Levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to be higher in enclosed spaces like office cubicles that are artificially lit and deprived of outside views. Poor ventilation — which is common in many older office buildings — raises the levels of carbon dioxide, which studies have shown can impair cognitive performance and dampen mood.
Design that ignores the natural requirements of the human body is to blame, says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist who has studied workplaces and their impact around the United States. “More time and creativity has gone into designing natural habitats for zoo animals,” she observed in an online post, “than in creating comfortable office spaces for humans.”
But that is changing. Dr. Heerwagen, who now works for the United States General Services Administration in Washington, has helped the agency plan government buildings that include green roofs and atriums, as well as day-lit offices with expansive views of the outdoors. It is also designing spaces that encourage employees to move around and engage with one another — adding healthy exercise to work days spent largely sitting behind a desk.
Architecture with our biology in mind pays off in fewer sick days and better work performance, according to Mr. Cook. “We know that we lower absenteeism and what we call presenteeism — people showing up but not being there — by careful design,” he said. “As increasingly science backs this up, it will become very easy to get people to pay for it.”
And the science of healthy buildings continues to advance. Research by an international team in 2014 showed that people who worked in offices with leafy green plants concentrated better and were 15 percent…