Good, Thoughtful Hosts #103: Ecological Design Thinking with Dayton Rush

The interaction between an office environment and the outside world isn’t always obvious (or may not exist at all, if there’s no easy access to a window). And while a potted plant on your desk may strike some inspiration, there’s a much bigger opportunity to employ ecological design thinking in the spaces in which we work.

In this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we talk with landscape architect Dayton Rush to learn more about the connection between our natural and built environments. Designing office spaces to better use sunlight, views of the outside world, and other natural elements can help teams work to their fullest potential, while also nurturing our individual wellbeing.

About Our Guest
Based in Billings, MT, Dayton Rush is a landscape architect who lives for plants. He has extensive experience with — and loves — roof gardens, greenhouses, living walls, and interior plants. Dayton is also deeply knowledgeable about plant preservation and disease prevention, green infrastructure, and site design. And to round out his plant addiction, he also dabbles with floral arrangement.

Episode #103 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
There’s a show that debuted this year called “Severance.” And not to give too much away, but the workers are secluded to an office space that is devoid of anything that even remotely resembles nature. It feels stale and uninspired, which is sort of the point of the show. But in real life, if we want to do our best work and feel inspired and collaborative and motivated, we don’t want to feel trapped by our office and dulled by our surroundings. This is where the concept of ecological design thinking comes in. It challenges us to think of the entirety of our surroundings, and how everything in our built environment affects us, including the way we work. I’m Sarah Steimer. And in today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing how ecological design thinking within the office not only broadens our literal views, but may help to inspire our creativity and drive as well.

Producer 01:16
Today’s special guest

Dayton Rush 01:18
Hello, I’m Dayton Rush and I’m a landscape architect at Cushing Terrell.

Sarah Steimer 01:26
Okay, Dayton, let’s start super basic here. Can you explain to me what ecological design thinking is?

Dayton Rush 01:32
I can. So we use ecological design thinking as a framework for how we approach the design of projects. And it’s really just understanding that all organisms exist within a larger context and have a super important relationship and dynamic with their environment around them. And we think that just about every problem out there in the world can be solved with looking to nature and finding a pattern and an inspiration from a natural system. And using that to kind of leverage our design process and use it as a starting point. So that means looking for synergies and relationships, and just maximizing the way that humans can interact and be a part of their environment. So it’s approaching a design based on its entire ecology instead of one part or one building or one individual problem.

Sarah Steimer 02:29
Got it. So you know, I wanted to get a better idea, too, of some of the benefits of being in spaces that sort of utilize this sort of design thinking. And, you know, we’ll definitely jump into offices in a second. But just in general, what are the benefits of ecological design thinking.

Dayton Rush 02:45
So the benefits are a space that’s really connecting people to their environment. And that could be the natural environment. But it could also be just a better connection of oneself to the built environment around them, too. So just understanding who the end-user is, what their day-to-day looks like, what kind of environment is around them, and the environmental conditions that might affect their day-to-day, and when we can leverage a larger environment, into the outdoors into the surroundings around them, just thinking about all those things that would impact a user, instead of just the immediate, immediate surroundings, it’s just understanding that there’s a, there’s a greater whole out there that we’re all part of.

Sarah Steimer 03:29
I mean, as someone who is now able to sit on her balcony, again, to get some work done, I 100 percent understand this, it’s finally been warm enough again for me to do that. So let’s bring it into the office space now. Because this is something that I think a lot more people are thinking about, you know, just as far as holistically how things you know, operate within the work environment, how they’re affected by everything. So how do we apply this concept to the office space, and really make it a better place for people to work and think and collaborate?

Dayton Rush 04:00
Yeah, so I get asked that a lot, especially in our modern urban environments, or places that, that don’t really have that physical connection to nature, we don’t all have a green belt out our window or a garden right outside our window, we sometimes hear oh, that’s aspirational, to do something that connects people to the environment. But we don’t have that kind of space. And what we want to say to pretty much every one of those situations is that there’s still a way to connect people to nature and get the benefits of a good connection to nature, in just about any space we work in. And especially in work environments. We don’t all have ground-floor access to the outdoors. But when we do, great, let’s leverage that. But when we don’t, there’s so many other ways that we can tie people to their environment and improve their well-being in their day-to-day. I think a really good example about that is just thinking about daylight and, and sun and glare and those kinds of items that if they’re not thought about and planned correctly, one might just close the curtains and forget all about the outdoors for the whole time they’re at work. But if one thinks about that from the beginning of the design process and starts to think about, okay, here’s how the sun is going to change throughout the day and how it’s going to impact the environment of this interior space. One could actually design and plan around that experience so that it’s not about closing the curtain, maybe there are moments of the day that change the way you approached your morning because of the way the sun comes in a certain space or they actually calm you towards the afternoon and help you focus because the sun has that nice filtering quality that we all love from natural environments. So that’s one example of how we can actually look to the environment around us to really impact our interior space.

Sarah Steimer 05:46
You know, I’m so glad that you brought that up, I actually worked in an office once where, you know, we had these unbelievable views. And as soon as some of my co-workers came in, and their computers, their monitors actually faced the windows, they wanted to bring those blinds down, and it like broke my heart every single time. But it’s interesting you say that, to really think about the impact not only that sunlight can have on us, but then sometimes, you know, the nuisances, making sure that we’re working around that as well. And I assume that this also means I’m sure people automatically think with this sort of a design concept, they think, oh, so more plants inside. But it’s so much more than that is what it sounds like.

Dayton Rush 06:23
Absolutely. Obviously, plants are a great actual and literal connection to nature. But there are ways to connect people to nature with really without them even knowing. The sunlight is one good example of this: just being in your office and having a really well-lit daylit space. And then a cloud goes over the sun and the sun just naturally dims and you’re automatically aware of your environment, and you just wake up a little bit, those are little moments that we don’t necessarily relate to as a connection to nature as much. Because we’ve worked on evening out all of those kinds of items like that inside a built environment. But those are kind of connections in nature that aren’t as literal. Other ones might be temperature or soundscapes or the layout that in your adjacencies to other individuals, or another good one that I like to use a lot is really thinking about where views are within a building. We always talk about, yeah, there’s a window, that’s good enough, but I worked in a space where I looked out to a trash can. Why did someone spend money to put a window in right there? What a disappointing place. In plans, yes, I’m sure it looks great that my desk was gonna be right by a window. But quite unfortunate in the planning of that, to realize that not all windows are the same. It is really important to think about the larger context that the office environment is. And yeah, it’s not always about plants. But plants are an important part of it, as well. But there’s so much more depth when you think about the entire ecology of our day at work.

Sarah Steimer 07:54
Right? I think I stayed at a hotel that had the exact same views as that former office you had, just right at a dumpster. So beautiful.

Dayton Rush 08:02
Technically, it hit all the marks but…

Sarah Steimer 08:07
So I wanted to get an idea from you, too, you know, I’d love it if you could describe maybe one of your favorite examples of ecological design thinking within the office environment, maybe you have more than one. But, you know, what would you describe as sort of like the ideal example of this?

Dayton Rush 08:24
One good example, I think, is we did an office remodel or our own office in Austin. It’s a very urban environment, we’re not on the ground floor. But in one direction, we have just amazing views looking — south-facing windows — just a great perfectly framed view of the Capitol in Austin. And the natural thing for I think most office spaces to do right there would be to let’s fill that up with offices, because who wouldn’t want to sit there and look at that view? The reality of the way the sun cooks in there, there’s, it’s not a good office space, but has an amazing view. So what we did is we planned in a, what we call our front porch. And it’s really one of those spaces where you have places to focus. And the front porch is just another moment throughout your day that you can stop, collaborate, and meet other people there for really informal meetings. And it really becomes a part of your day to have a space like that, that has great views. The sun changes throughout the day. And it wasn’t programmed as a typical office layout, because it actually wasn’t great for that. But it’s wonderful for kind of impacting everyone’s day-to-day just because of its location and views to nature from it. So I like that example because it’s just rethinking of the kind of those typical money shot spaces that we often find that there’s always one beautiful space, but should we think about how we use it a little bit more to make it a little bit more equitable for everyone and to tie everyone to their environment a little bit better. Yeah.

Sarah Steimer 09:54
I really liked the way that you put that too. It’s like okay, maybe it’ll look right in a photo and maybe, you know, it’s this idea that like, oh, we do present this, but the actual usability of the space and I think that kind of plays into what you talked about earlier about thinking more holistically, and how everything’s going to affect everything else. So it’s not just maybe this lobby where you walk in and go, Wow, that wow factor, but it’s actually really utilizing that space, it sounds like.

Dayton Rush 10:17
Absolutely, let’s make it a part of your day rather than just a one-off, wow factor photo opportunity.

Sarah Steimer 10:26
Right, right.

Dayton Rush 10:27
Let’s actually make you experience it every single day of your career.

Sarah Steimer 10:32
And so my last question for you, then Dayton, just as far as advice goes, if you’re, you know, maybe an office manager or designer or anyone trying to really develop their office in, you know, using these sort of ecological design elements, what would you suggest maybe like your top three tips for what to think about?

Dayton Rush 10:51
I think the first one I would say is look for those low-hanging fruits, look for the items that already drew you to that space, and ask if are they really accessible to everyone? And is there just a small tweak that we can do to make it so more people could utilize that moment? Maybe it’s a, maybe it’s a view or a whatever it is that drew you to that space first. Does everybody have equitable access to it? Another one is to just think about, think about your relationship to the environment around you, and views and solar orientation, and all of those items, items that are not necessarily inherent in just looking directly at your floorplan. But think about, are there ways that we can start to leverage some of those as opportunities to kind of change someone’s day or environment and allow them to connect to nature a little bit more. And then number three is, if you can, and you have access to the outdoors, just really think about ways to give people a space to just go out and be in nature and unplug. A lot of times, we put a lot of effort into thinking about how to get a workstation in the outdoors. But in reality, most of us just need a place to relax, unplug for just a few minutes, and then get back into an environment that’s really conducive to focus. So if you do have access to the outdoors, you don’t necessarily need to go and build outdoor workstations in order to tie people to nature and get the benefits of their environment. But there might be just some easy ways to give people a place to get away and unplug.

Sarah Steimer 12:19
Well, great. Those were excellent tips and Dayton, thank you so much for not only taking the time to chat with me today, but also getting Vanilla Ice stuck in my head because I don’t know if you caught this but earlier you said, “Stop, collaborate, and…” I’m so glad I was on mute because I immediately started singing.


Dayton Rush 12:38
You can stop, collaborate. Meet other people there for really informal meetings. I didn’t say “and listen,” did I?

Sarah Steimer 12:55
You didn’t, you stopped. I said it on mute.

Dayton Rush 12:57
But you’re welcome.

Sarah Steimer 12:59
Well, thank you so much. This really was a pleasure chatting with you. And no, this is something that I mean even as someone who’s working from home it’s something worth thinking about even in my own environment. So again, thank you for taking the time.

Dayton Rush 13:12
Thank you.

Producer 13:20
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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