Doing Good Work, Naturally: How Productivity Can Be Shaped By Wood In Our Environment

Jun 12, 2018

Peter Maddison


I’m grateful to have a hectic working life. As well as running my architectural practice and hosting Grand Designs Australia, I do guest lectures, sit on professional committees and act as an ambassador for Planet Ark and other non-profits.

The truth is, I feel at my most productive when I have a full program. I like being busy, and having an organised, structured day where I feel I can maximise my output.

Like everyone, I can get stressed by too much work or not feeling as though I’m on top of things. That’s where routine and my ability to find balance comes into play. For me it’s about connecting to nature and the outdoors.

How do I do that? Surfing and the sea has been a big part of my life for last 40 years. In fact, anything to do with water: windsurfing, sailing, kitesurfing. In the past five years, I’ve been swimming in the ocean four days a week — all year round, in the early morning. I find that gives me extra energy, both physically and mentally.

While many Australians spend most of our time indoors, I think it’s our engagement with nature that plays a major role in stimulating our brains and awakening our senses.

That directly affects architecture, because all humans respond to nature and architects create spaces for humans. Although, as an architect I’m creating an artificial world, part of my job is creating a connection to the natural world through design, the choice of materials and finishes and decor.

My architecture has always used natural materials and I think it’s an important part of the way we can bring a sense of wellbeing to our living spaces and workplaces.

It’s interesting that a recent report* that asked more than 1000 Australians about their job satisfaction and work environment, found that being able to see natural materials and surfaces in the workplace makes people feel more positive and more productive.

People who don’t have a connection to natural materials describe their workplace as enclosed and dull. It’s clear employers can do a lot through architectural and design choices to energise people and connect them with the outdoors.

Let me share a personal example. As a younger man, before I studied architecture, I worked as a waiter.

One job was at a steak restaurant in Richmond, and the owner had all the windows sealed up so there was no natural daylight coming in. It was full of carpet and dusty old velour curtains. It was hermetically sealed from the real world — people would come in to eat their steaks and when they left, they didn’t know if it was going to be day or night outside. It was quite disconcerting to work in that environment, one of the most unpleasant jobs I’ve had.

Compare that to a job I had at a pizza shop on Phillip Island that has great views looking out over Westernport Bay, with doors and windows that open, and a timber 1960s feature ceiling and timber floor that looks terrific — it was a way more vital work environment. I started there as a waiter when I was 17 years-old and ended up working there full-time for over four years.

The incredible thing is, I’ve maintained a connection with the Italian family that run that business throughout my career as an architect, and I’ve been doing renovations on that little cafe for years and even to this day. I’m working with them now to revamp their kitchen and back of house area.

A workplace that makes us feel alive and happy creates positive and lasting associations. So what are some key ways to incorporate more natural elements at your workplace?

Views and air-flow

In a built-up environment, where buildings dominate our lives, there’s a natural desire to have long distance views to relieve our short views of a computer screen—particularly where we can look out and see green. Being able to open a window and let a fresh breeze in, rather than air-conditioning, is also important.

Plant power

Bringing plants into an office is easy and not a big expense. They’re valuable because they physicality give off oxygen and take in carbon dioxide, but also they create a sense of wellbeing, because I think we still have in our DNA a connection to the natural world. Rooftop gardens and landscaping around buildings creates a better working environment, plus they reduce heat from buildings which can help lower operating costs.

Natural materials

We have an affinity with timber and natural surfaces. Reskinning an office with sustainable timber products is not expensive, or you could put in a timber feature wall or acoustic ceiling, or simply purchase more wooden furniture.

Some people may worry about the extra expense of wood, but it’s a long-term investment. It’s a bit like when you put a solar PV system in your home—it’s going to take a few years before it pays for itself. Likewise, the biophilic design principles I’m talking about will pay off in increasingly significant ways in terms of improved wellbeing, reduced sick days, and increased productivity if you’re running a business. Alternatively, if you’re looking at a home situation, it could be a more productive home office or spot in the house to do homework.

*The report Workplaces: Wellness + Wood = Productivity.

Peter Maddison

Peter Maddison is an Australian architect and television presenter. He is best known for presenting the TV series Grand Designs Australia, which has been shown in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.