Biophilic Design - Designing with Human Nature in Mind

A Design Assembly South Wales Presentation

On Friday, November 10th, we were proud to co-host Design Assembly South Wales with Edge Design.

Combining RIBA-certified CPD presentations from renowned professionals with the chance to mix and mingle with experts in the world of commercial interiors and office design, it proved to be a successful, insightful and entertaining morning.

If you missed it, you can download the programme, but we thought we’d give anyone who couldn’t make it on the day an opportunity to see what they missed.

Having summarised the presentations from Dan Rossiter and Martin Kessell, it's time to look at the last of our guest speakers; Oliver Heath.

We’ve already looked at Oliver’s credentials as an expert in sustainable, architectural and interior design.

He proved extremely popular, with the audience for his presentation on biophilic design, filling the Paramount boardroom.

Improving health & wellbeing in the built environment, naturally

Currently, both sustainability and the health & wellbeing of staff are significant concerns for business owners.

Creating a built environment which reflects these factors and improves an employee’s experience is becoming more important for organisations.

Oliver delivered some sobering statistics;

  • Stress-related illness is predicted to be the primary cause of sickness by 2020
  • In 2015/16, stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health
  • 7 million days working days were lost due to stress in 2015/16
  • 90% of the UK is now urbanised – up from 79% in 1950’s
  • We now spend 90% of our time indoors
  • 93% of U.K. adults have smart technology
  • 1/3 admit to checking smartphones in the middle of the night

A reliance on mobile technology has resulted in us losing the ability to relax naturally.

Oliver’s belief is that creating a working environment with connections to the natural world can alleviate stress and reduce absenteeism but also save money.

And that’s where biophilic design comes in.

What is biophilia?

Biophilia is the innate human attraction to nature and natural processes.

A simple exercise illustrated its inherent importance to the majority of people.

Oliver asked everyone in the room to close their eyes and imagine winning the lottery.

We now had the opportunity to buy our perfect home. But what would the view from the window look like?

Everyone in the room envisaged somewhere that overlooked a natural setting, whether it was a lake, beach, or forest.

Genetic Heritage and the Savannah Theory

This is down to our genetic heritage and the need we still have to be close to an environment that offers safety, shelter, food, water and warmth.

These needs can be summed up by what Oliver called the Savannah Theory.

Humans recognise a Savannah as a space that can help us survive, thrive and flourish.

A lush, green landscape promises edible plant life and the potential for animals to visit.

Proximity to water is imperative.

Trees offer shelter and fuel for fires.

High vantage points allow for a clear view of impending danger.

A return to nature

When we go on holiday, we do it to escape the stress of our working lives and, invariably, we go back to nature in order to do this; visiting the beach or countryside.

Biophilic design offers a return to this nurturing space that we inherently yearn for but in the urban environments where many of us spend the majority of our time.

Examples of this can even be seen in some of the more mundane spaces that we take for granted as part of our daily routine.

Image: Westfield Shopping Centre

Westfield Shopping Centre in London matches this template perfectly.

The mezzanine floors offer fantastic views of the outlets that offer food and drink.

Water features simulate the natural flow of streams and pools.

The pillars have clearly been designed to mimic the structures of trees and there are even examples of green pockets of plant life.

A shopping centre could be seen as an urban savannah.

These elements also match the three key constructs of biophilic design.

  • Contact with nature
  • Natural Analogues
  • Human spatial response

By following a few biophilic principles, these key constructs can be replicated just as easily on a smaller scale within the layout of a workplace.

Principle 1: Direct connection with nature

This involves giving people an opportunity to interact with natural forms in a number of ways, offering;

  • A visual connection with natural objects such as plants inside or outside the workplace.
  • A non-visual connection through the use of sounds, touch and smells in the workplace.
  • A non-rhythmic connection through naturally occurring movements such as ripples across water or swaying leaves.

A study by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District showed that this connection with nature can actually have a measurable impact on the workforce.

They looked at 100 workers in a call centre and found that individuals with a view of trees and vegetation processed calls up to 12% faster than those with no view.

They also performed up to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall.

Principle 2: Natural light

As Martin Kessell highlighted in his presentation about the relationship between light and colour, the circadian rhythms of natural light affect us all.

Research by the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado showed that artificial light can put our circadian rhythms out of kilter.

Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, recommends catching the first rays of morning light and giving yourself a ‘photon shower’ to start the day fresh and invigorated.

If that’s not possible, regular access to natural light throughout the day will avoid the “social jet lag effect” of artificial light.

Principle 3: Quality of air

As we already explored in our guest post from Plant Plan, plants in the office can provide tangible benefits to employees.

A number of studies have been undertaken to prove this.

Washington State University found that the amount of dust can be reduced by as much as 20% when adding plants to an office space.

A ratio of 1 plant per 3 employees has also been shown to halve CO2 levels.

The Agricultural University of Oslo, Norway, found that people in offices containing plants experienced a noticeable reduction in fatigue, headaches, sore/dry throats, coughs, and dry facial skin.

Principle 4: Natural Analogues

An indirect connection can be drawn with nature when you introduce man-made objects and features which mimic natural forms, patterns, materials, textures and colours.

This is known as biomimicry or biomimetics.

Biomorphic shapes, similar to the tree-like pillars at Westfield Shopping Centre, can evoke a sense of nature.

Natural materials and textures, such as wood and stone, provide further sensory benefits through touch, scent and even sound since natural materials can alter the acoustics of a room.

Natural patterns manage to combine a sense of both complexity and order, as well as being visually stimulating.

Interface’s Human Nature series of carpet tiles

The Human Nature series of carpet tiles from Interface is a great example of biomimicry.

Designed by David Oakey, they have been created to specifically mimic natural forms and patterns.

Principle 5: Prospect

This relates back to the raised plateau overlooking the savannah that we all inherently yearn for.

In our own biophilia blog, we referenced Terrapin Bright Green, who published the 14 patterns of biophilic design.

They describe a space with a good prospect as feeling open and freeing, yet safe and secure.

Having unimpeded views over a distance can reduce stress, boredom and fatigue whilst improving comfort levels, and creating a feeling of exploration and excitement.

Having said that, we accept that not all businesses will have the space to offer a view across the office.

Principle 6: Retreat

As we’ve highlighted in a number of blogs on the subject of privacy in the workplace, it’s vital that businesses offer their staff spaces to get away from a busy office environment.

These recuperative spaces give people somewhere to retreat into when they need a bit of peace and quiet.

And despite their need to socialise, it’s worth remembering that millennials want a quiet office too.

Embracing Biophilia

While Oliver admitted that the aesthetic aspects of biophilic design were obvious, there are also tangible business benefits that can be experienced when using it.

The Human Spaces Report found that biophilic design improved productivity, creativity and well-being.

It needn’t cost the earth either. Oliver highlighted three budget levels and how to achieve them.

Low-cost biophilia

  • 2 plants on each desk
  • Move desks to window
  • Encourage staff to walk/cycle to work
  • Encourage lunch to be eaten outside
  • Pictures of nature on walls

Medium-cost biophilia

  • Add some colour to walls – natural shades
  • Add natural textures to walls
  • Change flooring to add natural textures
  • Create zoned working spaces
  • Use glass walls to maximise light filtration
  • Artificial green walls

Large-scale biophilia

  • Create real green planted walls
  • Add water features
  • Fit circadian lighting systems
  • Use natural timber on walls
  • Create nature spaces inside and out

Ultimately, Oliver had one hope.

That businesses recognise the importance of giving staff a connection with nature.

It’s the first step to creating a sustainable environment that improves the health and wellbeing of staff.

If you’d like to find out how we can introduce elements of biophilic design into your workplace, get in touch with Paramount today.

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Categories: Design Assembly South WalesOffice DesignOffice Design Trends

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