Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Inside it's Raining: Natural elements to support the older worker

Many offices are sterile and exhausting places. This project addresses the use of natural interventions to create the effect of falling rainwater inside the workplace, as part of a larger study into the environmental needs of knowledge workers aged over 50.

This project began as a Masters study in the Department of Design Products at the RCA, looking at ways to introduce more natural elements into office interiors. Most of us spend considerable amounts of time at work in environments that are sterile and exhausting. How would people feel if natural elements like rainwater could be channeled inside an office space to bring nature closer to the work environment?

Initial design concepts demonstrated how this could be achieved, and this line of enquiry was introduced to a Helen Hamlyn Centre research project Welcoming Workplace, looking at ways to improve the office environment for people facing extended working lives. An ageing workforce requires fresh stimulus to remain productive in the knowledge economy. Desk research revealed that closeness to nature and an awareness of the world outside were factors in combating the fatigue that the ageing body feels when faced with sitting for hours at a time in an artificial environment.

Three Knowledge Industries
Catherine Greene joined the Welcoming Workplace research team as a research associate, and incorporated her natural design study into the broader project, which is funded by the Designing for the 21st Century research initiative. The research methodology involved conducting in-depth interviews with corporate employees aged over 50 and working in three knowledge-based industries – pharmaceuticals, technology and financial services – in the UK, Japan and Australia. Managers responsible for their welfare from such disciplines as occupational health, human resources and facilities management were also interviewed. In all, 80 people worldwide participated in the study.

This global research was achieved through partnerships with the University of Kyushu in Japan and the University of Melbourne in Australia. Issues raised in the interviews were followed up with a series of design interventions prototyped by the research team with industry partners in selected office spaces in the UK and Japan. These interventions altered key aspects of the environment, including lighting, acoustics, furniture and technology. A natural intervention was also introduced – the Rain Curtain, a visual and acoustic space divider measuring 2m x 2m that uses water to create a very different atmosphere from that which we normally associate with an office.

Contemplation Space
This design intervention was developed to test people’s interest in natural elements that help to create ‘contemplation space’ capable of aiding concentration and supporting recuperation at work. The Rain Curtain was viewed by many as making the environment less oppressive.

The Welcoming Workplace research is ongoing and the project team is working with furniture manufacturer Kinnarps to unveil further natural elements such as a Planted Partition as part of Designers Saturday on 26 September 2008, during the London Design Festival. The full study findings will be discussed at the Worktech conference at the British Library on 17-18 November 2008. What is clear, however, is that a refreshing alternative to open plan office space is required to enable older knowledge workers to remain productive for longer. Those facing extended working lives want a ‘surrogate home’ away from the collaborative hum of the office to think and recuperate during the working day, in an environment that is natural and soothing.

Research Associate 2008: Catherine Greene
RCA Department: Design Products
Research Partner: Designing for the 21st Century