Working at a table in the main section of a new research center outside Jaipur, India—surrounded by palm trees, with light flooding in from the all-glass ceiling and walls—is meant to feel basically like you're sitting outside, minus the 90-degree weather common in Jaipur.
"You're connected to the outdoors," says architect William McDonough. "If somebody says, 'What was it like today?' you say, 'It was a beautiful day.' Because you were actually in the day, you weren't in a box with a fluorescent light."
Just having a view of nature out an office window can improve productivity. In one study at a call center, workers were as much as 12% faster when they had a view. Programmers with a view spent 15% more time focused on a primary task. Even just looking at a picture of nature for a few seconds—not the real thing—can help improve attention. So it's possible to imagine that feeling like you're actually outside might make even more of a difference.
The new design is the research and development center for Hero MotoCorp, the world's largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles. On the campus, there's a testing track for new vehicles and multiple lab buildings. But the heart of the campus is the giant plant-filled "boulevard" that blurs the lines between indoor and outdoor space.
"It's essentially a great outdoor living room," says McDonough. "As all of the people move around as they go and get food, or go to a training session, if they need a conference room, whatever—they will be in this giant mixing bowl in the middle." It's designed to encourage as much interaction as possible, and the innovation that can come from serendipitous meetings.
The building itself—with each office wing covered with solar collectors and greenhouses—is also meant to serve as inspiration. "As you're there, you look around, you see greenhouses and solar collectors all around you," he says. "You realize this building is photosynthetic. And as you're designing, say, a motorcycle, you'd be going, wait a minute, how would I make a solar-powered motorcycle? It begs the question."
Some of that inspiration has already happened: After McDonough's firm built the company's new factory a year ago—also covered with solar panels—Hero decided to launch a new division to work on solar power at scale.
As the new building develops, the company may add new technology to connect the greenhouses with other systems in the building. "If we have any kind of co-generation going on, we can use the carbon for food production," McDonough says. "And we can make oxygen in the buildings and purify air with the plants." Waste heat could run absorption chillers to make water from the desert air, and feed that back to the greenhouses.
Inside the greenhouses, employees can pick vegetables for dinner. "Imagine you go home and take food to your family from the office," he says. "I think it's a different message to your children about what the future looks like."
All Images: © WilliamMcDonough+Partners