In today’s world, “greening” your business usually means focusing on things like recycling, resource efficiency and energy saving. But what about the really green stuff — nature itself? John Barwise explores the options and the benefits of letting a bit of biophilia into your workspace.

Nature made us who we are. We are born out of nature and our evolution is tied to the natural world. Yet at each stage in our evolutionary journey — from nomad to cave dweller to house owners and tower block tenants, we have tended to become more isolated from the environment around us.

Creeping urbanisation is exacerbating this disconnect, but we have never lost touch with our inner sense of belonging in nature.

It’s in the genes

Biophilia is about our innate affinity with wildlife and the natural environment around us and explains why we can often feel uncomfortable and even stressful when dissociated from it. Various psychology studies show that our connection with nature is a restorative experience, while other empirical studies have concluded that the built environment, devoid of nature, can and does have a negative effect on health and wellbeing.

On average, we spend an estimated 90% of our lives inside buildings — mostly in the home, office, factory and other workplaces, isolated from the natural environment. Dr Ed Suttie, Research Director in the Centre for Sustainable Products at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), says that in a typical office-based business, 90% of the costs are associated with staff, yet up to 60% of UK office workers do not have sufficient access to natural daylight, which has negative impacts on health and wellbeing of occupants that ultimately affects productivity, company morale and the bottom line.

Replacing natural daylight with artificial light is just one of a number of isolating factors affecting health and productivity in the workplace: other factors include indoor air quality and ventilation, thermal comfort and humidity, noise and acoustics and restrictive interior layout and design of work areas.

Biophilic Design

So how do we “green up” our urban concrete jungles and reconnect with nature? Welcome to biophilic design.

Sensory perception is what keeps us in touch with the world around us — what we see, touch, smell, taste and hear — helps to stimulate our connectedness with nature. Biophilic design is a broad set of principles that integrates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and access to the world around us into the modern built environment to enhance our sense of wellbeing.

The biophilic design concept isn’t new and there are numerous examples where one or more of these principles has improved mental and physical wellbeing, as well as other studies showing an increase in reported levels of productivity, creativity and a reduction in absenteeism in the workplace.

Biophilic design research points to several sectors where the benefits have been measured and proved:

  • Office design: productivity can be increased by 8%, rates of wellbeing by 13%, increased creativity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism

  • Hospitality design: guests willing to pay 23% more for rooms with views of Biophilic elements

  • Education spaces: increased rates of learning of 20–25%, improved test results, concentration levels and attendance, reduced impacts of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

  • Healthcare spaces: post-operative recovery times decreased by 8.5%, reduced pain medication by 22%

  • Retail: the presence of vegetation & landscaping has been found to increase average rental rates on retail spaces with customers indicating they were willing to pay 8–12% more for goods and services.

  • Homes: can become more calming & restorative with 7–8% less crime attributed to areas with access to nature and can command an increase of 4–5% in property prices.

Oliver Heath, founder of Oliver Heath Design, a recognised company in the field of sustainable architectural and interior design, says biophilic design is not just about adding the occasional potted plant into the workspace, but about “reconnecting people in the buildings that they spend so much of their lives in, to the natural world,” which, he argues, can help reduce stress and improve wellbeing.

For Heath, biophilia means “optimising the design opportunities that we have to make the buildings of today, fit for our future”.

“Increasingly this lies in the opportunities being created by specifying cutting edge materials, textures and products. Our work looks to develop the research base that underpins this and demonstrate the creative opportunities that exist no matter what the budget; from no cost to low cost, medium to high cost,” Heath explains.

The WELL standard

The multinational flooring design and manufacturing company, Interface, is actively involved in biophilic design. Working with Oliver Heath Design, the company has supported the development of a WELL building certification standard to inspire discussion around creating spaces that improve health and performance and enable businesses to reach their full potential.

The WELL standard is certified by Green Business Certification Inc. and offers a concise, human-centred step-by-step guide to achieving WELL certification. It also includes case study examples of who is already implementing human-centred design and advice on how to take the process forward.

Topics covered include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mindfulness and mental health to reduce stress. Indoor air pollution, for example, can be significantly higher than pollution outdoors and vapour from toxic domestic cleaning substances can also be more cancerous than outdoor pollution. Recommendations include natural ventilation, air filtration systems, humidity controls and operable windows.

The Biophilic Office

Other work currently underway include The Biophilic Office, a long-term research and demonstration project currently being undertaken by BRE and Oliver Heath Design.

Ed Suttie who is BRE project lead, says the aim is to establish the business case for biophilia. “Building owners and facilities managers need to know what they can do within limited budgets to create restorative and occupant health driven environments, and the predicted return on investment.”

A live office refurbishment on BRE’s Watford campus has been gathering indoor environment and occupant data. This initial study had produced a baseline over one year of the existing building (acoustic, light, air quality, thermal comfort, materials), and its occupants, as a precursor before a “biophilic” refurbishment takes place.

Various biophilic design projects within the building are being supported by a range of expert partners in lighting, flooring, furniture, green walls, paints & finishes and acoustics, to strengthen the evidence base for biophilic design and its positive impacts on office occupants.

BRE will then monitor the office space and its occupants again post-refurbishment for another year. The long-term findings are intended to link to the biophilic elements introduced in the refurbishment to provide a better understanding of the influence of product and design on occupants.

Each of the partners in the project have used this office refurbishment and its test facilities to monitor and measure their products’ role in the health and wellbeing of occupants and better understand the wider benefits of biophilic design.

Suttie is optimistic biophilic design will deliver results and have a knock-on effect, reducing absenteeism and improving productivity. Speaking to MyGreenPod he said: “As we spend a lot of time in the office surrounded by people, we also hope to see a rise in social health, too — with workers communicating more and having more fun. A blurring of life inside and outside work should be apparent as social structures improve.”

Studies and surveys of the existing occupants has now taken place and BRE is currently reviewing the evidence from the refurbishment phase.

Biophilic — designing the future

Whatever the outcomes of the BRE study, there is already enough evidence to indicate that biophilic design, tailored to the specific needs of different workplace environments, can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing of the people working there.

In the grand design of re-establishing our primal links to the natural world and the environment around us, biophilia seems to have everything going for it.

Last reviewed 17 September 2019