What’s that scent your building is wearing?
Close your eyes and imagine you’re in an office building. What do you smell?
Probably cleaning products or new carpet at best, and old building funk at worst.
That was exactly what Mike Fransen, chief operating officer of the office company Parkway Properties, didn’t want. So workers at Greenway Plaza regularly install a cartridge of perfumed oil into the HVAC system. The diffuser whirs, and tiny droplets of the scent are suspended in the air, where they are swept up by the air conditioning or heating and delivered throughout the building. The result is a subtle smell of leather, bergamot and spices, reminiscent of faint cologne.
Scents are intimately entwined with emotion — the parts of the brain that process smell are connected to the parts that process feelings and associations. Clothing boutiques and hotels have been taking advantage of the connection for years (for example, DoubleTree Hotels often use scent diffusers to make their lobbies smell like fresh-baked cookies). Now the trend has extended to Houston’s office buildings. The ambient scenting industry has had 30 percent annual growth over the past four years, according to Jeff Sneed, a vice president of sales for Prolitec, which designed the Greenway Plaza scent. Now Sneed says more than 100,000 properties use ambient scent, including Parkway’s 5 million square feet of office space in Houston and all its properties in Miami.
“We want someone to walk out and say, ‘I have to be in that environment,’” Fransen said. “There’s an emotional connection.”
You probably already know the work of the people behind ambient scenting. The company that makes DoubleTree Hotels smell like chocolate chip cookies, ScentAir, was founded by a Disney imagineer; the scent in Greenway Plaza was designed by Prolitec’s Raymond Matts, who also designed the perfumes Clinique Happy and Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds.
But there’s a big difference between designing a smell for a person and a building, Matts said.
While someone wearing a perfume or cologne eventually stops smelling it — a phenomenon known as olfactory fatigue — that doesn’t happen in an office building. The droplets in the air are stirred as people move, constantly reminding them of the smell.
That means ambient smells have to be designed to be enjoyable to everyone and subtle enough that no one complains.
“Our worst customer is someone who is there 24/7,” Matts said. “They say, ‘Gosh, I don’t like this odor, it’s obnoxious,’ and they shut it off.”
The journey of the perfumed oils Prolitec delivers to buildings such as Greenway Plaza begins around the world. Some oils are derived from natural sources, such as roses or sandalwood. Like the grapes used for wine, these plants can have different characteristics depending on the environment in which they’re grown (this also means that like the wine industry, the scent industry is feeling the impacts of climate change). Other scents are manufactured to mimic nature — Matts sometimes places a glass bulb over items to capture the smells they emit, then analyzes the scent’s molecular compounds and re-creates them.
But the goal is for that long and complicated process to result in something people don’t consciously notice.
David Shupp, who has worked in Greenway Plaza for more than 20 years, said he’d seen an improvement in the office complex’s atmosphere since Parkway Properties took over. He noted the soft pop playing through the speakers and the new walkway connecting the buildings.
But he was surprised to hear that the office building had also taken the pains to perfume the air. “I don’t smell anything,” he said.
Curtis Heusman, whose work has brought him to the plaza once a month for about four years, also had never noticed the scent. But when asked about it, he could tell it was there.
“A little bit, but not too much,” he said after a deep whiff of office air. “Pleasant.”