When one thinks of all the aspects of designing or remodeling an office, usually the “health” of the space isn’t on the top 10 list of things to be concerned with. But, did you know that there is actually a science devoted to the health of buildings? The study of Bau-Biology (the study of the life of a building) dates back to the 1950s after WWII-when fast, inexpensive construction was the norm. Occupants of tract housing and office buildings started becoming ill with no apparent cause. However, the cause was found to be off-gassing from toxins and chemicals used in the new building materials (plastics, MDF, veneers, nylons, polyesters), textiles and air-tight construction that allowed no ventilation. So, how does Bau-Biology play into 2009 office design? Well, eco-friendly and sustainability not-withstanding, designing a space that takes into the account the health of the occupants not only decreases sick days, but helps increase productivity, efficiency AND help saves energy costs!
I use what I call Integrative Lifestyle Design (ILD) when designing spaces. ILD takes into account how the space will be used, who will be using the space and how to maximize efficiency of both. When (re)designing an office (or cubicle) one must first determine what is staying (this includes all old papers!), color scheme, space-planning and accessory placement.
***ILD is the fusion of Eastern (Feng Shui) and Western (eco-friendly/healthy) design principles to create a unique, supportive and healthy space for all occupants. ***
No matter what the project is, a thorough purge must take place. For the office this means going through files, office supplies, drawers, furniture and your email. The Japanese have even made this “purging” into a holiday (oosooji) that takes place at the end of every year so as not to bring “dirt from the old year into the new-even school children take part with a thorough purging of old papers and a cleaning of their desks. For furniture, accessories, pictures and/or un-needed office supplies, see if you can donate them to a school, non-profit or even a company rummage sale. Once you’ve done a purge, do a thorough cleaning-natural, eco-friendly cleaners please. You don’t want to do all this great cleansing and then load up the space with chemicals.
***Carpeting is the #1 indoor air pollutant, followed by paint. Carpeting made from fibers derived from petrochemicals can off-gas up to 5 years. Paint can off-gas up to 18 months. ***
Next up is floor and wall-coverings. The key here is to choose items that are NO or LOW VOC (volatile organic compound) which is the chemicals and toxins that off-gas. For flooring options, hard surfaces are better as they are easier to maintain and a healthier choice for your space. Think tile, hardwood (or engineered wood), linoleum, rubber (also a GREAT sound deadener and less stress when standing) or marble. An accent/area rug can be used for color, warmth and to create a “soft” surface to trap sound so it doesn’t “echo” in the space. If you must have wall-to-wall carpet, look for wool (which also self-extinguishes if a fire breaks out!) or other natural fiber. Make sure to get RUBBER padding as this will help extend the life of the carpet, ease stress when standing and if carpet gets damaged, you only have to replace the portion of the padding that was damaged.
***There are great strides being made in the manufacturing of carpet (it’s also a large contributor to landfills). Carpeting made from recycled plastic bottles to paper, recycling old carpeting & padding into new padding, strides are being made to “green” this industry.***
For wall-covering options, paint is the easiest, quickest and most cost efficient choice. All paint manufacturers have a low or no VOC option-all you have to do is ask for it. VOCs in paint include anti-microbial, quick drying agents that give the room that “new paint” smell. If using wallpaper, try to find some that is made from a natural fiber or is recycled. You also need to use a non-toxic adhesive to stop off-gassing. If in doubt, ask.
I use Feng Shui principles when laying out any space-plan, but the main tip is to plan the room around the most important item of furniture. In this case, it’s the desk. The desk should be placed in the Power Point position. This is the DIAGONAL CORNER from the entryway into the space. This is the most psychologically secure position of the room. The desk should face INTO the space-not looking out a window or at a wall. The WORST location for the desk is directly in line with the door/entryway. In Feng Shui terms this is called the “death position” and you don’t want that! This is due to the person sitting at the desk being vulnerable with each person passing the door; there is no security in this location.
***You want to have the desk facing IN the room so the person sitting at the desk can see anyone entering (again security). You also want a solid wall behind the chair for support and security-no window-so you don’t have to worry about people passing behind you. ***
Next, make sure the office has an efficient lay-out. Is everything you need easily accessible? Can you open drawers and file cabinets easily? Can you walk through the office with out tripping over, stepping over or bumping into anything? If not, change it. Bruises, cuts and irritation at moving an item to reach another item causes stress which isn’t good on any level. For placement of accessories and furniture, see the paragraphs on Feng Shui.
A quick Feng Shui history-(from my book, “Designing the Life of Your Dreams from the Outside In”): Feng shui is the 5000 yr old Chinese science that focuses on living in harmony with your environment or how you interact with your surroundings through your furniture arrangement, color scheme and accessories and collections choices. These choices can either block or improve your energy (chi). When energy flows freely, life is fabulous, things get finished on time, and you feel happy and eager to learn new things. When energy is blocked, you feel overwhelmed, unhappy and drained.
I use the Western school (Black Hat Sect) of Feng Shui, which uses a tool called a Bagua Board to help with the layout of a space. Bagua is a Chinese word that translated means an “8-sided figure” or octagon shaped. This figure is then divided into segments, like a pie, with a center piece-giving you nine areas. Think of a tic-tac-toe board. These nine areas are then assigned names, colors, shapes and an element that corresponds to an assigned life area. The nine life areas are: Career/Life Path, Knowledge/Spirituality, Family, Wealth/Abundance, Success/Fame/Luck, Relationships, Creativity/Kids, Helpful People/Travel, and Health/Well-Being. The Bagua board can be used to space plan, accessorize and plan your color scheme.
In using and applying the Bagua board to your space, line up the bottom row (Knowledge/Spirituality, Career/Life Path and Helpful People/Travel) with the entryway wall of the room. First, draw the floor plan of your room or “bird’s eye view,” including the doorway and windows, and then plot/draw the corresponding life areas around the perimeter. Still a little confused? Stand in the entryway of your room and look INTO the space. If the door/entry is in the LEFT corner looking in, you enter the room from the Knowledge/Spirituality area. If you enter the room from the CENTER of the entryway wall, you enter the room from the Career/Life Path area. Lastly, if you enter the room from the RIGHT corner, you enter the room from the Helpful People/Travel area. Then you can plot out the rest of the room with the Bagua. See what “areas” need to be worked on, or what areas you’d like to work on. You will analyze furniture placement, accessories and/or piles of clutter. Once you get the concept of the Bagua and how to properly line up the grid, you will be able to work on any space and be able to identify the corresponding life area.
Now that you have the Bagua board plotted out on your floor plan, you can then “activate” these areas by using the element, color, shape, item or direction that is associated with that particular life area (i.e. pink hearts can be used in the Relationship area or a coin dish can be placed in Wealth/Abundance). See below:
Here’s an example: One of my client’s is a busy doctor and his office reflects that…can you say piles of paperwork and medical books EVERYWHERE? Although walking into the room causes me to hyperventilate, he states that he “know where everything is.” It should be noted that the office is in RELATIONSHIP area of the home’s floor plan, therefore clutter and chaos in this area can have an impact on all legal relationships (romantic and business). Now, I didn’t want to make his office a shrine to his ROMANTIC relationship, but adding some pictures of he and his wife is appropriate. The office will be painted a red-orange color to accent the EARTH element of the RELATIOSHIP area. The current accessories that decorate the office (college diplomas, family pictures and other souvenirs from travels) are staying, although being moved to their appropriate areas according to the Bagua. We are moving the pictures of him and his wife to the RELATIONSHIP area, moving the photos of his children to the CREATIVITY/KIDS area, and his Mom to the FAMILY area.
You can also use the Bagua to help pick out your office color scheme. Do you want a better relationship with clients, co-workers and vendors? Pick from the RELATIONSHIP (red/earth-tones) and HELPFUL PEOPLE areas (grays/whites/metallics). Work in a bank or other financial institution? Look to the WEALTH area (purples/greens/black/metallics). Work for a non-profit? I’d choose from the SUCCESS (red), CREATIVITY (white/metallic) and HELPFUL PEOPLE (grays/white) areas. This can also be used in helping to pick out a color scheme for branding and logo design. Remember that there are shade, tints and tones of ALL colors and that red, doesn’t necessarily mean Candy Apple Red. Also remember that color can be brought in through accessories (metal frames) and furniture (wood desk, metal file cabinet) and not just paint.
Other tips to help make your office more “healthy” are to:
– Make use of any natural light that enters the space. This is good for morale and helps in the production of melatonin in our bodies (lack of this is cause of the SADD disorder). Strategically placed mirrors will help bring this light throughout the space.
– Hang/place plants by computers, copiers and printers. All emit EMF (electromagnetic fields) and the copier and printer toner also off-gasses which we breathe in. Plants such as spider plants help detoxify the air. You should ideally have 1 plant for every 100 sq feet of space to help clean the air!
– Only have accessories/pictures that are positive and supportive of your company mission statement. Anything else can be confusing, and just add to mental clutter.
– Make sure everyone has an ergonomically sound chair for them to sit on to encourage proper posture.
– Use eco-friendly, natural cleaners.
– Make sure every space has task lighting to cut down on eyestrain, and that computer monitors have a screen to cut down on glare.
With all of these “quick” tips, you and your office mates will not only have a beautiful, productive space in which to work, but one that benefits the health of all who enter!