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It’s a jungle out there: Biophilic design in the workplace

29 September 2023

As the summer draws to an end and we contemplate the darker, winter months ahead cloistered within our workplaces, many might yearn for the connection with nature and the outdoors they’ve enjoyed over their holidays and sunny weekends. Biophilic office design is one way we can achieve a re-connection with nature: a design principle that places nature at its centre and focuses on bringing the outside indoors.

What is biophilic design?

Biophilic designs feature a range of ideas based around the characteristics of the natural world. Some of the most common concepts include:

  • Increasing the use of natural light and varying the type of light depending on the purpose of the space;
  • Incorporating plants and trees in the office environment wherever possible - including being built into walls, on roof terraces in large planters or throughout internal landscaping;
  • Using natural materials with a variety of textures, particularly wood, stone and slate;
  • Introducing water features, wall fountains and fish tanks;
  • Eroding the physical barriers between inside and outside using skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows and external balconies and terraces;
  • Experimenting with natural shapes and forms, including curved lines and domes; and
  • Utilising earthy colours associated with nature.

As looked at previously by our Future of Work Hub, biophilic design is distinct from ideas of sustainable construction. A green roof, low carbon concrete and thick wall insulation may be environmentally friendly methods of construction, but these are largely hidden features that do not affect a user’s direct experience of the space. Biophilic design is about incorporating nature into the spaces we occupy, use and enjoy daily.

As the list of concepts suggests, it is also more than simply adding a few plant pots around the office. Workplace designs based on only occasional or superficial interactions with nature do not constitute true biophilic design. Instead, the aim is to create a space featuring repeated and sustained engagement with nature and the natural world. And the biproduct of this is an environment which supports the notion of the office as a community: workspaces that foster communal wellbeing and social interaction.

How has biophilic design been incorporated into offices?

You may not be surprised to learn that some of the pioneers in this area are America’s tech giants. Perhaps the most prominent example of biophilic office design is Apple’s California HQ. The buildings circular “spaceship” design brings light into the office from every angle, is surrounded by a 9,000-tree woodland and features an orchard in the centre of the “loop”.

Amazon’s offices in Seattle include three transparent greenhouses – known as the “Spheres” – packed with more than 40,000 plants, serving as an employee lounge and workspace. The campus also features a four-story living wall, as well as a living chandelier. Microsoft’s treehouse conference rooms in Redmond, Washington and Facebook’s 3.6-acre rooftop garden at its Silicon Valley hub number among similar high-concept biophilic office spaces.

The trend has also taken off closer to home. The Crown Estate’s One Heddon Street in Mayfair, for example, features a living wall and an indoor garden, as well as planted trees on each floor. Elsewhere, the remodelling of 25 Cannon Street in The City incorporates biophilic principles within a new public garden and rooftop terrace.

What are the benefits of using biophilic design?

Indeed, the entire concept behind this trend is much more than a vanity project. There are many reported benefits for adopting biophilic design in workplaces, with improvements made to employees’ physical and mental health at the forefront. UK charity Mind says that spending time in nature or green spaces has a range of positive effects, including reducing our feelings of stress and anger, as well as improving our mood. Research has also found that increased exposure to sunlight boosts our production of serotonin, known as our ‘happy hormone’, reducing levels of anxiety and depression, as well as regulating our circadian rhythm and promoting healthy sleep patterns.

Recent research even suggests that there may also be benefits in terms of employee output and productivity. According to reports, a study by Exeter University found that office workers are 15% more productive in offices that have a closer connection to nature. Additionally, a separate study into 7,600 workers in 16 countries found that offices with green or natural features can boost productivity by 6%, raise wellbeing by 15% and bring about a 15% uplift in creativity.

Many employers also now view their office space as an important strategic device in recruitment and employee retention. As Knight Frank have commented, “in order to attract top talent, your space needs to reflect your culture – employees want green, dynamic, and inviting environments that they’re proud to call home.” It seems, therefore, that embracing biophilic features and drawing the natural world into the office could be a win-win for both the health of employees and the health of the business.

What factors should occupiers consider?

With all these benefits, what’s not to love about biophilic design? Surely we should all be realising our vision of creating a jungle-type environment in our offices? Well, before going full-steam ahead, there are a few things to consider. For instance:

  • Costs – The advantages of biophilic design don’t come for free and there can be significant cost outlay in implementing this type of design in workplaces. In addition, larger plants and trees will require larger amounts of water and energy to maintain, and more natural light flooding into the office can mean more heat flooding in too. Unless proper consideration is given to managing this extra heat, air conditioning costs could rise substantially.
  • Time – Depending on the type and extent of biophilic features in the office, there may also be substantial time required to maintain greenery and water features so that they always look their best. Worse than no greenery is overgrowth, dead plants and algae-ridden features. You may not be surprised to hear that trimming back plants at Amazon’s Spheres starts every day at 6 a.m. and lasts for at least three hours!
  • Allergies – As hay fever is becoming ever more common, it is important to ensure that any plants chosen for the office don’t produce a lot of pollen and trigger allergic reactions among the workforce.
  • Lease Terms – And underpinning all of this, occupiers will need to know their rights and any restrictions contained in their lease. For example, any biophilic features requiring any form of structural work or affecting the exterior of the building are likely to need landlord’s consent.

However, these notes of caution aside, it is clear that biophilic design and architecture in the workplace is an increasingly popular trend. Plants and greenery undoubtedly enhance our feelings of connectivity with the natural world and act as the perfect antidote to an increasingly technology-driven society. Also, at a time when more emphasis than ever is being placed on physical and mental health, biophilic design in the office could play an important role in a company’s wellbeing strategy.

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