Coffee machines and ping pong tables may well be high on the list when it comes to attracting millennials to offices. But analysts have found the group’s number one priority is green space – a term that can include everything from landscaped rooftops and terraces and enclosed areas transformed into ‘winter gardens’ to intelligent use and placement of indoor plants.

The challenge, then, becomes how to add such green spaces to new or existing offices, in the same way as modern corporates such as Meta, Apple and Amazon. “If green spaces are poorly designed, they will often sit unused,” said Dr Daniel Davis, a senior researcher with the global architecture and design firm Hassell Studio.

If, on the other hand, green spaces are attractive and well-designed, they are perceived as “a significant perk” Hassell researchers found. “They’re spaces for hanging out with colleagues, for taking a break, for exercising and for rejuvenation. They’re also important spaces for entertaining clients. As such there’s been a ‘flight to quality’ in the commercial real estate market as tenants seek out spaces that give them the edge in attracting employees and winning over clients.”

Green spaces are furthermore just one of the initiatives encompassed in sustainable buildings practices, now viewed as a core priority for any new real estate: three quarters of CRE leaders surveyed by CBRE for a recent report said they would pay a premium for leasing a building with green credentials.

Making the old new again

Many co-working spaces and newly built offices are spruiking green spaces in their advertising, such as Sydney’s The Work Project which beckons new clients with “Recharge at our green spaces” in online ads. One early adopter of the green space philosophy was Lend Lease which included a six-metre high “breathing” green wall as part of the design for its Barangaroo offices. The green wall spans Levels 13 and 14 of Barangaroo’s Tower 3 (which won a 6 Star Green Star Office Design v3 rating – the highest on the scale) and is covered with over 5000 plants in a way that has been proven to accelerate removal of air pollutants like carbon dioxide while helping cool the building. 

But what are the options for pre-existing buildings looking to upgrade facilities? “Ideally you want to change the underlying building as little as possible,” Hassell researchers said. “A roof might have sufficient space for an outdoor rooftop, but the structure might not be strong enough to support the additional weight. Or you might run into problems with egress, planning restrictions, or building services.

“All of these can be overcome but careful planning is needed to avoid the worst of them.”

Getting green spaces right

This is because getting green spaces right is often not as easy as appears. When building owners and developers told Hassell of green spaces they had added that had gone unused or underutilised, researchers found it was often due to one or a combination of the following common reasons: bad placement allowing exposure to the elements; lack of maintenance that made the space unappealing; uncomfortable outdoor furniture or similar (researchers made the point that when people work for long stretches they gravitate to the most comfortable places to relax); too hard to reach or tucked away; or in use by too many people/tenants.

Problematic outdoor areas can afflict any organisations. For instance, when a major Australian television station thought it was doing the right thing by providing a spacious courtyard for employees at its Sydney headquarters, bosses found the area went mostly unused.

When Hassell’s architects and designers were called in to discover why, they found it was firstly because there was no shelter especially from the hot midday sun and secondly due to a simple lack of seating. “Like many outdoor workspaces it was a neglected and overlooked asset,” Hassell reported. The answer was to design a new courtyard, this time with four ‘garden rooms’ which each had an obvious and distinct function: one with enough space for events, or exercising; another for eating and drinking, equipped with an outdoor kitchen and seating area; a third for pure relaxation with a series of private nooks; and a fourth for collaboration with separate spaces the allowed enough room for small meetings. This new design was completed with almost 1000 plants that provided shading as well as general greening.

“These changes weren’t dramatic – the courtyard was still the same shape and size – but by carefully considering how the [television station employees] would use the space it was transformed into a vibrant social space,” Hasell reported, noting that great outdoor spaces added diversity.

Why A Winter Garden?

Winter gardens could be trickier to incorporate. But doing so added to an office’s lettable area (NLA), whereas outdoor space does not. In one instance, Hassell architects successfully added a winter garden to the Melbourne headquarters of Transurban by removing part of the façade to allow for the creation of a semi-enclosed double-height space that overlooks the city. The fact that this area was located adjacent a communal lounge made the winter garden a popular place for workers to take a break “and get some fresh air… or just sit and work for a while”.