Making a beeline for the office hive

(NYTIMES) – Investment company Nuveen has spent US$120 million (S$161 million) renovating its office tower in midtown Manhattan, overhauling the lobby, devoting the second floor to amenities and refurbishing a 22nd-floor terrace.

And the finishing touch? Two beehives on a seventh-floor terrace. All these are done with the hope of getting workers back to their office.

Office workers who were sent home during pandemic lockdowns often sought refuge in nature, tending to houseplants, setting up bird feeders and sitting outdoors with their laptops. Now, as companies try to coax skittish employees back to the office and building owners compete for tenants when vacancy rates are soaring, many have hit on the idea of making the office world feel more like the natural world.

Some of the more unusual nature-themed offerings include “treehouse” lounges and vegetable plots that let desk workers dig in the dirt. Beekeeping programmes – complete with honey tastings and name-your-queen contests – are, ahem, all the buzz. One upcoming project in Texas will include a bird blind, letting workers peek out at other winged creatures.

“There’s a lot more focus on amenities and how to make an office better than working from your dining room table,” said Mr Richard Cook, a founding partner at CookFox Architects.

Some firms say nature-centred amenities have won them over. And some workers find the outdoorsy vibe reassuring.

But it is unclear whether nature will be enough to attract tenants after the success of remote work over the past year and a half. Some companies have already shrunk their office space, and many employees, having ably performed their duties from home, are questioning the need to go into an office at all.

Incorporating nature in office buildings is not entirely new. Before the pandemic, developers, owners and architects were already adding terraces and rooftop lounges and bringing plants and natural light inside – part of a drive to make offices healthier. Scientific studies show that biophilic spaces are associated with increased cognition and productivity, lower stress levels, fewer sick days and less staff turnover.

But now a nature connection has gone from being “a nice-to-have to being a risk if you don’t do it”, said Ms Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Centre for Active Design, which runs Fitwel, a healthy-building certification programme.

Adding natural features to offices can be expensive, but the costs can often be offset with higher rents. The most widespread change in office buildings since the pandemic is a focus on improving indoor air.

Building owners and managers, responding to tenants’ demand for assurances that the office air is safe, upgraded filters and increased the air replacement rate.

Beacon Capital Partners brought more fresh air into its buildings on advice from Harvard’s School of Public Health, said Mr Alfred Scaramelli, a managing director overseeing facilities operations. The initiative, though, uses 6 per cent to 7 per cent more energy.

Buildings around the United States are also making it possible for occupants to inhale fresh air outdoors, where they can work, socialise or take a yoga class.

In Tampa, Florida, Thousand & One, a new office building from Strategic Property Partners that was designed by CookFox, has a lush rooftop for tenants’ use. The feature helped persuade RSM, an accounting firm, to rent space in the building, said Mr Danny Jackson, a principal at the company.

Vegetable gardens are also sprouting everywhere. When Brookfield Properties renovated the Victor Building in Washington, it added vegetable beds on the roof so that office occupants can pluck parsley and basil before heading home to cook dinner.

An upcoming project in Texas that will feature a bird blind, letting workers peek out at winged creatures. PHOTO: GENSLER

Another real estate company, Jamestown, hired Copiana to add aeroponic garden systems – cone-shaped towers with openings through which leafy greens grow – at properties in Atlanta.

But it is beekeeping that has really taken off, enabling landlords to provide a crowd-pleasing amenity and flaunt their environmental credentials. Landlords are hoping the bees will make office buildings attractive in the wake of the pandemic, and outfits such as Alveole, which installed Nuveen’s hives, are making it easy to provide the perk.

Alveole, which is based in Montreal, charges an average of US$8,000 annually for its services and has seen a 666 per cent increase in revenue since the start of the pandemic, said Mr Shelby Schulman, the company’s beekeeping team regional manager for the US. Goldman Sachs recently announced it would roll out Alveole hives on its properties nationwide.

Beacon Capital, which has hives on 35 properties, has been working with Best Bees, a Boston-based company that has also seen its business grow during the pandemic. Beacon Capital has used some of its honey to make beer, Mr Scaramelli said, describing it as “not strong, not weird – a hint of honey but not overpowering”.

He added: “Tenants love the bees.”

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