Gordon Hempton is a treasure hunter. The elusive treasure he seeks is silence. Hempton is a sound recording specialist and co-author of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. He has spent the past thirty years traveling the globe in search of places free from human-generated noise. “Silence is an endangered species,” Hempton has said.
In many workplaces, silence is already extinct — destroyed by overwrought enthusiasm for open workplaces and collaborative culture, without consideration for the human need of peaceful places to think. Without thoughtful design, open office plans foster collaboration and communication at the expense of concentration and contemplation.
Quiet is a “think tank of the soul,” says Hempton. With increasing concern for employee well-being and mindfulness, some forward-thinking companies are actually creating quiet zones, meditative environments, or even ‘sacred spaces’ to lower the cacophony, boost creativity, and restore emotional balance.
Architecture and design firms, at the behest of clients, are now incorporating “room to think” into corporate environment plans.
At Industrious — a co-working space in Ponce City Market — one meeting room doubles as a meditation room. Atlanta Tech Village has nap rooms. Public relations firm Jackson Spalding has set aside multiple quiet rooms for its employees and marketing agency Tribe has a meditation room.
Contemplative areas are not the sole realm of the indoor office. Outdoor workspaces are being used to promote calm and meditative awareness. Often, the two realms — inside and out, natural and manmade — intersect. Newell Brand’s Atlanta office provides generous opportunities for employees to work alone or in small groups in outdoor meeting rooms and restorative rooftop garden spaces.
Major furniture makers have joined the quiet movement. Office furniture powerhouse Steelcase claims that 95 percent of today’s workers need quiet, private spaces — but 40 percent say their workplaces don’t provide them. Steelcase partnered with Susan Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking to develop a set of five “Quiet Spaces”, incorporating the company’s Vertical Intelligent Architecture soundproof architectural walls. These intimate settings, ideal for yoga, meditation, prayer, spiritual reflection or simply peaceful work time, are designed to “empower introverts at work,” according to the company website.
The shift in office space design is more than about adding doses of quiet in the workplace; it is about adding moments of stillness. Enter “pods”: furniture pieces which provide for silent, still sitting or napping as well as working. The offices of Google and Huffington Post, for instance, incorporate MetroNaps’ EnergyPods — contemporary lounge chairs with a convertible room for privacy. Facebook and Nestle, meanwhile, favor the tubular units from Podtime. Meditation app provider Headspace prefers Spacestor’s Railway Carriage pods which address a range of situations from intimate collaboration to undisturbed concentration.
“Inspiration is the feeling of beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet,” the renowned architect Louis Kahn once wrote. If contemplative spaces in the workplace ideally provide this inspiration, inspiration for creating such spaces may come from examples in the spiritual community.
Several major academic institutions, including Catholic University and Georgia Tech, are exploring this line of thought. At Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, a 2016 design studio class led by Professor Julie Ju-Youn Kim titled, “The Search for Contemplative Space: Looking Inward/Looking Outward,” gave undergraduate students hands on understanding of how architecture can elevate the human spirit through spatial relationships between material, structure, and light.
The students’ mandate was to design a new urban retreat center for the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. The result was a set of models including well-considered spaces at multiple scales, exterior gardens, communal gathering spaces, meeting rooms, and in the private resident spaces. The project also revealed to the students the importance of meditative space and opened discussion of other applications of contemplative space, such as allowing office workers the chance to breathe and step outside of the sounds and into silence.
With learning experiences such as this, we will soon see new designers entering the field who already appreciate the value of contemplative spaces.
There’s a lot of noise about noise in the workplace and just as much mindshare being given to mindfulness. How do you find the workplace balance between providing for collaboration and contemplation amidst the options? Perhaps, if we sit quietly, the path forward will become clearer.
Joyce Fownes, Principal Allied ASID, Allied IIDA, LEED AP BD+C is Interior Design discipline leader and the Corporate Interior market sector leader for Perkins+Will’s Atlanta office.