Better office environments with 'neuroarchitecture'

How do buildings affect the people who use them? A number of architects have started to investigate how we can use brain research to design better schools and office environments, for example. We talked to architect Klaudio Muca from CEBRA Architecture about the perspectives.


"When I was studying at the Politecnico di Milano, we never talked about how our brains react to the buildings we live and work in. Our teachers put more emphasis on the composition of space and finding and creating beauty. But since then, I started to become aware of the research that, for example, proves that rooms with high ceilings make us more creative and able to think abstractly," explains R&D architect at the CEBRA Architecture, Klaudio Muca.

Klaudio does not argue against striving for beauty in architecture, but wants to get away from the subjective and intuitive approach to the subject that his teachers in Milan advocated.

"If we can prove and be more specific about what works in a building, it will be beneficial for architects and architecture in general. We can be more conscious about the tools we use in architecture," he says, adding that neuroarchitecture focuses on how all the intangible parts of an office building affect us in our working day – such as light, sound, air and social interaction.

The approach of using insights from brain research to create better buildings has been named neuroarchitecture, and is one of the fields that interests Klaudio and his colleagues at CEBRA Architecture – not least when it comes to learning environments such as schools and office buildings.

Danish Crown's headquarters in Randers, Denmark. Photo: Adam Mørk

Well-being per square metre

Klaudio emphasises that, unlike schools, there is not much research into how building design affects productivity or employee well-being. However, he and CEBRA Architecture are promoting the introduction of a new measurement parameter for office buildings:

 "When it comes to office buildings, we want to talk about well-being per square metre instead of cost per square metre, because we know that 90 per cent of an office-based company’s costs are employees. So if we focus on employee well-being, it will automatically benefit the business. And that’s why the architecture needs to be tailored to the employees," he says.

But it’s easier said than done:

 "We have different personalities and react differently to stimuli. Some respond very easily to noise and are very easily disturbed, while others can shut it out and continue working. So I like to talk about offering a palette of spaces where different types of employees can work," he says.

To get a better idea of how office design affects employee productivity and well-being, CEBRA Architecture uses questionnaires. But the firm has also developed a digital tool that makes it possible to map out where employees work best, and vice versa, where they are most disturbed by noise, and where more work may be needed to create good acoustics. 

Danish Crown's headquarters in Randers, Denmark. Photo: Adam Mørk

The challenges of modern offices

According to Klaudio, many modern offices generally struggle with two key challenges in particular:

 "Many lack space for focused work – work that requires concentration. Open plan offices have many advantages, and we're not saying we should go back to single-person offices or booths, but many employees complain about noise in open plan offices. That’s why we always address this first when designing offices," he explains.

He adds that it takes an average of 23 minutes for a person to focus again after an interruption, and for the same reason, he and CEBRA Architecture prioritise planning the right amount of “quiet areas” in an office building.

The second major challenge of modern office buildings is to find the right balance in the sensory stimuli to which employees are exposed.

"I’ve studied many American office environments, where the culture is quite different to here. It’s very energetic and buzzing with baristas and café areas, and can sometimes feel like a gym," he says. The philosophy there is that an energetic and fast-paced environment has a positive impact on employee productivity, but this is not necessarily the case:

"A certain amount of sensory stimuli can be beneficial, but it’s not just “more is good”. It’s like a curve where productivity falls off after a certain point if there is too much of a buzz," he explains.

Photo: Tommy Kosior, Troldtekt A/S
CEBRA has refurbished its design office in Aarhus and opted for the Troldtekt v-line design solution.

It’s not that difficult

It may sound daunting to hear about the importance of taking into account the different temperaments and tolerance of employees to noise if you just want to fit out an office. But Klaudio's message is clear:

"It’s actually not that difficult. You just have to make sure you find the right balance between areas designed for focus work and areas that can be more dynamic," he says. He refers to the research showing how brain research shows how ceiling height can affect creativity – roughly speaking, we become more creative with higher ceilings, while we become more practical and grounded with lower ceiling heights. The same is true of light:

"Research into the quality of light shows that it's not always about getting as much light as possible into office buildings. German studies have shown that a slightly darker and smaller room can promote creativity because employees feel less supervised and exposed," explains Klaudio.

He also emphasises that office design must take into account what's called “active learning”, i.e. creating spaces for employees to immerse themselves at their own desks and creating social spaces such as meeting rooms:

“We aim to design meeting rooms where people can look each other in the eye – for example by having a round meeting table rather than an oblong one, so that we avoid creating a hierarchy with seating around the table,” he says.

CEBRA Architecture also wants to let nature play a role in office buildings. One of the concepts they use is Biofilt Design  - an approach that seeks to connect the building’s occupants closer to nature by incorporating natural elements and processes into the building environment. This can include the use of natural materials, such as wood and stone, incorporating plants, water features and maximising natural light. The aim is to improve well-being and productivity by creating a visually stimulating and restorative environment.

It's also imitating our past lives in the wild:

"Incorporating nature into office buildings is not just about having plants and views of trees and stuff outside. It's also linked to our history as hunter/gatherers in the wild. We need to create places where you feel safe and concealed in office buildings, while still providing good visibility. So we try to ensure that employees can have their backs covered while still being able to look out. It gives a sense of security," he says. The theory is called “Prospect and Refuge” and originates from landscape architecture. 

Finally, Klaudio points out that office design should promote movement for employees. Because movement is proven to help cognitive processes and prevent illnesses associated with excessively sedentary work, but also for another and more important reason for companies:

"Sociologist Mark Granovetter highlighted the importance of the “weak connections” in the workplace. In other words, the co-workers with whom we don't normally spend as much time with. According to research, however, they can have a considerable impact on our ability to think creatively and get new ideas, and therefore we must design offices that make it easier to meet each other throughout the company," says Klaudio. He highlights stairs that can be designed so that people can stop and talk when they encounter each other.

FACTS: What is WISE?

  • WISE is an ambitious research and development programme started by CEBRA in 2019
  • WISE stands for Work, Innovation, Space, Education
  • The aim is to explore the role of architecture in lifelong learning and bridge rapid changes in the workplace and education sectors
  • The project will lead to building design that stimulates learning and innovation by connecting architecture with leading thinkers in education and entrepreneurship, as well as research into sensory stimuli, cognitive psychology and behaviourism
  • CEBRA Architecture has published its insights in the WISE Journal.