Ensuring your employees are happily working away as they’re supposed to is clearly one of your top priorities. Yet everyone takes time off for illness or personal reasons at some point, and the culture of ‘presenteeism’ means even when people show up for work they may be unproductive due to any combination of stress, distractions, mild illness, boredom or lack of motivation. If your business is like the average that spends 90% of its costs on staff, productivity demands even more attention. Related to productivity is the need to attract and retain top talent. Many employers assume the antidote to both these challenges is to out-do their competitors on staff benefits and holiday allowance, or maybe add a ping-pong table to the office. More forward-thinking employers (such as the tech giants Google and Apple, and many small design studios) are now turning to biophilic design as an effective way to boost productivity, wellbeing and motivation.

biophilic design for offices

Central park in Sydney, with green walls on the exterior of a high-rise. Photo credit: Sardaka (Creative Commons)

What is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic design is a design philosophy and set of principles based on the concept of biophilia, which holds that humans have an innate affinity with the rest of nature. As humans evolved within the larger context of the Earth’s ecology and have only been living and working in relatively un-natural spaces for a tiny fraction of our evolutionary history, biophilia holds that connection with nature is good for us and a lack of it causes us stress.

The term biophilic design has been around since the 1980s but is only just becoming popular now as it connects with the sustainable building sector which has traditionally been energy focused not human focused. The actual practise of biophilic design is far older, as people from ancient times onwards have taken architectural inspiration from nature.

This design philosophy is about bringing nature into our cities, homes and workplaces. As well as plants and animals, other natural elements such as wood and stone, wind, water and sunlight - and even particular spacial configurations -  are all considered ‘nature’ within this definition.

How biophilic design is beneficial

Numerous studies have shown strong correlations between spending time in nature or 'biophilic' buildings, and positive physiological effects, better mood, and higher productivity.

For example, a study in the US where participants worked for a week in offices that had either the national average level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ventilation or the low level of VOCs and high level of ventilation required by certified ‘green buildings’, found extremely large differences in cognitive performance. The participants in the ‘green’ offices performed an astounding 101% better than the ‘conventional’ group.

In another study, 100 white and blue collar workers in a Mediterranean wine company working beside windows with a natural view (trees, landscapes etc) was associated with reduced workplace stress and increased job satisfaction.

Research by Human Spaces also showed windows, especially with natural views, are one of the most desired office features. One explanation for their importance, apart from the natural light, is something called Attention Restoration Theory.

In the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design report by Terrapin Bright Green, researchers Lewis and Vessel write:

Natural stone carved with floral motifs. Photo credit: Pixabay

Natural stone carved with floral motifs. Photo credit: Pixabay

“When sitting and staring at a computer screen or doing any task with a short visual focus, the eye’s lens becomes rounded with the contracting of the eye muscles. When these muscles stay contracted for an extended period, i.e., more than 20 minutes at a time, fatigue can occur, manifesting as eye strain, headaches and physical discomfort. A periodic, yet brief visual or auditory distraction that causes one to look up (for >20 seconds) and to a distance (of >20 feet) allows for short mental breaks during which the muscles relax and the lenses flatten”. 

Attention Restoration Theory holds that people only have limited capacity for ‘directed attention’ (e.g. reading or typing) and get mental fatigue when faced with tasks that require a lot of directed attention amid highly stimulating/distracting environments - such as an office. By contrast, natural elements such as a water feature, landscape view or pot plant also offer a rich sensory experience but their stimuli is more diffuse and we view them in a more relaxed and spontaneous way, rather than with intense focus. This is thought to have a restoration effect on both our eye muscles and our mental capacity.

Psychologist Dr Chris Knight from Exeter University led a study which found simply adding houseplants to sparse offices increased staff productivity by 15%. The international research of Human Spaces, found that working in offices with natural light, good ventilation and plants saw 15% higher subjective wellbeing and a 6% productivity increase. They also found staff were more likely to feel happy and inspired and less likely to feel bored or anxious when entering a biophilic workplace.

For a clear visual explanation of the productivity benefits of plants and daylighting, see this infographic by Free Office Finder.

The influential Terrapin Bright Green report The Economics of Biophilia states:

“We believe that incorporating nature into the built environment is not just a luxury, but a sound economic investment in health and productivity, based on well-researched neurological and physiological evidence.”

They go on to underline the importance of productivity, especially when you have many staff:

“A company of 1000 employees, with an average compensation cost per employee of $33.24 [£25.32] per hour, could increase its profits by $3.9 million [£3 million] annually just by increasing its productivity margin as little as 6%.”

Plants on desks allow staff 'attention restoration'. Photo credit: Dave Fayram (Creative Commons).

Plants on desks allow staff 'attention restoration'. Photo credit: Dave Fayram (Creative Commons).

This is of course still relevant in a scaled down capacity for SMEs like us and many of the businesses based in and around Brighton. The point is, biophilic design has huge potential, not just for staff satisfaction and retention but for the bottom line as well.

How to apply biophilic design principles

Let’s say you’re now convinced it’s the way to go. How do you actually utilise biophilic design for your office? Here’s the three main principles, with some examples for each.

Nature in the space
This is about bringing actual nature into the building. For example -

  • Pot plants on desks
  • Living green walls
  • Water features
  • Fresh air circulation
  • Natural light
  • Window views to trees, landscapes or water
  • Sound of birdsong or water
  • Fish in aquariums
biophilic design for offices

Living green wall brings nature inside. Photo credit: Spaceo (Creative Commons).

Nature of the space
This is about the configuration of the space and how it relates to our primordial instincts
and innate desires for safety, mystery, sociability and power. For example -

  • Cosy private workspaces like small rooms or sheltered nooks
  • Meandering corridors with twists and turns
  • Open-plan collaboration spaces
  • Balconies and atriums with views from a height

Natural analogues
This is about using human-manufactured elements that mimic natural forms in some way. For example -

  • Wood, stone or slate finishes
  • Artwork depicting plants, animals, landscapes
  • Shades of green, blue, yellow and brown
  • Floral patterns
  • Circular shapes and curved lines

If you have the opportunity to design your ideal office from scratch or undergo a major renovation, you’ll be able to utilise all of these ideas. But we know most businesspeople are working within a more limited environment.

Even if you’re just renting a small office within a commercial unit you can’t control, you can still employ some biophilic design. For example, you could add a potted plant on every desk, put up prints of nature photography on the walls and arrange the furniture in a way that creates partially enclosed private workstations in the corners and a collaborative ‘break-out’ area in the centre. When choosing an office to rent, consider the importance of windows.

Do you use biophilic design in your office? Let us know your views at @KoruArchitects.

If you’re interested in biophilic design for education, sign up to our newsletter to get our Built to Learn report.
If you’re interested in passive solar for businesses, see our guest post on the ORB blog.