I visited Colchester Zoo over the Christmas holidays and was
really impressed with the quality of the animal enclosures. Clearly a lot of
thought had gone into their design and a great deal of effort made in meeting
the animals’ needs and making them comfortable. This was evident in the way the
animals behaved and through the success of their breeding programme.

It got me wondering whether any lessons learned in zoo
design are relevant to the workplace. However,
I am not the first to make this comparison. Judith Heerwagen suggests “For
insights, it is useful to look not at buildings, but at zoos. Zoo design has
gone through a radical transformation in the past several decades. Cages have
been replaced by natural habitats and geographic clustering of animals. And, as
in nature, the animals have much greater control over their behaviour. They can
be on view if they want, or out of sight. They forage, play, rest, mate, and
act like normal animals”[1]. She continues “A key factor was concern
over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals
alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish”. Heerwagen proposed that we learn from the new
philosophy of enriched zoo enclosures, providing for well-being rather than
simple survival, but can we also learn from the basic design principles in zoo

Humans are social animals

Provision of a suitable environment is the most fundamental
of five key principles in zoo practice – “the temperature, ventilation,
lighting and noise levels of enclosures must be suitable for the comfort and
well-being of the particular species of animal at all times”[2]. Painstaking
effort and meticulous detail has been taken to ensure the enclosures at modern
zoos provide each species and sub-species of animal with the best environment to
allow them to “flourish”. In contrast,
in the workplace, post occupancy evaluations (POEs) repeatedly show that
satisfaction is low with temperature, ventilation and noise[3]. Although much effort is made to ensure that
comfortable environments are provided in the workplace, POEs often show satisfaction
with comfort is significantly below 50%. Individual preferences, behaviours and
activities mean it is difficult to provide comfort for everyone, but such a,
repeatedly, low level of satisfaction is neither acceptable nor considered good
design. Similarly, when commuting into London last summer when temperatures on
the Underground reached 40°C, as I stood sweating in a crowded
carriage I often wondered to myself why it is illegal to transport livestock at
temperatures above 35°C but not humans[4].

I am a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[5]; he
proposed that for humans to perform to their maximum capability several categories
of needs must be met in acceding order. The lower order needs refer to comfort
and safety, the basics of zoo enclosures, and if these fundamental needs are
not met then our performance is inhibited. In contrast, the higher order needs
refer to more psychological, emotional and social factors. Interestingly, another
core provision for animal enclosures is the opportunity to express most normal
behaviour – “accommodation should take account of the natural habitat of the
species and seek to meet the physiological and psychological needs of the
animal”[2]. I have previously explored the psychological needs of
humans in some detail and have also expressed my concern that they are not
being met in modern homogenised workplaces[6]. It seems that a focus
on space efficiency and reduced property costs override the individual needs
required for maximum well-being and performance in the workplace.

It might be argued that zoo enclosure design is easier than
workplace design as it accommodates a single species with a basic animalistic
drive for survival. Firstly, humans have evolved into different races that have
adapted to different climates, but nevertheless we are one species. Secondly,
Richard Dawkins postulated in the Selfish
[7] that the single motivator for human behaviour is survival.
So, on the one hand it could be counter-argued that both the design of zoo
enclosures and workplaces comes down to a thorough understanding of the
occupants’ needs and designing to meet them. Although we share the territorial
and social behaviours of animals, these are often overlooked in the workplace.
In addition, I believe that there are many other factors that drive how humans
behave on a daily basis. We are a complicated species, separated from the
animals by our intelligence and personality, as well as neo-cortex size and
opposable thumbs. We know that specific
personality traits, e.g. introvert versus extrovert and internal versus
external, lead to certain behaviours and needs. In a zoo, if an animal exhibits
a particular characteristic that requires a specific environmental adjustment
for them to “flourish” then it is very likely that the zoo keeper would make
the provision. However, this is not the case in the workplace; we provide a
homogenous environment for a “single species” and there is little recognition
of individual differences and the associated requirements to enhance comfort
and performance.

Although Heerwagen beat me to the analogy between the workplace
and zoo enclosures, I think I was the first to compare the modern workplace
to chicken coups[8]. Battery-farm hens are accommodated in high density environments
with poor daylight and ventilation. In contrast free-range hens have lots of
space in which they can roam and explore, and have access to the outside with
unlimited daylight and ventilation. Battery hens are sad unhealthy chickens
with a short life-span, whereas free-range hens are happy, healthy, inquisitive
and playful chickens that live around five times as long as a battery hen. In
terms of productivity, there is a high yield of eggs per sqm for battery hens,
but the quality of the eggs is poor and the demand and market value of them is
low compared to free-range eggs which offer a higher return on investment. So I
recommend free-range workplaces with high quality space which offers people a
choice of environments where they can explore and socialise or alternatively
seek privacy. I wonder if the original bürolandschaft
office might be considered free-range whereas the modern open-plan office is
more akin to a battery-farm?

So isn’t it about time that we follow the example of the modern zoo and design workplaces so that individuals (and businesses) flourish rather than simply survive?


1. Heerwagen J (2008) Psychosocial Value of Space. J.H. Heerwagen & Associates, Inc.

2. DETR (2000) Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. Department
of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

3. Oseland N A (2006) Gauging
after effects of workplace design
. Urban Land Europe, 8 (2),

4. DETR (2010) Welfare of Animals During Transport Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005
on the Protection of Animals During Transport and Related Operations and The Welfare
of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006.
Department of the Environment,
Transport and the Regions.

5. Maslow AH (1943) A theory of human motivation.
Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.

6. Oseland N A (2009) The impact of psychological
needs on office design
. Journal of
Corporate Real Estate, 11
(4), 244-254.

7. Dawkins R (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

8. Oseland (2008) Designing offices to improve business
. Presentation at Herman Miller, June.