed to evaluate all the facilities consistently.

Retrospectives on the global response to COVID-19 pandemic has only begun. HKS’ research adds a large-scale study measuring the overall pandemic response and staff experience across over a dozen facilities—and it is this scope that allows critical insights. As the delta variant ravaged hospitals during 2021, the Center for Disease Control found that capacity reaching 75% or beyond was leading to 12,000 excess deaths per week. It’s not only an audit of surge capacities that’s needed, but a mixed-methods investigation of on-the-ground experience.

We leveraged a mixed-method investigation—an under-tapped mode of inquiry in the design industry. And we supported our investigation using several different modes of analysis to guide our conclusions. We not only studied the factors that contribute to the effectiveness of facility response during the pandemic, but the magnitude of their impacts. Facilities responded differently to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we explored the good and the bad. We found significant differences in the performance by certain factors, as well as the success between sites. After studying these factors, we also researched how facility, operations, and MEP considerations impact the overall effectiveness of facility response.

What did facilities do well, and how can they improve? Using a rule-based sentiment analysis, or a way of establishing the polarity of open-ended responses, we found that facilities developed the infrastructure to quickly mobilize telehealth appointments, creating flexibility for staff rotations, providing visual cues for safe personnel flows, and providing additional space modifications for COVID-19 testing. Many facilities also did not provide the infrastructure necessary for telework, nor did they provide clear policies and leadership in the transition to working from home. Supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) were also lacking. Our findings corroborate the reporting that hospitals were understaffed, which exacerbated poor patient care and staff burnout.

Lessons learned from this study will help to inform how to make existing facilities more resilient, as well as to inform the planning criteria for future capital investments. Here are a few key insights that directly impact how we will approach future facility design and care delivery:

Digital first solutions are challenging the status quo.

Digital health has proliferated across the healthcare industry. Emerging technology blended with physical spaces can help make care more personalized and responsive. Considering which service can be effectively delivered virtually and which cannot also helps to support more nimble and resilient care delivery during a health crisis.

Staff well-being has become table stakes. Clinical spaces must be designed for patient well-being—but also for those who deliver care. Designing for those who administer care is crucial to maintaining a resilient health system that adjusts and evolves over time. Environments and amenities may attract and retain top talent by addressing the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social needs of staff.

Optimized flows are vital for agile care delivery. Implementing agile solutions that allow healthcare to optimize flows – people, equipment, supplies, medication, and information – and avoid bottlenecks are essential to the success of efficient and effective care delivery process that can quickly pivot based on rapidly changing census and care needs.

Communication is key to building trust. Coronavirus pandemic demonstrated disconnect between front-line workers, administrators, and policy makers. Communication from leadership that is both informative and comforting is essential to bridging the chasm and building trust. Empathizing with personal stories of staff can help facilities build stronger and purpose-led teams.

The study is authored by Dr. Deborah Wingler, Dr. Rutali Joshi and Brent Willson from HKS, Dr. Abhishek Bhargava and Nolan Rome and from WSP, in collaboration with Brenda McDermott from the Defense Health Agency. The research team is actively pursuing publication in an academic journal.

Visioning Workshops Inspire Design Excellence at HKS

Visioning Workshops Inspire Design Excellence at HKS

HKS values limitless thinking. This expansive mindset means that on every project, of every typology, scope and scale – whether a neighborhood park or city-wide transit system, elementary school or research university, training facility or world-class sports and entertainment complex – we strive for design excellence.

To inspire excellence on every project, we begin each pursuit with a design charette, or visioning workshop. Visioning workshops bring together diverse experts from throughout HKS in a spirit of collaboration.

Before we draw a single line, researchers; inventors; sustainability professionals; strategic advisors; project managers; leaders in justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; technical specialists; engineers and designers drawn from HKS’ 28 offices around the world work together to imagine the project’s potential for beauty and performance. Every great project starts with a dream.

Integrated Design Process

HKS’ integrated design process involves teamwork between people in multiple disciplines to create buildings and environments that are functional, efficient, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. This process considers all aspects of a design, including the materials used, operations, energy consumption, user experience and community and environmental impact. The goal is to create a comprehensive solution that leverages the strengths of each team member, for more efficient and effective results.

Visioning workshops are essential to our integrated design process. The purpose of a visioning workshop is to gain input from a cross-section of stakeholders, set high-level goals and establish alignment between everyone involved with a project before making any decisions or starting to develop solutions. We want to lead with possibility, to develop hypotheses and opportunities for impact that aren’t obvious.

Visioning is most powerful at the beginning of a project. Talking and listening to each other can help overcome natural limitations established by what we might believe, already know or may have done in the past. By opening a wide-ranging dialogue from the start of a project, we can turn into reality what might have once seemed impossible.

Principles of Design

The discovery process for a visioning workshop involves gathering information, analyzing data, conducting research and identifying key design drivers – such as site analysis, program and operations requirements and sustainability goals – to inform the development of a coherent and compelling design vision that guides the project’s direction.

HKS uses the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Framework for Design Excellence as a basis for examining issues concerning the built environment. The Framework identifies 10 key principles to inspire beautiful, resilient, inclusive designs. These include “Design for Equitable Communities,” “Design for Ecosystems,” and “Design for Economy.”

The first principle is, “Design for Integration.” In describing this principle, AIA notes that, “Good design elevates any project, no matter how small, with a thoughtful process that delivers both beauty and function in balance. It is the element that binds all the principles together with a big idea.”

Visioning workshops focus on defining the “big idea,” or overriding purpose for a project. Developing a narrative for what a design is intended to achieve sets the stage for the work to follow. Storytelling is a powerful force. The act of naming or visualizing something can help bring it into being.

Visioning workshop participants collaborate to identify and document the project’s key values – the programmatic, operational and experiential needs and expectations of the client and project stakeholders. Then they create design guidelines to express those values and they define a set of measures to evaluate project performance.

The art and science of design – the immeasurable delight and measurable outcomes that comprise design excellence – are at the heart of visioning workshops.

Agreeing on a clear, inspiring vision from the outset results in projects that are beautiful and impactful. Examples include Chengdu Phoenix Hill Sports Park in China (designed by HKS and the China Southwest Architectural Design and Research Institute), which features an innovative exterior that honors a local, traditional art form; and HKS-designed Moody Outpatient Center at Parkland Hospital, a public health clinic that supports dignified, uplifting care for people in the Dallas community.

The visioning process enables HKS’ global team to deliver designs that delight the senses and support social, economic and environmental progress, what AIA terms the defining principles of good design in the 21st century.

HKS Research Accelerator Program Explores How Advancing ESG in Design Adds Client Value

HKS Research Accelerator Program Explores How Advancing ESG in Design Adds Client Value

We’re no longer interested in the simple exercise of acknowledging problems. We’re taking action. We’re moving beyond mere awareness by driving progress, alongside our clients, by enriching interactions and promoting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) measures. We’ve joined the United Nations Global Compact, embracing Sustainable Development Goals under the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. But we also have ongoing research to support the bleeding-edge innovation on how to get there.

“The greatest challenges of the 21st century are Design problems. They are not thrust upon us; they are of our making. Fortunately, the solution is also Design. What we are faced with is not a technical challenge, it is a people challenge. HKS’ holistic, integrated, research based ESG is one of our empowerment tools.”

Rand Ekman,
Chief Sustainability Office

HKS supports multiple paths to innovation through research. We offer our talent opportunities to learn and grow by instilling research and providing opportunities to explore, investigate, and evaluate. The Incubator track emphasizes the development of research capabilities, expanding our firm’s knowledge and exploring novel concepts, ultimately enhancing our innovation potential. Building upon incubated work, the Accelerator track aims to generate applicable research and insights, transforming this innovation potential into practical integration and impact for our projects and practices.

Each year we encourage diverse, inquisitive teams to think, synthesize and translate insights into impact, with a focus on new design ideas. Over the past three years, the Incubator/Accelerator research program has supported 29 projects, including 150 HKS employees from various regions. Our firm is differentiated by the scope and breadth of our evidence-based practice areas. And while we aren’t the only AED firm to support research grants, the projects we support are designed to create tools and methods that make an actionable difference in design.

“Better Design, Better Outcomes. Better Research, Better Design. It is that simple. Our research incubator and accelerator programs are designed to democratize research and make room for the limitless thinking that is vital at a time when so much is changing all at once”

Upali Nanda, PhD,
Global Practice Director, Research

Here we’ll focus on our 2022 accelerator projects which are exemplary in showing how ESG is foundational in design. The research questions and methodologies of each project varied greatly, including how to engage with diverse stakeholders and cultivate a sense of belonging, how to improve energy savings and align carbon impacts with client goals, and what to consider in mitigating climate risks and developing a framework for materials transparency. Over the last year of research, here are three key pathways that transcend each effort.

Key Pathways #1: Sustainable practices find cost savings through best practices.

From a bird-eye perspective, the construction and design industry contributes 30% of total global waste and 38% of global carbon dioxide. However, by adopting sustainable construction practices, building operations , and optimizing material selection and transportation, the industry can not only reduce waste and carbon dioxide emissions but also achieve substantial cost savings.

Construction methods vary based on location, affecting both the materials used and their transportation distances. The architecture and engineering (A/E) industry must adapt to the global shift towards carbon neutrality by designing and maintaining carbon-neutral buildings that align with client goals. To achieve this, Miguel Lopez and his team provided design teams with low-embodied-carbon material recommendations and engaged in project-specific building systems and assemblies during the early stages of design. Their assessment tool allows teams to work proactively during the design process to identify and implement carbon reduction strategies and effectively reduce embodied carbon footprints with cost savings in mind.

Adaptive reuse stands out as the most cost-effective approach to sustainable building construction, primarily because it allows for the repurposing of existing structures. This method minimizes the requirement for new materials and reduces construction expenses. By adopting principles of the circular economy, Lisa Adams suggests solutions that are not only sustainable but cost effective. Her team collected data on material usage and sustainable upgrades, utilizing Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which when applied to design, informs decision-making and more efficient resource allocation.

By creatively transforming and retrofitting buildings, adaptive reuse preserves the embodied energy within the existing structure, minimizes waste, and conserves resources. Compared to constructing entirely new buildings, this sustainable practice not only benefits the environment but also generates substantial cost savings for project developers and owners.

Adams’ team developed five key strategies to adopt in the design process—prioritizing adaptive reuse, specifying carbon sinks, designing for reuse, eliminating waste, and carefully selecting materials —to not only reduce embodied carbon but also create cost-saving opportunities and long-term value for clients.—to not only reduce embodied carbon but also create cost-saving opportunities and long-term value for clients.

Amber Wirth led a team that met with experts on MEP systems, collaborating closely to assess data related to various façade strategies employed to optimize greenhouse gas emissions reductions for all-electric buildings. The team delivered strategies that focused on financial benefits by optimizing window-to-wall ratios, improving insulation, using high-performance glazing, designing with solar panels, and combining these elements in an all-electric approach. Leveraging software that assesses the triple bottom line of these design strategies, the team quantified and attributed dollar values to their projects’ social and environmental impacts, a crucial step for clients in their decision-making process.

The research team explored solutions driven by data, such as window-to-wall ratio, to understand potential cost and energy savings. By reimagining prescriptive envelope requirements, more efficient and impactful decisions can be made.

Key Pathways #2: Client engagements are enriched by research that address equity and sustainability.

Sammy Shams and his team applied the Resilience Design Toolkit that was developed in partnership with the AIA during the Incubator program for designing more resilient buildings that reduce risk from climate change. The team studied the project work data of a large hospitality client in Marco Island, Florida, involving a renovation and expansion. Despite the area’s risk of 30-foot storm surges, site visits and design workshops helped the team comprehend and implement resilient design solutions to reduce risks and further refine the toolkit.

Building on our expertise in health design, Hannah Schultz and team created a design validation tool that combines evidence-based design and Safety Risk Assessments (SRA) to enhance existing processes. The tool aligns with client goals and selects suitable design options. When applied to mental and behavioral health projects, it will establish benchmarks, enable data-driven improvements, and leverage an evidence-based approach.

In pursuit of a more inclusive approach to design, Renae Mantooth’s team developed a guide focusing on equity in design, inspiring HKS collaborations for more equitable industry standards. The guide contains activities for project teams, stakeholder engagement, and analysis protocols, all contributing to HKS’ commitment to inclusive and equitable design.

The research team was sponsored by HKS’ education practice. Passionate about providing inclusive and supportive environments for primary, secondary and higher education, they were inspired by HKS projects like Whitefriars Community School in England (pictured above).

Key Pathways #3: across all industries, incorporating ESG throughout the design process is crucial for achieving the greatest impact.

ESG goals transcend the design process, and by embracing them, design solutions strengthen partnerships with clients, ensuring their needs are considered within the context of industry trends and conversations.

“ESG research through the J.E.D.I. lens encouraged us to consider the system with a growth mindset that impacts the choices we make in service of our communities. Research empowered our people to re-evaluate their thought process to affect the making of the built environment.”

Yiselle Santos Rivera,
Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion

Over $40 trillion in global assets under management (AUM) followed ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria, demonstrating a substantial rise in sustainable investment approaches in recent years. This figure underscores the increasing significance of ESG factors in business and investment choices. The topics we’ve addressed through last years’ Accelerators projects—from energy savings, carbon impact alignment, climate risk mitigation, and material transparency to inclusive design for health and well-being—seek to strengthen client partnerships and emphasizes equitable, client-centric projects. These projects contribute to greater social goals by promoting sustainable practices, reducing environmental impact, and fostering healthier spaces.

Team credits:

HKS Guide for Centering Equity in the Design Process​
Mantooth, Renae
Krause, Courtney
Rudd, Zac
Tang, Diana
O’Donnell, Kathleen
Jankowski, Jarod

Design + Safety Risk Assessment Tool Interface Development
Hudson, Roly
Shultz, Hannah
Howell, Nathan
Farrell, Rachael
Brugger, Cory

Resilience Design Feedback Loop Implementation
Fox, Adam
Barton, Amanda
Sorge, Caroline
Shams, Sammy

Designing Interiors for a Circular Economy
Adams, Lisa
Smith, Allison
Gilkey, Amy
Hartman, Dave

Embodied Carbon Case Study
Smith, Allison
Shams, Sammy
Funderburg, Chandler
Pina, Briana
McCann, Michael
Lopez, Miguel Angel

Building Decarbonization through Electrification & Envelope Thermal Performance
Wirth, Amber
Sorge, Caroline
Padmanabha, Shefalika
Brown, Mike
Dailey, Apryl

How Design can Support Social and Emotional Learning

How Design can Support Social and Emotional Learning

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Over the past year and half, we’ve investigated how to improve the well-being of schoolchildren through the intersection of social and emotional learning and the built environment. The timing of our effort couldn’t be more crucial. From existential concerns triggered by climate anxiety to the trauma experienced by gun violence in schools, many school children are understandably experiencing a mental health crisis. This is the context of our research exploring the intersection of social and emotional learning and design.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an approach to education that helps children gain skills outside of typical school subjects such as math, reading, and comprehension. It matters because the approach helps children and adolescents understand and regulate their feelings, communicate with and relate to others, build strong relationships, and make empathetic decisions.

The culmination of our research project is a visual design guide — a library of evidence-based design (EBD) strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments to quickly reference during the design process. Whether the intention is to create an enriched environment, understand the impact design strategies have on students and teachers, or both – the EBD strategy cards are a tool to help create enriched environments that support social and emotional learning.

Our Methods & What We Found

Before creating our visual design guide, we conducted a comprehensive literature review and ­in-depth interviews with primary, middle, and high school teachers. We initially sourced 143 articles, white papers and books, that resulted in 18 evidence-based strategies supported by 102 empirical research studies that have demonstrated outcomes associated with teachers and learners. We then interviewed school teachers who participated in one-hour semi-structured virtual interviews where they elaborated on how they define social and emotional learning, their ideal working environment, and their perceptions of the current school environment in regard to SEL. Here are a few findings from those conversations:

What the Findings Mean

The visual design guide provides a research-informed framework to create spaces that augment and support social and emotional learning. Our guide is intended for stakeholders as they move throughout the design process, and when they are documenting design intent. Those who use our guide are instructed to print out cards, fold them in half, while referencing the comprehensive evidence to provide rationale for design decisions.

The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms – advancing the agenda to provide students with competencies in SEL by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments. Being intentional through design can help attain social and emotional learning goals for the environment . A good school building has spaces for both learning and working and should include a multitude of spaces. A few of the recommendations we suggest in our design guide are to institute:

Why Is This Important?

This work underscores the critical role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in education, especially given the current mental health crisis facing children and adolescents. Our visual design guide emphasizes the need to integrate SEL considerations into the design of learning environments to foster emotional regulation, empathy, and communication skills. By doing so, this visual design guide serves as a valuable tool for designers, offering evidence-based strategies derived from a comprehensive literature review and teacher interviews to positively impact students and teachers in their learning and working spaces.

This report emphasizes that intentional design cues can have a significant impact on the social and emotional well-being of students and educators. It highlights the importance of incorporating a range of design elements, including variety, privacy, sensory control, and support for the whole person, in school buildings. By stimulating diverse affordances within learning environments, educators and designers can help students develop competencies in SEL.

What’s Next

Our next step is implementation. In designing educational facilities to improve K-12 students’ outcomes, researchers and designers will leverage our design guide—a library of evidence-based design strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments—to create and implement better learning and working spaces.

Teachers engage in a variety of work modes and utilize multiple tools to effectively do their job, and the guide can help designers provide a variety of psychological needs met within their working spaces and their students’ learning spaces. The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments.

This work is a product of coalition-based research bringing together the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation (CADRE), Uplift Education, HKS – funded by the ASID Foundation. Next steps for the coalition include an impact study, investigating how the move of a Pre-K-12 school from a dense urban setting devoid of green, open space to a new location with an open quad green setting and enriched interior affordances transform well-being, academic outcomes, and college-readiness for at-risk and first-gen students. Learn more about the coalition.

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The Whole College Athlete: Designing for Success On and Off the Field

The Whole College Athlete: Designing for Success On and Off the Field

The career of a storied professional athlete begins early—with a passion and preternatural skill, neighborhood pickup games and youth sports, and finally, collegiate-level competition. University or college coaches and administrators understand this trajectory, and they’re preparing incoming student athletes for long careers, whether on or off the field. Because, on average, colleges support 20 sports programs—of which only 2% are expected to turn professional after college. It’s just the statistical reality that few athletes will become the next Tom Brady, despite the stories abounding of elite athletes playing longer into their career. This is where the concept of the “whole athlete” comes into play.

The “whole athlete” means supporting innovations for peak performance and the means to support an athlete as a well-rounded student. Today’s student-athletes represent the pinnacle of not only physical, but also mental fitness. At HKS, we’ve leveraged this concept to create guiding design principles for collegiate sports facilities, integrating health facilities and the latest science in sports medicine, brain health, and related fields.

HKS embarked on a research project in 2021 to learn more about leveraging the built environment to enhance athletic performance, recovery, and well-being. An interdisciplinary team including experts from HKS’ Sports & Entertainment and Health practices, and the firm’s Advisory Services group, identified five characteristics of facilities design that support the whole athlete. Such facilities are:

To apply this framework, we reviewed the literature to build on our acute understanding of athletes as an accumulation of experiences, from youth sports up until they step foot on campus. And we’re applying study findings to explore how these experiences intersect with the latest trends in research that bridge healthcare and medicine with facility design.

Facilities at the academic core can bind student athletes from diverse backgrounds to reap the true benefits of youth sports participation—socially, physically, and cognitively. Most origin stories begin with the true benefits of youth sports participation. Before their Hall of Fame careers—and before they stepped foot on a college campus—Tom Brady, Sue Bird, Bo Jackson, and Jim Brown came of age as multi-sport athletes. While there are risks, youth participation in organized sports is generally a net boon to mental health, as summarized by a large systematic review of the literature. Leveraging brain-health-informed environments will continue to help student-athletes in their athletic careers and beyond.

That’s our aspiration, but how do we get there? And how do we first embrace the sheer diversity of student-athletes?

Before Jimmy Butler played for Marquette and then garnered the name “Jimmy Buckets,” he slept on friends’ couches all through high school. In 2014, as the debate around pay and sponsorships first took off, former University of Connecticut basketball star, Shabazz Napier, famously stated that he often went to bed, “starving.” To add context to these anecdotes: many student athletes come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, meaning that inclusive design is a critical complement to supportive policies and practices. Once on campus, student athletes undergo athletic, academic, psychological, and psychosocial transitions—and the uniqueness of these experiences, intersecting with all that’s come in the past, means many require greater resources and coping strategies.

Taking a step back, today’s collegiate athletes differ significantly from those of previous generations: there’s increased professionalism—through sports science resources, academic resources, coaching and training opportunities. This fall, the entering class of Freshman was born in 2005, making these student-athletes digital natives. In all that’s to be considered for how today’s collegiate athletes are different than those in the past, it’s symbolic that an athlete like Paige Bueckers, UConn’s star guard, has 1 million followers on Instagram, a technology didn’t exist as Sue Bird, also a UConn alum, entered the WNBA draft in 2002.

The diversity of student-athlete backgrounds impacts planning decisions for collegiate sports facilities, too. Researchers have found that of 125 Division 1 campuses, only 13% had “athletic academic support programs located in or adjacent to the academic core of the campus.” Athletic support services removed from campuses’ academic core create a greater degree of student-athlete segregation—a clear problem that symbolically and physically removes student-athletes from the broader collegiate community.

Advancing sports medicine means better recovery, better performance, and better long-term health. Consider the following stories. In 2013, the Florida State Seminoles saw an 88% year-over-year drop in injuries because the team adopted wearable technologies from Catapult GPS. And one randomized clinical trial found that patients who received a few weeks of pain reprocessing therapy saw a significant drop in reported chronic back pain. These are advances that have significant implications for today’s student athletes. Designated recovery spaces, such as cold/hot tubs, compression therapy rooms, and foam rolling/stretching areas, can help athletes address muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and promote relaxation after training sessions or competitions.

The average collegiate athlete spends 40 hours per week in athletic-related activities—and moderate and vigorous exercise makes up a significant portion of this time. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that Americans get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week—but only  1 in 4 Americans meets these goals, according to the CDC. There’s a healthy balance to be had—and while the average American is more likely to be overcome by a sedentary lifestyle, athletes are more concerned with burnout.

As competitive athletes push the body and mind, they also push research to show the outer bounds of what the body and mind can achieve. On this front, a research question would be: what is the body’s limit with intense exertion? NIRS is a technology that measures hemodynamic activity, or changes in blood flow, throughout the brain which shows that athletes may reach physical and cognitive exhaustion after too much exercise. Consider the extreme exertion of a marathon or a long-distance competitive swim. Researchers found that over the course of the race, participants saw 6 percent in grey matter atrophy. For student-athletes, this fact carries implications for design.

Over the past year, we’ve explored brain health in connection to office workers, but the concept has far broader implications, from college to the workforce and beyond. Cognitive fitness for athletes is a key concern that needs attention to avenues for not just mental health services, but proactive social health strategies, opportunities for creative expression, rest and recovery, and socialization.

Athletes need access to healthy choices, and design strategies to make the healthy choice the easy choice. To determine where this happens, Point-of-decision design, a “person-centric” construct provides personas and journey mapping to determine key areas. Through this lens, on-site dining and nutrition counseling provides pre-training nutrition and post-training replenishment of glycogen stores, hydration, anti-inflammation and recovery nutrition.

Recovery is pursued in tandem with better performance. Beyond medicine and nutrition, you may have read about virtual reality capabilities and bio-mechanic analyses in sports: transitioning a batter’s swing, a swimmer’s stroke, and a defenseman’s slapshot into data for next-level athletic performance. Efficiency translates into a faster time or higher shooting percentage, because altogether, each new advance means a more holistic and tailored approach for each athlete.

We’ve discussed a holistic approach to today’s athletes, and recent advents in sports medicine, and we apply these insights into the built environment.

Importantly, we’re looking to integrate principles of enriched environments to athletic facilities. Space must be integrated at multiple levels. Versatile facilities provide for multiple student-athlete needs, but without planning considerations, students may become isolated from the broader academic community. Facility design should go hand-in-hand with planning. Several colleges and universities are integrating sustainability and academic goals into the design of sports facilities. Arizona State University joined the Green Sports Alliance, pursuing zero-waste status. The Sun Devil Fitness Complex nudges athletes and visitors alike toward green behaviors, while leveraging sustainable design features.

But taking a step back for context, less than 2% of student athletes go pro, but most student-athletes either want to continue their academic studies after graduation or leverage transferable skills gained from athletic participation for a career. At the University of Florida, Trinity Thomas recently tied the record for the most perfect 10s in NCAA gymnastics history. Watch an interview here where she discusses how she got into gymnastics, and how she looks to apply a major in physiology and kinesiology to a career in sports medicine.

Consider the NCAA GOALS study, with the most-recent iteration produced in 2020. Two-thirds of student athletes wanted to pursue graduate studies, and a vast majority reported that collegiate-sports participation provided transferrable skills to future careers.

And thinking about the long term, we must focus on brain health. Design principles related to brain health brings together student and athletic needs—quiet zones, study spaces, and technology integration.

Thinking about mental well-being and brain health, the placement of facilities and academic support systems should serve to integrate student-athletes, not isolate them. In 2020, the NCAA GOALS study revealed that feeling a sense of belonging is on the rise among student athletes—although there is room for improvement. Today’s student athletes are treated uniquely but distinctly from the rest of the student body. Student athletes have unique needs, but they also want better integration with their campus peers.

Thinking about mental well-being and brain health, the placement of facilities and academic support systems should serve to integrate student-athletes, not isolate them.

All dimensions of athletic facilities begins with planning—and student athletes are a population integral to this vision. HKS’ UC San Diego North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood creates truly mixed-use experiences by first understanding how students live and learn. The campus is the largest living and learning community in the University of California system and promotes well-being and sustainability through the integration of living space, retail space, dining experiences, and outdoor and public spaces.

In all, collegiate sports facilities are advancing by incorporating innovative designs and features that support the holistic needs of student athletes, including their academic, physical, and mental well-being. These modern facilities prioritize accessibility, inclusivity, and sustainability while integrating advanced technology and resources to optimize athletic performance and recovery. By creating comprehensive and adaptable environments, collegiate sports facilities are elevating the student athlete experience and fostering success both on and off the field.

We Need to Break the Workstation

We Need to Break the Workstation

For decades, workplace headlines have abounded with doomsday depictions of the open office. “Is the open office dying?”The open-plan office is dead. Do this instead.” “The truth about open offices.” “The immortal awfulness of open plan workplaces.

Most of these stories catalogue heaps of research pointing to lower productivity, less collaboration, and higher distraction. But these arguments are not addressing the real culprit head-on. The office struggles because the physical building block of the workplace – the workstation – is trying to be all things, all the time, for everyone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the combination of a desk, a monitor, and a chair near other desks, monitors, and chairs. The problem arises when that combination is seen as a default, affording all things from creative collaboration to individual focus to virtual connection to rest and recovery all at once.

That’s asking a lot of this one humble design feature.

It’s where we tend to spend most of our time at the office, and it’s where we often do more than one task at the same time. We have a workstation addiction. With that, our workstation is overextended, and it is multi-tasking as much as we are.

Because the open office is the standard for most contemporary office spaces, focusing first on what’s not working with the open office workstation is critical. It’s the linchpin that needs to be pulled before the rest of the workplace can be remade and revitalized for purposeful intent.

Importantly, most doomsday stories about the office confuse the distinction between the physical description of design elements with what those design elements provide for users. So instead of the workstation serving as the default physical building block of the office, what would happen if people were the focus? This design conversation would then change from being based on physical solutions first to one that considers what employees workspaces signal to them – i.e., what each space affords.

Instead of the workstation serving as the default physical building block of the office, what would happen if people were the focus?

A Lack of Evolution

The workstation is the hangover from the industrial era, where employees were interchangeable work points on a factory floor. While this factory floor work was centered on the value of employees’ production of physical goods, this model hasn’t meaningfully evolved much further for most organizations to this day.

The workplace has continued to use industrial era management techniques to define what the office should look and work like, without considering what new types of work might require. This thinking evolved from the iconic SC Johnson Administrative Building where office workers at desks in the open plan could be surveilled by management.

The design of the SC Johnson Administrative Building enabled surveillance by management. Source: Frank Lloyd Foundation

As repetitive tasks and access to information increasingly migrate toward AI, the value of humans is in knowledge work, especially creativity and innovation. So why do we continue to default to a model that was designed for mass production and surveillance? That open office was designed around space and management to contain the work; it never was designed to enhance or even enable freedom of thought.

Complicating the situation is the recent pandemic-related shift in how we approach thinking about the office. The pandemic has led us to rethink how and where we are able to get work done (essentially anywhere, thanks to technology), and for some, the purpose of the office, but it hasn’t led us to collectively rethink the workstation – that is, until now. That’s what we at HKS are doing today.

The Workstation as a Destructive Default

When most employees enter their open-plan office, they seek out their workstation first, whether assigned or unassigned. Why? Because the workstation has become default, and for many, it has always been default. In other words, we have become reliant on our workstation to do all the things we need to do when we’re in the office. It’s our home base and we’ve become dependent on it.

When we focus, ideate, connect socially, co-create, plan, virtually collaborate, rest, and reflect, among so many other things at our workstations, we also do those things around our coworkers. This means that one employee’s behavioral intent is often at odds with another’s nearby. One’s unplanned, casual collision is another’s distraction. One’s deep thinking, focused work is another’s isolation. One’s accountability is another’s surveillance, lack of agency, and lack of trust.

In our collaborative study with the Center for BrainHealth, we found that managing distractions was a key challenge for focused work in an open office environment, and that 6 out 10 employees were dissatisfied with the lack of environmental control. We also found that 71% of our total observed workplace activities at the office were happening at our workstations – including focused work, virtual collaboration, interacting in person, and even cognitive breaks.

Unsurprisingly, this all-embracing perception of what the workstation affords us enables multitasking. 43% of our employees reported frequent multi-tasking. Moreover, multitasking was related to lower ratings of effectiveness and even to increased burnout.

These findings are not revelatory in themselves. An affordance-driven, rather than a physical design-driven, perspective of the workstation helps us understand how we’ve placed too many responsibilities on one solution, and where they are at odds. It also helps us understand how our workstations are multi-tasking right alongside us.

The result is our collective concept of the ‘workstation’ that has become untenable and unfocused.

71% of our workplace activities at the office happened at workstations

The Rest of the Office

Just as the workstation can’t be all things all the time and still be effective, the office as a whole will likely not be able to be all things for all people. The office is part of a larger work ecosystem – ideally, a system of intentional and distinct parts that work together across different spaces, often globally and virtually.

Of course, where we work matters because not all environments are suitable for all tasks. If the intent of those different spaces is distinct, clearly communicated, and legible, we can envision more suitable journeys throughout a workday for employees struggling with distraction, multitasking, and agency.

And when we start to consider our work as happening in a larger ecosystem of spaces that afford different things, we might be able to add valuable nuance to the growing number of terms that fall flat due to their inherent overgeneralization (see: hybrid work, flex work, remote work, return to work, return to office, post-pandemic workplace).

A hypothetical journey over the course of an intentionally planned work day

If this discussion were happening decades ago, we might be able to get away with small nudges for what the workstation’s role was in the office. But now, the workstation concept is far too historically ingrained in our work culture, resulting in a bad habit that is challenging to fix.

One of our brain’s superpowers is the ability to learn and form concepts, and to use them to predict how our bodies will interact with our environment. The longer we keep reinforcing and using those concepts, the more powerful they become. When we see something resembling a workstation, that concept will be activated, as will our long history of associated behaviors and habits.

If we want to break the workstation addiction we have to fundamentally change the concept of the workstation – so that instead of a “station” to anchor all work activities, clear affordances are seen in the many work environments that an office provides, empowering workers to align their intent with where and when they can do their best work, depending on role, task, personality and unique sensory needs.

In the next installments, we’ll show how we’re going to break the concept of the workstation and what we can remake in its place. Here’s a hint: Think again about that time when you’re first walking into the office. Let’s say you want to settle in, orient yourself while planning your day, or maybe just crash for a moment with a coworker while checking email. Instead of heading to your default workstation, you don’t, because you do not see one. Instead, you see distinct spaces dedicated to serving your needs in that moment. What’s more, when you head to those spaces, you’ll be around coworkers engaged in activities conducive to, not at odds with, your own.

AGI North American Headquarters

Case Study

AGI North American Headquarters A Design that Attracts and Connects Top Talent

Naperville, Illinois, USA

The Challenge

AGI is a global leader in the planning, engineering and manufacturing of agricultural systems and solutions for fertilizer, seed, grain, feed and food. For the company’s new North American headquarters, it hoped to attract top talent through great amenities and an environment that would connect employees to the firm’s mission: to supply the world’s food infrastructure while enriching the lives of AGI employees, customers, shareholders and communities.

An added challenge: AGI had seven months from hiring HKS to a move-in date. The design team had to balance an aggressive design and delivery schedule with COVID-era supply chain disruption and long-term client objectives.

The Design Solution

To deliver the project on time and on budget, the HKS design team quickly convened with our consultants and contractor to align the design process with procurement and supply chain restraints. Rather than traditional schematic design and design development presentations, the design team led weekly work sessions that prioritized decision making to align with procurement and construction schedules. This approach freed the design team to focus on aesthetic and material quality while meeting AGI’s budget and schedule goals.

The interior design connects AGI’s headquarters employees to their colleagues and clients in the field through experiential storytelling. Materials including reclaimed wood, corrugated metal, leather and suede allude to AGI’s agrarian roots. Large format, stylized black and white photography adorns the walls of the central community space, communicating AGI’s core brand and global reach in a space dedicated to building stronger corporate culture.

To attract and retain talent, AGI prioritized design for well-being. Informed by criteria included in LEED, WELL and Fitwel certifications, HKS created a design for well-being matrix. This new tool enabled the design team to advise our client on which design strategies best aligned with AGI’s goals, schedule and budget criteria. The headquarters offers plentiful views of nature, biophilic elements, and encourages walking to promote better health.

The Design Impact

Since its move, AGI reports that the office culture improved almost immediately as the company witnessed greater collaboration across multiple departments. Employee headcount showed continuous growth within the first three months of occupancy and is projected to increase, realizing the firm’s objective to recruit top talent.

Project Features


HKS Receives AIA Michigan 2023 Unbuilt Award for Community-BLOC

Healing Loneliness: Six Ways to Design for Social Connection and Community

Healing Loneliness: Six Ways to Design for Social Connection and Community

This story first appeared on Psychology today. 

In a time of hyper-connection and communication, recent surveys find that approximately half of U.S. adults are experiencing loneliness and lacking connection. This can increase risks of premature illness and death at levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

For this reason, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has issued a public advisory calling the American people to this “urgent public health issue.” Murthy lists “design the built environment to promote social connection” as a part of the first pillar of his advisory. Julianne Holt-Lunstad was the scientific chair of Murthy’s report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” Nearly two years ago, Holt-Lunstad and I published a piece, “Is Your Environment Making You Lonely?” In it, we explored ways to cultivate connection using the built environment, policies, and programming.

Today’s post focuses on one of the central themes we discussed then–shared spaces, or what Ray Oldenburg called third places open to all people to gather, such as cafes, parks, and libraries. I discuss why shared space is so essential and offer six design guidelines to help any built environment feel more conducive to fostering social connection.

Six Design Guidelines for Social Health

When I think of design for connection, I often think of the Italian piazzas I visited with my mother after my first year of architecture school. They are open to all people (accessibility), an inviting hub of activity (activation), with warm natural clay bricks and stones, often ivy tracing the walls (nature), with the choice of whether you want to sit in the center by a fountain (choice) perhaps, or under an umbrella on the edges (human scale); and they have a history and sense of place unique to each one (sense of place), carved into the place itself. Taken together, those make the six design guidelines for social health. I discuss these in more detail below.


Creating places that are inclusive, safe, and walkable (stroller-able, wheelchair friendly, etc.) for the people who will use it is the essential first ingredient. This includes creating libraries, pocket parks, and gathering spaces that are an easy-to-reach part of the local social fabric


We are hardwired to be drawn to and soothed by nature, a phenomenon called biophilia. Nature, specifically urban green space, has been linked to reducing loneliness, increasing sociability, and improving mental health. Infusing nature, greenery, and park space into our neighborhoods are essential to getting people outside their homes, lingering with one another.


Ideal shared spaces are vibrant and have some type of activation. By placing seating, refreshments, and amenities in the path of natural travel and circulation, we can create liveliness through purposeful collisions.


We each have different set points for our need for simulation or mental rest, and these needs change throughout our days, and lives and based on our tasks or activities. We can customize our space to our needs by providing options and adaptability.

Human Scale

We evolved in community with others, using our space to keep ourselves and the collective safe, so we are naturally drawn to places that provide a sense of scale or fit with our bodies. This includes a preference for edge conditions, such that we’re drawn to booth seating or leaning against the wooden porch railing. This includes creating nodes or nooks within a larger space, such as a front porch, as a welcome place before entering a home or a small waiting area to ease you into your child’s daycare and allow you to bump into other parents.

Sense of Place

A sense of place helps remind us of who we are and what matters to us and fosters a feeling of belonging. This ties to the idea that a place can create a sense of “ambient belonging” about how the built environment signals to others whether or not they are welcome here. The place is imbued with values, culture, and meaning, and a sense of place recognizes that significance.