Design not landing? Bring in the neurologist.

NBBJ did the research: a delight-driven space improves brain optimization and more.

When determining the value of a space, decision-makers have traditionally examined the potential through a quantitative lens that focuses solely on metrics like cost per square foot, cost per person, and so on. That data is important; however, new research shows that to create an environment that draws people in—and keeps them coming back—it’s important to study other aspects as well. Some of which can be more difficult to assess.

That’s where the design firm NBBJ comes in. In their words, they “…harvest insights from social science, neuroscience, materials science, and other fields to improve the design of buildings and cities.” Our co-founder Kathleen recently had the opportunity to connect with Andrea Vanecko, the Corporate Market Lead and innovation champion at NBBJ, about the firm’s research projects and philosophy toward design. Whether you’re in the process of pitching to the C-suite or looking for ways to improve your building, this conversation will spark inspiration and offer new insights into the science of creating a delight-driven space.

KATHLEEN: In the current economic climate, what is your perspective on what developers can do with the capital and the property inventory that they have?

ANDREA: What I love most and take very seriously is the responsibility to our client base to ensure they are spending their money mindfully to create an environment that’s timeless and sustainable—that’s healthy for our world. The significance of our work in terms of environmental impact has become a great passion of mine.

I got into this profession because I think that space and environments matter. I’ve been doing this for a few decades, and I’m excited about all the new possibilities. Many of the agendas we were trying to move forward with pre-Covid weren’t getting a lot of traction—for example, talking about the quality of a space, and how that’s important—like how it can enhance performance. Suddenly, we have an audience for them.

When we get in front of the C-suite, it’s very much driven by metrics of quantity per square foot, cost per person, cost per square foot, and so on. Recently, we’ve been noodling on how to capture this quality metric, and we came up with a way of doing it. NBBJ has been fortunate to partner with Dr. John Medina, who is a developmental molecular biologist. He’s been a Fellow in our office for about ten years now, and we asked him to join us to study the impact of space on the brain. Based on his research, we came up with a way to measure four key areas that Dr. Medina states are significant ways to elevate executive function and enhance performance: nature, daylight, variety, and socialization.

We took those four areas and added three categories underneath each one of them for a total of twelve main criteria. We then took some of our own finished projects and went back and measured those, ultimately creating a metric that said this is how those spaces performed based on these standards. We call this the “delight factor.” And there are a lot more criteria than just these four! But if you work within these four, you’re 90% there.

One of the things we did was create a comparison that showed two spaces that were identical in terms of cost per person and cost per square foot, but the delight score between the two spaces was completely different. So, we’re finally getting to the value for a client.

“No one is asking what quality of space they need, and that's where the real value is.”

It’s not about how much space—and that’s usually the first question. No one is asking what quality of space they need, and that’s where the real value is. Dr. Medina talks about predictive coding. It’s like anticipating something either negative or positive, and that’s where the delight is—you’re anticipating a really great thing, and that automatically sets you up with a platform for enhanced performance. We don’t want to do away with quantitative data but combine it with qualitative data to get the whole picture of the value.

KATHLEEN: I love that! I recently listened to a podcast featuring Jeremy Meyerson. He is a design activist, and he had this great quote. “We’ve had technology-led offices, we’ve had real estate-led offices, and we’ve even had design-led offices… What we really haven’t had yet are people-led offices.“ I feel like that’s exactly what you’re saying here and I’m curious—what are some of the needle movers you think that actually create measurable delight?

ANDREA: Let’s start with variety. Lower ceilings are better for heads-down focus work. Higher ceilings are better for inspiration. Consider a variety of types of spaces to work in and a variety of settings. Next is nature. When we even see the color green, our minds release stress. Ask—how much green is there, is there any natural light, and what is the distance to the outside? Then there’s socialization—the visibility of your coworkers and the possibility of meeting non-coworkers outside of your team.

We also created a bonus category we call “the wow factor.” I think there are opportunities in buildings and spaces that aren’t quite within those four categories but are interesting, compelling, moving and emotional. We score the wow factor by giving it a two, a five, or a ten. A two is when you experience something that makes you say, “Oh, that was really cool,” and it stays with you for twenty minutes or so. A five is when you’ve had an experience and talked about it when you went home that night. And a ten is when you want to go back and see it again.

KATHLEEN: You’re making me reflect on our own space at The Shop. I often say we’re a design-first organization. When I read our reviews, people usually talk about how cool the space is, but they mention that last. What comes first is how they were greeted and how kind people were to them. In this case, that wow factor is something different. It’s more experiential. Is that in line with what you’re describing, too?

ANDREA: Yes—how you treat your employees is part of the socialization area. I think that’s huge. We have a matrix sheet that will help guide companies as they figure out their process, programs, HR attitudes and hospitality opportunities.

KATHLEEN: I recently asked Karen Braitmayer, the founder of accessibility consulting firm Studio Pacifica, if it costs more to do this. And how are you convincing the C-suite that it’s worth it? Well, she’s in a wheelchair, and she said that when folks asked her about this, she said, “It’s a little hard for a CEO that is sitting across from me to say, ‘I don’t think we want to support people like you.’”

When you’re talking about all of these areas that folks could be leaning into, planning for, and designing around, is there an added cost to it that’s different from the traditional build-out? Where are you finding there are obstacles to getting folks to agree to this way of thinking?

ANDREA: We have fifteen years of research, and that’s what we felt we needed to go to the C-suite with. This isn’t a guess. Research has proven that someone’s brain responds differently in conditions that score higher on the “delight scale.” It elevates their ability to process at an executive level. And, there are numerous studies that confirm that happier workers are more productive workers. So there’s a business case for investing in quality space as well.

I’d love for this strategy to become like The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Years ago, we didn’t have those standards, but now it’s just what you do—you design to ensure that you accommodate everyone. We want all design firms to ask why their space has a low score and to figure out what to do about it. So, it potentially could be no extra cost at all. Sometimes, it could be extra cost, but the justification is that it leads to improved performance.

We’re also not saying every space must get a 100% score. These are just guidelines. The goal is to score somewhere between 50 to 100. The average office space probably scores around 60-70. Some of the better ones are scoring 70-80. When we scored one of our projects, it was in the high 70s range, which surprised us. Two were in the middle 80s, and one got a 90. You might have limitations that stop you from getting to 100, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try as hard as you can to lift everything up.

“We can’t let naysayers or people who are risk-averse, or afraid to change, slow our momentum.”

KATHLEEN: One last question—what are you most hopeful about?

ANDREA: I’m most hopeful about the openness to investigate change right now in our marketplace. We are developing new metrics, systems and processes that work better for all of us because the old system is overused and broken.

In combination with that, I’m also very hopeful for the next generation that’s coming in. They are fascinating problem solvers who are looking at things in a completely different way than we did. We must help them as they create new processes and techniques and continue to help fuel that momentum. Those two things combined make me feel like it’s an exciting future. We just need to stay at it. We can’t let naysayers or people who are risk-averse, or afraid to change, slow our momentum.

We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Andrea for sharing her expertise and insights with us. To learn more about NBBJ’s qualitative data measurement system, check out their case study here. Want to continue the conversation? Reach out to our team here.

For more than 30 years, Andrea has been recognized for her forward-thinking approach to workplace design. Andrea combines a passion for creating inspiring workplaces with a solid grasp of business and operational issues. She partners with major corporations—including Starbucks, the Port of Seattle, Microsoft, and the University of Washington—to change how they look at their workplace and develop design solutions that accommodate the next generation of workers