What is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design recognises our place in nature, and aims to maintain, restore and enhance physiological and psychological connections to the natural world within the built environment.

Biophilia, literally ‘a love of nature’ is a term coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book of the same name published in 1984. In the book, Wilson argued that human beings have an innate and evolutionary based affinity for nature, and defined the term as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”.

Stephen Kellert, PhD, of Yale University in his book Building for Life, published in 2005, defined the concept of biophilia as “a complex of weak genetic tendencies to value nature that are instrumental in human physical, material, emotional, intellectual, and moral well-being. Because biophilia is rooted in biology and evolution, it represents an argument for conserving nature based on long-term self-interest.”

It’s surmised that biophilia evolved as an adaptive mechanism to protect ourselves from hazards and help us access resources such as food, water and shelter. In the modern world, this translates as a strong preference for any features that suggest these evolutionary roots. Hence, the competition for offices with views and the sky high prices commanded for residential real estate with “sweeping ocean views”.

Incorporated in building design, it’s been well demonstrated that biophilic elements have real measurable benefits associated with productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning and healing.

In a landmark study, published in 1984, Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at Texas A & M University, quantified the medical benefits of views of nature, showing that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery recovered more quickly and required less pain medication if they had a view of trees beyond their window than if they looked out on a brick wall.

The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace: a landmark report

A recent survey of 7,600 workers in 16 countries led by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University and co-founder of Robertson-Cooper, resulted in findings that make an unambiguous case for biophilia in the workplace. Key messages of The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace report, commissioned by Interface, the world’s largest designer and manufacturer of carpet tiles, included:

• Biophilic design in the workplace has a strong, measurable impact on key employee outcomes such as well-being, productivity and creativity.

• Those who work in environments with natural elements reported a 15% higher level of well-being, a 6% higher level of productivity and a 15% higher level of creativity than those who work in environments devoid of nature.

• Those who enter an office space which incorporates nature are more likely to feel happy and motivated for the day ahead.

• Across the world, a third (33%) of all respondents reported that the design of an office would affect their decision to work for that organisation, presenting biophilic design as an important consideration for those companies that want to attract and recruit the best employees.

• Existing literature suggests that nature contact has a restorative effect on people, helping them deal with day-to-day stress and work to maintain performance.

• Surprisingly large numbers of employees reported having little or no contact with nature in their workplace – 47% reported having no natural light and 58% reported having no live plants.

• A number of leading organisations are now providing employees with contact with nature. This latest research presents a further call to action for employers to consider the environments they create and continues the discussion of the importance of biophilia within their workplaces.

The recent trend in green architecture and sustainable design has decreased the environmental impact of the built environment, but it has accomplished less in the way of reconnecting us to the natural world, the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development. Combining ecologically sustainable design principles with biophilic design elements is the way of the future.

Yes, this does mean that having a potted plant on your desk and a nature-based screen saver will do you good, but in terms of workplace design biophilia can be incorporated on much deeper levels.

It’s not just about plants

The obvious way to introduce nature into an indoor office environment is by adding plant life but adding representations of living things and patterns from nature, such as the Fibonacci sequence and fractals, can be equally effective. We perceive that this biomimicry is non-living, but our brains still associate these patterns with living nature.

Natural lighting

An office space flooded with natural light is good for the occupants as well as saving on energy bills. For maximum visual comfort and well-being, a lighting system should mimic our circadian rhythms, changing throughout the day in line with people’s natural 24-hour cycle.

The presence of water

Fountains and water features have been incorporated in urban design since ancient times, and for good reason. The soothing presence of water, in still ponds or flowing features, has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, aid in memory and increase feelings of tranquillity and well-being.

Airflow and temperature

In order for people to feel more connected to the outdoors while working indoors, studies have shown that performance is enhanced if airflow and temperature are both variable rather than constant. Additionally, natural airflow from operable windows has been found to improve wakefulness, focus and performance.

Appealing to all the senses

For biophilic design to be most effective, it should provide multi-sensory stimulation. So the smell of plants and flowers, the ability to feel airflow and natural textures and the sound of water or birdlife can be equally effective as the sight of natural living things and natural patterns.

If you can’t get the real thing, fake it

Of course, the introduction of real natural elements into an indoor space has the maximum benefits but when it’s just not possible to add more windows or make other changes to an existing space that lacks connection with the outdoors the addition of images of nature and biomorphic patterns can still substantially benefit the occupants’ feelings of comfort and well-being.

Aspect Furniture Systems
© Aspect Furniture Systems Australia & New Zealand

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