coffee bar with tables and chairs and workers relaxing

Designing Optimal Workplace Environments with Vibe Mapping and Ecotones

A multi-disciplinary Think Tank panel proposes that the study of nature can inform smarter workplace design.

“Vibe Mapping” and “Ecotones” are new words in the designer’s lexicon, and indeed even their proponents admit the words call to mind the 1960s counterculture.

“It sounds a little bit hippie, a little bit psychedelic,” admitted Sandi Rudy, regional interior design lead, sustainable workplace design, associate, Cushing Terrell, which hosted the May 19 Think Tank Thursday. “But it’s really looking at how nature functions and applying those ideas to workplace design.

“How does nature organize? How does nature protect? How does nature adapt and repair?’ she continued. “These are all important questions. We really use this as a way to develop a framework based on nature when we’re designing spaces.”

Rudy went on to give working definitions of the two terms. “Vibe Mapping is essentially a heat map of various activities levels within a space. We really do look at these key factors of the site context, e.g., ‘Where’s the sunlight’? Where do we think circulations should, or could, happen? We use those to influence this vibe map we’re putting together.”

An Ecotone, Rudy further explained, is a zone between two differing and distinct locations, distinct ecosystems. In nature, for example, it’s a marshland or mangrove forest between the ocean and the land. “We think nature does an amazing job adapting and utilizing those, that we thought, ‘How can we apply those ideas to an interior space and make the most of a built environment?’”

office with couches and baquettes

These liminal spaces between two more clearly defined areas are often very “buzzy” zones, she explained.

“A buzzy zone is an area that we feel might be open, active and loud. Say for instance you’ve just finished a meeting, and someone wants a follow up conversation. It’s great to have a space right outside of a meeting room for this purpose.”

Among the panel of designers and real estate professionals, Lily Bernheimer, an environmental psychologist, stood out. The founding director of Space Works Consulting, Bernheimer explained that her work “is to try to bridge between the amazing academic research being done on Ecotones and Vibe Mapping and get that into the hands of architects and interior designers.” Her book on the subject called The Shaping of Us, is recently out from Trinity University Press.

During a lively question-and-answer period, one skeptical audience member wondered: “Where is the empirical evidence to support your hypothesis about Ecotones and Vibe Mapping?”

“That’s a great question,” said James Foster, commercial design studio leader, and associate principal at Cushing Terrell. “We try to do post occupancy analysis on every project with every client. These Vibe Mapping and Ecotones strategies that we’ve been using are not something we can deploy on every single project. But we try out best to use them far and wide.”

A.J. Paron, design futurist, EVP, Sandow Design Group, who moderated the panel, asked Foster to justify the use of nature as a paradigm for workplace design.

“We use nature,” Foster said, “because it is the best vehicle for understanding how to accomplish wellbeing and provide an environment where people can really increase their cognitive performance and be their best professional selves.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on May 5, 12, and 19. The conversations were presented in partnership with Arden StudioCertainTeedGrohe, and Garden on the Wall.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]