As all landowners rethink the land they occupy, we examine the ways office designs might contribute to the global effort.

The world’s wild spaces are in decline. The US has lost 24 million acres of natural area in the last 16 years, to housing, agriculture, energy production and other human development. The UK, which is among the world's most nature-depleted countries, has lost 70 per cent of its native animal, bird and fish populations since 1970. The call to rewild (restore an area to its original, uncultivated state) is getting louder, as countries strive to restore biodiversity and improve defence against floods, drought and fire. The issue is for business as much as governments – a campaign encouraging policy to halt and reverse nature loss before the end of the decade has been signed by over 1,000 companies worldwide. 

Cover and above: Roots in the Sky designed by Sheppard Robson / Studio RHE for client Fabrix London promises to be London’s first urban forest when it completes in 2024.

Wild wild city

In an urban context, it’s the rooftop that makes the obvious place to introduce biodiversity. Carpeting roofs with sedum plants has long been the norm, but the climate agenda is pushing designers to go much further with their vision. Roots in the Sky promises to be London’s first urban forest when it completes in 2024. Atop a refurbished 1960s stationery office, the 1.4-acre scheme will feature over 100 established trees and 10,000 plants. A green public rooftop is already a feature of MVRDV’s Idea Factory in Shenzhen, where a maze of native bamboo plants shades a series of outdoor rooms for events, exercise and games. Designed as much for visitors as office tenants, these rooftops bid to attract people back into the city centre and provide urban green space, which has become much sought after in the pandemic.

Existing buildings are being revisited too. Gensler recently relocated equipment from the roof of the Ford Foundation Center in New York to make a generous, useable and more accessible space. The central atrium was also replanted with more resilient species, and rainwater is captured for irrigation. ‘Revitalized rooftops have become one of the biggest rediscovered opportunities in real estate development,’ writes technical director Ambrose Aliaga-Kelly. ‘Once a forgotten space used only for cooling towers, water tanks, and elevator machine rooms, or private amenities to attract tenants, building rooftops and setbacks are getting long overdue appreciation.’ As spaces for breakouts, wellness and socializing, a biodiverse rooftop can become an urban oasis for workers and wildlife alike.

A plan by Heatherwick Studio sees nature romantically reclaiming the frame of the former Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham.

A green public rooftop is a feature of MVRDV’s Idea Factory in Shenzhen.

A landscape less manicured

Another strategy for rewilding urban space is through planting small parks, paths and plazas and linking them into a chain. Ecologist Jon Davies wrote for City AM about the potential for companies to rewild ‘soft estate’, or non-operational land: ‘If companies with dead land could start to rewild it to offset their own biodiversity impact, in ten years’ time we could see land becoming healthy again. The more areas become rewilded, the more they can be joined up to create a patchwork network of corridors, helping wildlife travel and rejuvenate.’

Such plans are being made for the landscape of Madrid’s Nuevo Norte district by Balmori Associates, a six-km stretch stitching together green streetscapes and parks on the site of industrial wasteland. The firm’s São Paulo Corporate Towers project from 2017 replanted and protected species native to Brazil’s Mata Atlantica Forest, of which only nine per cent still exists. Despite its historically piecemeal development, London is planning a cohesive strategy to join up green spaces around Regent Street by bringing multiple private landowners together. The near future might see office interiors become more integrated with, even enveloped by, these chains of urban rewilding. In the UK, Heatherwick Studio has revealed a vision for Nottingham, that sees nature romantically reclaiming the frame of its former Broadmarsh shopping centre, extending into a wider regeneration plan.

On a larger scale, the landscaping of business parks is being reconsidered to create vast meadows and wetlands for native ecosystems. Designing for wildlife, rather than animals, is leading to less-manicured landscapes that require less maintenance and intervention. RAU Architect’s HQ for Triodos Bank in the Netherlands is shaped to respect the flight paths of bats through the site, which is part of the De Reehorst Estate, a protected natural area. The landscape architects at Arcadis included natural planting, walking routes and a reflecting pool that wildlife can drink from. IBM has long invested in the landscape at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Since 1965 employee volunteers have worked on the 579-acre outdoor space to encourage birds, owls, wood ducks, butterflies and reptiles. Environmental conservation at scale has taken long-term commitment from IBM, but has boosted employee engagement by giving its staff a common goal.

Bell Phillips Architects is planning a series of office pavilions to overlook an existing lagoon at Oxfordshire’s Harwell Campus.

Building in nature, not on it

The coming years will see the rewilding agenda grow in importance, as a key component of managing climate change. The UN is leading an initiative to restore 30 per cent of the world’s land and water by 2030, which is influencing governmental policy. The UK’s new Environment Bill requires construction of new buildings and infrastructure to leave sites ten per cent better off in terms of biodiversity than they were before. Companies that don’t or can’t rewild the space they occupy will be increasingly compelled to offset elsewhere through schemes like the World Land Trust’s Buy an Acre. But to protect all habitats, it’s key the effort starts locally, on all land no matter how small.

Greater respect for wildlife is leading to a desire to work in nature, rather than alongside it. Our experiences through the pandemic are already encouraging more rural workspaces, and consideration of sites once thought of as unconventional. Smaller developments based in nature are becoming desirable as main offices, not just work retreats. At the Harwell Campus, a science and technology park in rural Oxfordshire, Bell Philips Architects is planning a series of office pavilions to overlook an existing lagoon. Inspired by birdwatching hides, the structures maximize views out, and have calm, timber-lined interiors that encourage reflection. 

Moxon Architects’ own studio is in the Scottish Highlands, on the site of a former quarry once used as a rubbish tip. The workplace and café are connected by a courtyard planted with young trees and native juniper seedlings. Rainwater runs off the roof into a central wetland, and the buildings are heated by a ground source heat pump. Long walls of interlocking Douglas Fir blocks feature inside and out, for a balance of employees’ privacy and views of nature. In a humbler relationship with nature, new office interiors will become extensions of their natural surroundings.