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For Better Architecture, Think Active

Wellness is the goal in today’s office designs and active designs will deliver.


Collaborating with Arup on their new workplace in Boston, the Dyer Brown collaboration with Arup for their new Boston workplace used a blend of lounge furniture and bar-height tables to completely transform the work experience. Photo: Darrin Hunter, courtesy Dyer Brown

Drawing strongly on the larger societal movement toward a culture of wellness, active-office design is changing the way employees interact with their environment by merging and prioritizing their personal, physical, and emotional needs, along with the productivity and functionality of their work. This comprehensive approach to employee well being in the workplace also benefits companies/managers. A recent, influential study by the Global Wellness Institute, Miami ( found that managers who value employee health and happiness saw decreased absenteeism and significant increases in productivity.

Meeting millennial generation’s wellness needs through active design is becoming a necessary and effective investment in workplaces and in schools, hotels, multifamily properties, and any industries where goals include fostering healthy and welcoming facilities. It also challenges architects to incorporate wellness activities directly into their design solutions from the beginning.

Inventive, functional, and individualized active design can be integrated at any organizational level, creating spaces that add a healthy twist to the increasingly true notion that people will be living where they work and working where they live. Consider these ideas:

Rethink how spaces are used. By strategically laying out programmatic areas based on activities, architects encourage building occupants to walk, climb stairs, and move more, all day long. Occupants choose the places and spaces that best suit their moods or tasks. In office settings, this is called activity-based working (ABW), where employees don’t just sit at a desk but shift locations based on function. This approach fosters wellness, improves space utilization, and enhances occupant experience.

Variety is the spice of life. By expanding occupant choice for locations, spaces, and furnishings, architects maximize opportunities for physical activity throughout the day. Collaborating with Arup on their new workplace in Boston, Dyer Brown used a blend of lounge furniture and bar-height tables to completely transform the experience of daily work, regular meetings, and informal huddles. The various postures, heights, and movements help employees stay focused and invigorated, while providing an opportunity to take a break and reset when needed.

Workspace flexibility helps employees stay focused and invigorated, while providing an opportunity to take a break and reset when needed.

Destination spaces encourage active work. Successful case studies demonstrate that destination spaces are favored by building occupants who move around. Sunny windows by the stairs and open-air terraces, for example, are delightful places to visit. So is the lobby café. Where the traditional office model would allocate prime spaces to rarely used boardrooms or C-suite offices, architects instead can encourage occupant travel—enough to have a positive impact on health—by organizing the plan to locate communal or free-address spaces in those desirable spots.

Follow the sun. Studies indicate that the best way to encourage occupant movement is to strategically exploit windows and sunlight. Harvard Business Review recently reported on a convincing study of hundreds of U.S. workers by consultant Future Workplace (“The #1 Office Perk? Natural Light,” by Jeanne C. Meister, 9-3-18), concluding the number one feature of an effective workplace is availability of natural light and outdoor views. Use those two elements to prioritize destinations that boost circulation in any building typology.

When some facility owners hear the term active design, they immediately think of product solutions, such as sit-stand desks. It’s the architects’ opportunity to encourage clients to go beyond those easy (and valuable) concepts and think about how architectural elements that anchor the space can completely transform activity patterns and movement inside their buildings. That’s the fun part, too: Reimagining architecture to meet wellness and lifestyle aspirations of emerging generations while also serving the health needs of an aging workforce.

Ashley L. Dunn, AIA, is director of workplace for Dyer Brown, Boston ( She has completed projects ranging from 4,000 to 400,000 sq. ft., taught at the Boston Architectural College as an adjunct faculty member, and is a committee member with the Boston Society of Architects. A graduate of the Univ. of Tennessee, Dunn has been with Dyer Brown for almost 15 years and is the youngest director in the firm’s 50-yr. history.

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