Responsible Future

Rethinking the office of the future and placing plants centre stage

In Conversation with Tessa Duste and Nina Sickenga, Founders of MOSS

Rethinking the office of the future and placing plants centre stage

When we talk about built-in obsolescence, what we’re often referring to are smartphones and digital devices that are designed to eventually malfunction or slow down. But a version of this phenomenon can also be found in architecture, when a building looks magnificent when it is first unveiled but begins to look tired and outdated after even a matter of weeks. ‘You should not design something which is going to go downwards so quickly,’ says Nina Sickenga, the co-founder of MOSS, a design company specialised in high-end green design projects, and an architect by training. ‘A building should be there forever, in my opinion.’

Her company, based in Amsterdam, tackles everything from indoor gardens to intensive green roofing projects to urban-agriculture installations, and has carried out several projects cultivating plants and greenery that live on building facades. To reduce costs in such instances, the plants are really small when they are put in place. ‘They have to grow for at least one year before it looks nice and impressive,’ Nina explains. ‘In the second year, it will look amazing.’ This sometimes requires some deft expectation management with clients, who like to see instant results, but it’s a clear demonstration of how MOSS and its two founders differ from much of the construction industry in their focus on the future and long-term results.

'It’s not about growing for growth’s sake. It’s really growing because we want to create more impact.'

It was in fact their interest in the future of design that first brought Nina and her co-founder Tessa Duste together. They were both enrolled at Delft University, Nina as an architect and Tessa as a product designer, and when they met, they quickly found common ground. ‘We were always busy thinking about the future of our cities,’ says Tessa. Soon after the pair graduated (and after Tessa’s stepdad, who owned a roofing business, commented on how many ‘suggestions’ they had for his own enterprise), the pair decided to team up and launch MOSS, which stands for Makers of Sustainable Spaces.

This was in 2013 and the discussion of sustainability back then, particularly in the construction industry, was limited, to say the least. ‘Sustainability was sort of a buzzword,’ says Tessa. ‘Everyone was talking about sustainability, but not really doing anything.’ The first couple of years were tough. She and Nina found they were having to do a lot of explaining and education with clients, particularly because they didn’t have a large portfolio of case studies that they could show off.

That all changed in 2017 when the heads of Booking. com, the huge online travel marketplace and one of the Netherlands’ most successful start-ups, invited MOSS to be involved in a tender for the new 65,000 square metre company campus. ‘We were still really a tiny company, so we were actually quite surprised that they invited us to participate,’ says Nina. MOSS was alongside 30 companies, all pitching to work on different spaces within the campus, and ended up winning one of the contracts. It was a great opportunity for them to put their plant-centric design ethos into practice in a large corporate setting; it also put Nina and Tessa in touch with contacts and clients they have nurtured ever since.

In the story of MOSS, there is a pre-Booking. com era and a post-Booking.com era. ‘For us, it was an amazing stepping stone, not only for design, but also to get to work with these types of partners,’ says Nina, citing the global property company CBRE and the architecture firm UN Studio as two examples of such partners. ‘And as soon as you have Booking.com on your list of projects, it’s a lot easier to attract new projects or show that your company is mature enough to do this type of thing.’

Since then, the company has grown slowly but steadily – the word Tessa and Nina use, perhaps unsurprisingly, is ‘organically’. They have grown their client base mainly through word of mouth and building solid relationships over time; they have been careful when hiring, wanting to ensure that a role is absolutely necessary for the long term before they commit; and they have kept a sharp focus on working with clients in an open, iterative way.

In many ways, MOSS came to maturity at exactly the right time to make the most of two important long-term trends. Firstly, the centrality of green issues and sustainability in every industry, including in the design, architecture and construction world. Making buildings greener, both literally and metaphorically, has never been further up the agenda. And secondly, the realisation among business leaders that attracting and retaining talent is the key to success in the global 21st-century economy.

'Everyone was talking about sustainability, but not really doing anything.'

When it comes to staff retention, research has confirmed what many of us would suspect – that being surrounded by plants and greenery leads to a noticeable increase in wellbeing, creativity and even productivity. In other words, business leaders want what MOSS is selling, not only to support lofty ideals about sustainability, but also to get the most out of their most expensive and valuable resource: their employees. Nina and Tessa are currently in the midst of commissioning their own research, so that they can further understand the benefits of a green working environment.

Now, at this stage, you might point out that it seems we’re ignoring the largest elephant in the office: the Covid-19 pandemic. By now we’ve all read enough about how the nature of work has been radically altered and how in the future we won’t need offices like we have done in the past. Surely, if MOSS’s business model depends on making workspaces and offices greener, it will suffer from this trend?

Tessa and Nina are far more sanguine, however. As they see it, companies and their employees will in future put their offices to different uses – three to be exact. Workplaces will be used, firstly, for ‘hyper- focused work,’ as Tessa puts it, where you get away from the distractions at home, confine yourself in a pod and get your work done in peace; secondly, to ‘come together with your colleagues to brainstorm new ideas, where you want to be inspired and to spark creativity’; and thirdly, ‘to connect’. It’s this third use that the pandemic has really revealed. ‘This is what we’re all missing in this time,’ Tessa adds. ‘Partially we find it really comfortable working from home. But we miss those moments of connection, those moments of talking to your colleagues over a cup of coffee, maybe chit-chatting, but then also discussing work in a more relaxed environment.’

Nina and Tessa’s shared vision for the workplace of the future is far more optimistic than many gloomy predictions. They believe that the best companies will still want to keep some form of physical footprint, so that their employees can use it in all three of these ways. And they believe that smart design, using plants and greenery, can facilitate each and every one of these uses, helping to boost creativity, productivity and happiness. ‘There are all these ways to design with green to actually accentuate those needs,’ says Tessa.

With that confidence that the future is on their side, the pair of founders are now looking to open up new markets around the world, outside their native Holland, in particular the US, China, South Africa and Australia. But their desire for international expansion isn’t about prioritising profits and lining their pockets. ‘It’s not about growing for growth’s sake,’ says Tessa. ‘It’s really growing because we want to create more impact.’

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