As the world’s population becomes more urban, access to nature becomes more important to our wellbeing. From the pollinators that provide our food to the public parks that are the ‘green lungs’ of many towns and cities.

Access to nature improves our health and wellbeing.  Gardens or a view onto green spaces reduces recovery time for hospital patients. London’s parks cut health costs by £950m p.a. Green infrastructure provides shade, reduces the effect of urban heat islands, provides local wind shielding and humidity control, and helps to scrub pollutants from the air.

Groups like the Wildlife Gardening Forum encourage people to use small plots of land to support nature and to be in nature. The Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku, ‘forest bathing’,  is growing in popularity. Health professionals now recommend a dose of 2-5 hours a week immersed in nature to promote good health.

How can we make indoor spaces natural?

Oliver Heath Design, The Biophilic Office
Oliver Heath Design, The BRE Biophilic Office

So, that’s the benefit of our outdoor environment, but what about the spaces where we spend most of our waking hours; homes and offices?

A few weeks ago, I attended the Wellness and Biophilia Symposium at the BRE. It taught me a new word, Biophilia – the affinity that humans have to other living things and the pleasure that we experience in nature. It also taught me the latest thinking on creating office spaces that help people to be happy and productive.

Since 80% of office costs are staff, we should worry about productivity per square metre not cost per square metre. Getting the indoor environment right is essential for a productive workplace. The classic bright and plain rectilinear box of commercial buildings needs softening.

“biophilic design is just good design!”

Biophilic design requires a holistic approach. It is much more than dotting plants around the space; it must involve all the senses:

  • Views onto natural outdoor spaces
  • Balancing natural and artificial light and allowing it to change with time
  • Curving and organic shapes.
  • Fractal repeat patterns in floor and wall coverings and room dividers that echo living structures
  • Use of natural materials and textures such as wood and stone
  • Random small fluctuations in airflow, temperature, sound and humidity

The design consultancy Terrapin Bright Green described 14 ways of making an office design feel more natural to the workers.

Green Roof, California Academy of Sciences

Sounds expensive – is it worth the money?

It all sounds delightful, and these would be pleasant places to work, but it also sounds expensive and hard to maintain. Is it really worth it? A nice blank box is easy to set up, easy to adapt and very efficient.

We have growing evidence that biophilic design is cost effective. Another report from Terrapin Bright Green looked at the economics of biophilic design. Poor building design is behind 10% of employee absences, and biophilic design concepts cut absenteeism and increase productivity. A study in a call centre showed that handlers dealt with 6%-7% more calls per hour if they have a window view of nature. Retail customers feel better and buy more readily if the store uses biophilic principles. Children reached specific learning targets 20%-26% faster with natural lighting and access to green space.

Rental and sales values are higher for buildings that integrate nature.

There are some additional costs to biophilic design, but they are not significant compared to the gains. As one speaker said – “biophilic design is just good design!”. If you start the design journey with the right goals in mind, the additional costs are marginal.

The invisible matters as much as the visible

The look of an office immediately grabs the attention, but invisible features and basic services also need to be right.

In a comparison of two offices in India, occupants rated the air-quality the same, even though one had low air pollution, and the other had a high burden. But increased respiratory problems and time off work showed the value of a good indoor environment. Not all benefits of biophilic design are plain to users, but it shows up in their performance.

The Phipps Conservatory, a botanical garden and research centre in Philadelphia, is in the middle of a major upgrade where biophilic thinking was central to the plan. I asked the CEO about the most surprising feature that the staff loved. He said the office building used passive stack ventilation, and that meant staff could open the windows in offices. He had never imagined how important this small element of control would be to people, and how they enjoyed the natural air movements.

The Marks and Spencer store at Cheshire Oaks has a wavelike wooden roof, a green wall, excellent natural lighting, hemp and lime wall panels, rainwater harvesting and other sustainable and natural elements. Staff and shoppers love it. However, the store also had to make sure that there is enough staff parking, access is easy and safe on early and late shifts, and the staff areas are as pleasant as the retail floor.

Key messages from the symposium

Biophilic design makes a convincing argument that bringing nature and natural forms into our workplaces improves health and wellbeing and increases productivity. Three strong messages came through:

  • It is a holistic design process. All senses must be engaged, and the invisible (air-quality, sound levels etc) needs as much focus as the visible.
  • Involving the intended end-users from the beginning leads to better outcomes. They will improve the design and make sure you get the basics right. There is no point in creating a nature-rich environment if access is difficult, or there are no lockers.
  • Decision makers see biophilic design as expensive and ‘nice to have’ rather than vital to productivity. We need a much stronger story that can convince developers, property managers, businesses and workers. Biophilic design is holistic, and the evidence and argument must be holistic as well.

Oh! And office plants are still useful.

Importing Nature Makes Great Offices and Happy Workers
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