Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson

Partner, NBBJ
Tim is an internationally renowned expert in high-rise design as a business strategy. A former chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), his insights into urban transformations in the United States and Asia have appeared in business and design media around the world.

Rethinking Commercial Lobbies During the Pandemic

Five Design Considerations to Make Office Lobbies Safer and More Welcoming

May 1, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Tim Johnson, Stuart Fox and Paula Buick.


With states gradually seeking to lift shelter-in-place laws, developers are instituting phased strategies for reopening their buildings in a safe and hygienic manner. While many states moving quickly to reopen have issued mandatory guidelines for workplace safety, anxiety about workplace infection remains high – a recent informal survey found that 81% of employees do not feel safe about returning to the office. Given this context, workplaces need to not only adhere to infection control protocols but also instill a palpable sense of safety and assurance in the people using the space.

Commercial office lobbies are a crucial element in establishing a safer, more uplifting work environment, as they are the primary means for entering a building. They are a logical space for deploying and highlighting new hygienic measures and protocols, as well as creating an atmosphere that reassures and informs tenants. To add to the complexity, these measures are more challenging to implement in multi-tenant buildings, where numerous policies on guests, package drop-off and lobby use have to be coordinated across multiple companies.

Given the potential complexities of this task, here are five design considerations building owners and operators should take into account as they rethink lobby areas.


Visible Safety Measures

There are a number of safety measures and protocols which can be deployed in lobby spaces to control the spread of infection. These include obvious but effective protocols like regular cleanings and the provision of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. But there are also more advanced solutions that are also beneficial beyond COVID-19, including lobbies that use proximity badges to maintain healthy density levels, screening kiosks, improved air handling including filtration and air exchange, and touchless technology on doors and elevators, potentially using facial recognition, to reduce the risk of contact infection. Buildings could even implement an express lane for pre-screened individuals using a QR code or use entry/exit sensors to detect occupancy levels in the elevators and office floors.

It is important from a psychosocial perspective that these safety and health measures are visible to building tenants in order to reinforce the sense that the building is a safe, well managed environment. In the current context, conspicuous measures like health screenings in lobbies, time lapse videos showing cleanings, and even digital visualizations monitoring air quality in the building may help put tenants’ minds at ease.


Signage and Wayfinding

Signage and wayfinding play a critical role in getting tenants where they need to go and keeping them informed of new building safety and hygiene protocols. Lobbies will likely be the primary access point for building tenants, but other means will have to remain open for evacuation and fire safety purposes. Signage should clearly inform tenants which entrances and exits are to be used, and which are strictly for emergencies, so that everyone accessing the building goes through the necessary security and screening points.

Signage should be clear, concise and uniformly deployed in the lobby as well as throughout the building. Uncommon colors like pink may help important messages stand out, along with simple language and intuitive icons. In addition to wayfinding, signage can reinforce important protocols, informing tenants about handwashing, social distancing and other important infection control elements.  It can be playful, catchy or fun, reinforcing positive messages like “we can do this,” which can serve to assuage anxieties and make important information more memorable. It is also important to strike the right balance in terms of the amount of signage used—too little signage is ambiguous, while too much is confusing and can conversely create the subjective impression that a space is unsafe.


Digital Media and Messaging

The projected increase in queueing in the lobby due to potential health screenings or elevator bottlenecks may represent an opportunity to incorporate monitors and digital signage for entertainment and real-time information purposes. Digital displays can provide important facility information such as shared and tenant-specific building policies as well as recent changes, which may be particularly useful in multi-tenant buildings, or provide information on queuing times.

Displays can also serve a broader role as forums for sharing news about the immediate neighborhood, such as information on public transit or which restaurants have re-opened or are delivering. They can additionally be used to field and answer questions from building occupants, sharing relevant information with tenants as they queue and reinforcing the sense that the building’s management is aware of and responding to concerns. This can play a critical role in helping people feel more comfortable in their environment. Digital signage could also provide elements of inspiration, distraction or connection, like turning the color blue when other landmarks in the city do so to honor healthcare workers.


Elevators and Stairs

Getting to the office may be a major bottleneck in commercial office buildings, given the need to adhere to social distancing measures. A standard passenger elevator is 6’ x 6,’ which could theoretically accommodate four individuals at each corner while barely maintaining minimum social distancing guidelines. Though office buildings will likely, at least initially, have significantly lower occupancy as a large portion of people continue to work from home, there will still be a need for queueing at 6’ intervals or other measures to relieve social density as people wait for elevators.

For tenants on lower floors, stairs are alternate option. If this becomes a major traffic area, rules can be established about passing, entering and exiting so that social distancing can be maintained. Another consideration is that people may be reluctant to use the handrail for hygienic purposes, which could increase the possibility of falls.


Staging Arrivals and Exits

Given the trend towards increasing office densification, a high-rise office building might have several thousand occupants arriving and departing the building during peak commute periods. Queuing for elevators during these peak periods while maintaining social distancing protocols could quickly become impractical due to space limitations.

In order to lessen social density in the lobby during high traffic periods, it may be necessary to stage arrivals and exits. This may need to be developed in coordination with mass transit, which will likely need to use staggered arrivals and departures. For single tenant buildings an employer can develop a company policy, but for multi-tenant buildings this can potentially be done via a phone app, which provides companies or individuals with scheduled arrival and departure slots to minimize the number of people using the lobby at any given time. Such functionality could be built onto existing smart building apps frequently used to manage building security, services, comfort levels and other facility-related issues.

As people gradually return to the office, building owners and managers will face a number of challenges in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their tenants. Lobbies are an important space in this regard, as highly trafficked, highly visible places that transition people from the surrounding neighborhood to their workplace. While the logistical issues of maintaining security and safety during the pandemic are apparent, there are also notable opportunities in lobbies for creating more welcoming, responsive environments that more deeply connect people with the buildings they use.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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How Designers Can Help Lead the Conversation about Science

Reflections on the March for Science in Washington, DC

May 30, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

“Energizing” is the word I would use to describe the March for Science in Washington, DC, last month on Saturday, April 22. Along with the People’s Climate March a week later, and with ongoing drama over the Paris climate accord, it’s obvious that people are feeling the need to get out and speak up on the issues surrounding our planet.

At the march I attended, it was wonderful to see such a wide diversity of age, race, geography, religion and profession uniting around the significance of science.

In particular the unanimous support for the reality of climate change is a call to action to reverse this human-instigated circumstance which could make many species — including our own — extinct in the next century.

The “science” of designing, building and operating the physical environment contributes significantly to adding carbon to the atmosphere — the leading cause of climate change — so our role as architects should be pivotal in reversing this. Designers can shape the dialogue in three ways:

1. Get Involved
I spoke to dozens of people along the March for Science and most were scientists and academics: although it’s possible I missed a few individuals, nowhere did I see the American Institute of Architects (AIA) or U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) participating. I would argue our profession is at least half science, and therefore our input is paramount. Climate change is certainly discussed in architecture circles; however, it would be great if more people trained in design and architecture were in the political realm. Policy is the root of change and getting in at the ground level is key.

2. Implement Best Practices
There are a number of things the design industry can do that are simply best practices taken seriously, yet even today, 13 years away from the deadline of the 2030 Challenge, we are not taking the basics to heart. Design begins with one’s relationship to the environment, so appropriate responses to climate and solar and wind orientation are the most fundamental. Simple energy modeling that allows us to make big or even incremental moves can save megawatts of energy over decades. There are many passive design opportunities, from building orientation, to enclosure design, to building materials, to sun shading and louvers that we can take advantage of more frequently. We have a really big tool chest to work from!

3. Innovate
Then there’s the real science and innovation side, from things like photovoltaics, to making lighter buildings with less material, to sustainable materials like timber. There is no reason why the surface area of buildings can’t also be generators of energy or surfaces for agriculture. Even things like modular construction can significantly help reduce waste, in addition to creating better safety on-site and increasing construction quality. A whole range of potential innovations can be put into practice by the design and construction industry.

This will require help from our partners — clients, engineers, contractors — but the design professions can play a leading role. As the holders of the design vision, we have the platform and the point of view to orchestrate the conversation, to describe the issues and challenges. Initiatives like the USGBC and the AIA’s 2030 Challenge are a great start, but we in our profession we need to ramp it up.


Tens of thousands of people marching down Constitution Avenue and at over 600 similar events around the world send a clear signal to our elected leaders to take this matter seriously — science is the foundation of our future health, prosperity, even our very lives!

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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From the Growth of Tech to Economic Uncertainty, Four Takeaways from ULI’s Spring Meeting

Look to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for a Preview of the Changes Coming to Real Estate

May 18, 2017

Partner, NBBJ

Thousands of leaders in real estate converged on Seattle earlier this month for the annual Urban Land Institute (ULI) spring meeting. Clouds parted in the notoriously drizzly Pacific Northwest town to show off its finest hour as a city engaged in building one of the most “user-friendly” cities in the United States.

As the largest urban area in the Pacific Northwest and a tech cousin to San Francisco, this 700,000-person city — with a regional population of approximately 3.8 million people — enjoys tremendous growth in the technology sector, with companies like Amazon consuming massive amounts of real estate. To counter the growing pains of San Francisco, Seattle is trying to develop its urban core to take advantage of the city infrastructure and to diversify its community. Here are four key takeaways from the conversation about these issues at ULI, and a few provocations for the future.

1) Neighborhood as Catalyst
With a strong interest in the South Lake Union neighborhood, many events and tours at the ULI event showed the tremendous impact of revitalizing this once parking-lot-filled area of Seattle into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. Home to a variety of organizations, South Lake Union integrates working, living and playing in a medium-density format. The area is rich with architectural character — blending the past and present with the energy of youth and optimism fueled by the millennial ethos. While not perfect, South Lake Union presents a great case study on how public and private partnerships can come together to spur development — from parks and retail, to corporate headquarters and new forms of transportation.

2) A Strong, but Uncertain, Economy
Another topic of interest was defining where we are in the economic cycle. Entering the seventh year of sustained growth after the “great recession,” there are varied opinions on the topic. Terms like “extra innings” and “double-header” were used as a familiar analogy to describe the sentiment. Are we close to a walk-off home run with two outs and a 3-2 count? Or are we in the 3rd inning of the evening game of the double-header?

One statement made by Tom Hennessy from Equity International caught my attention and I think is a more accurate assessment. Tom described the current situation as “land priced to perfection.” Unpacking his statement, Tom says the costs to continue this cycle of economic vitality are at a premium with zero margin for error. This will likely tighten the market significantly. However, the United States is and should continue to be a safe haven for international capital, which is beginning to flow into cities where vacancy rates are declining.

3) The Trump Effect
What conversation doesn’t include some discussion about politics? The market enthusiasm for bank deregulation, corporate tax cuts and support for small and medium business has everyone optimistic. However, many also expressed concern about the lack of traction and inability to move policy forward in Washington. This gridlock will likely not bode well for the markets, which could overshadow aforementioned positivity.

4) A Time for Tech
Seattle, with its tremendous development boom and 60+ construction cranes, had many people asking, “How much gas is still in the tank?” On one hand, it seems all economies are cyclical, even Seattle’s. But on the other hand, the growth of the tech industry seems to create anomalies that aren’t just based on traditional metrics. During the ULI meeting, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate, John Schoettler, announced that the company will hire 100,000 employees over the next 18 months. While that number represents employees around the world, it still equates to over 5,000 people per month — the size of a small Eastern Washington town. These figures underscore the dramatic shift that is happening in this “second machine age” fueled by extraordinary advances in computing technology. Developers and cities would be wise to continue to invest in this industry for years to come.

Regardless of these trends and what else is to come, it’s safe to say that we are just at the tip of the iceberg of the unimaginable changes that will take place in society. Over the next 10 years, disruptions such as driverless cars, more mobile ways of living and working, artificial intelligence and extraordinary breakthroughs in bio-science will transform cities and human life in profound ways. My friends and colleagues at ULI are perfectly positioned to lead and drive this discussion. Economy, ROI and politics aside — the future is bright and will be looking for innovation at all levels. It’s going to be quite a journey, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Image courtesy of Kevin Scott/NBBJ.

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Stop Fighting the Urban Redevelopment Battles We’ve Already Won

Now It’s Time to Invest in Inclusivity: A Conversation with John Alschuler

March 14, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

I recently invited John Alschuler, chairman of HR&A Advisors, to deliver some remarks to my firm, NBBJ, about the history of urbanism in America — and what our priorities should be for the next stage of urban redevelopment. Following is a condensed version of his talk.


What is it that we value about cities? They are places of culture, places of economic vitality, places of opportunity. But dynamic, humane urbanism is in danger, which requires a fundamental rethinking of how we practice urban redevelopment. This danger is present today in our STEM centers, such as Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, and is of growing concern elsewhere.

Our mindset today is a prisoner of an obsolete paradigm. After the Second World War, cities were losing tens of thousands of jobs each year and millions of people. A pro-growth coalition of labor, business and politics came together to rejuvenate the American city: first, to restore safety, and second — at the cost of billions of dollars — to bring private investment back. They incentivized companies to return and subsidized construction. They bought a new economy.

Then the paradigm shifted. Instead of pursuing private companies to induce economic growth, cities sought to create environments that attracted talent. Successful cities invested in physical beauty, in art, culture, beautiful parks, in making themselves exciting places to live, in the belief that workers would come and companies would follow.

And it worked, thankfully. The population trends fundamentally reversed. But now it’s time we declared victory in that struggle, in many of our leading cities . We did many things well, but If we keep doing urban redevelopment in the way have for the past 30 years, we will be fighting a battle we have already won. Worse, we will transform the American city into the province of the wealthiest people on the planet, and shove the poor to the periphery.

As a result of our success, a suburban attitude toward development has taken hold. We now have an unspoken, unarticulated alliance between “quality of life liberals” who love the urban form of the city and don’t want it to change, and the communities of color that have been the victims, over and over again, of displacement and gentrification. This anti-development constituency has fundamentally undermined the ability of cities like San Francisco to build. You don’t have to be an economist to understand that, if you build only a fraction of the housing you need to meet demand, housing prices will go through the roof. And this crisis is threatening many cities all over the United States. Battles are won while the war is lost.

The question is, what do we do about it? In the 1970s we assembled billions of dollars to deal with the dystopian threat to cities, but now we face a new challenge. If our values remain a humane urbanism, here is what we need to do:

We’ve spent a long time thinking about downtowns, but increasingly we need a multi-nodal urbanism. A place where multiple nodes — where people can live, work and play, all in the same place — are distributed and connected, and not just through the center. If we want a more inclusive, more open city, we need a city with multiple centers, all of which we nurture and care about.

We have to rethink transit. Virtually all cities’ transit systems are radial, designed to bring a suburban workforce downtown. But that’s not where all the jobs are anymore. And it leaves out neighborhoods and communities of color.

Our long-neglected, long-stigmatized reservoir of public housing has to be invested in and preserved while we build new affordable units. Thanks to a very powerful inclusionary housing ordinance, every apartment building in New York City going forward will have a minimum of 30% of its units devoted to low- and moderate-income people.

We have to think about parks in new ways. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, we dedicated a piece of land for housing in which 30% is designed for affordable families, so that the act of park-building becomes a home for diversity and affordability.

We have to work with the unions. I believe in unions and their right to negotiate and protect their workforce, but in some cities union labor adds 30% to the cost of building — and it has nothing to do with salaries. It’s all work rules, the requirements that add unnecessary costs. We need the unions to build affordable housing at fair wages, but with reasonable work rules.

We need to allow micro-units, to bring the size and cost of housing down.

We need to figure out how to take the distributive effects of an Internet manufacturing world and bring it back to cities. Working with some very visionary developers, we’re transforming 6 million square feet of office space at Industry City in New York into a form of inclusive manufacturing for companies like Makerbot, the largest producer of 3D printers in the United States. Many workers here are high-school graduates, who receive more than a living wage.

We need to rebuild community through culture. This is in many ways how we rebuilt our downtowns, with places like Lincoln Center, but we need to do it in other neighborhoods too. Theaster Gates’s most imaginative creations in Chicago were built within the African-American community in the South Side, including an “arts bank” that, as the library of Jet magazine, contains the history of America’s African-American communities since the Second World War.

We need to deal with climate change. New York recently built its first-ever zero-emissions school, and we need to do more of that.

We know how to spend money on the future of cities, but we shouldn’tto spend the money solely on the next High Line or Millennium Park or Copley Square. We need to spend it on affordable housing, on inclusive neighborhoods, on diversity. We can’t simply allow average incomes to rise, absent an inclusionary agenda.

We have to do this for two reasons. One, these are the values that stand behind our credo of humane urbanism. Two, if we don’t, the entire political coalition of growth will collapse on our heads, and our cities must keep growing if they are to be inclusive. We want to keep building, but we need to do so with a new agenda for a new century.

Image courtesy of Charlie Nguyen/Flickr.

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Where People Go (Back to Cities), Development Follows

Dispatches from an Optimistic MIPIM 2015

March 16, 2015

Partner, NBBJ

The mood of this year’s MIPIM — the international real estate conference hosted each year in Cannes, France — was solidly positive, with global real estate strong in many major sectors around the globe: the United States, United Kingdom and Asia in particular. It was also apparent from Norway to Normandy that many European countries and cities are starting to trend upward from the bottom of the 2008 global recession. The UK, in fact, sent some 5,000 attendees, the largest contingent from any country, and showed that London is truly leading Europe on the road to recovery.

France — the host country — was exuberant, with aspirations of large-scale remaking of its key cities. Paris in particular, with its popular “Reinventing Paris” ideas competition, sent the strongest signal of what European cities need to do to stay relevant in the post-industrialized world.

Other countries such as Turkey and Poland portrayed their aggressive stance to attract investment in thriving locations.

Noticeably absent were the once opulent and grand schemes coming out of Russia. The Middle East too was minimally present; however, their products seemed appropriate to a more modest market reality, as world oil prices are still down. As well, it was disappointing to not see more representation from Sub-Saharan Africa, as activity is just starting to increase in this last global development frontier.

The 20,000-plus attendees also seemed to embrace the idea of urban regeneration and the effect of the Millennial generation on the marketplace. Ideas for urban, mixed-use schemes that bring living, working and playing into the same space seem destined to be the way of the future.

With a worn-out larynx and a few microns less leather on my shoes, I again found MIPIM an amazing event for bringing together people who are passionate about not just making a little money in real estate, but about making the world a better, more habitable place.

Image courtesy of Simon & His Camera/Flickr.


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