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The Biophilic Office: Designing with Nature

Imagine it’s your first day of a new job. Your dream job. A small tech start-up in the heart of Silicon Valley. You walk in the front door of your new office building and can’t believe your eyes. Floor to ceiling windows. Skylights. A giant koi pond in the lobby. Exposed brick walls. Murals of natural landscapes. And plants. Lots and lots of plants, everywhere. You take a deep breath and count your blessings. You know, without a doubt, this place is going to bring out the best in you and your work.

You might not realize it, but this feeling – the affinity and connection to natural settings – has a basis in human biology. The biophilia hypothesis was first popularized in 1984 by American biologist, E.O. Wilson. He defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” It means human beings have an instinctive bond with other living systems. Unlike phobias (aversion and fears), philias are the positive feelings that people have toward organisms, species, habitats, processes, and objects in their natural surroundings.

Wilson’s observations led researchers to investigate the effect of nature on humans in the built environment. In one now famous study, patients in hospital rooms with views to nature (as opposed to rooms with no windows) had significantly reduced levels of stress and anxiety, lower pain medication, and even faster recovery times. These findings have transformed the way medical facilities are built. Could the same positive outcomes happen in biophilic office environments?

Evolution of the traditional office space

At the heart of biophilic design principles is an appreciation for how nature affects us. This leads to a better understanding of how to bring these influences into our workspaces. Built environments with natural elements, such as plants and sunlight, lead to higher levels of worker well being and productivity. This is an important consideration for any company because it significantly impacts the bottom line. (More on this in a minute.)

The “biophilic office” is in stark contrast to the window-less cubicle office that is so common in the modern workplace. Globally, nearly half (47%) of office employees have no access to natural light in their working environment, and almost two thirds (58%) have no live plants in their workspace. This is according to a new study of 7,600 workers from 16 countries that seeks to quantify the benefits of biophilic design, specifically for well being and productivity. It finds that employees who work in environments with natural elements report a 15% higher level of well being, are 6% more productive, and 15% more creative overall.

The study finds that the most wanted elements in office space are:

  1. Natural light
  2. Live indoor plants
  3. Quiet working space
  4. View of the sea
  5. Bright colors

Even if you’re a company that leases its office buildings, there are still plenty of things you can do to activate the biophilic affiliation. Indoor plants, nature and landscape wall art, and outdoor dining spaces all work well. Get creative! These relatively low-cost options are easy to implement and can have many benefits in terms of employee happiness, engagement, and productivity.

What this means for business

Workplace design impacts the largest cost for most organizations: employees. There is a link between physical working spaces and worker performance. In the not-too-distant future, a building’s value will not be measured solely by how much it costs to build and maintain. Instead, it will be valued in terms of whether it enhances or hinders levels of worker health (i.e., nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep patterns), creativity, and performance.

The movement in biophilic design is strong and growing. There is even a new certification, WELL, that measures, certifies and monitors the performance of building features that impact human health and well being. WELL is third-party certified by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which administers the LEED certification for buildings and LEED professional credentialing for individuals.

The next frontier for the built environment is connecting the indoors to the outdoors. Companies on the leading edge will find it easier to attract and keep top talent. Those that don’t will fall behind.

To take a deeper dive into this and other topics, the Sustrana platform offers a wealth of resources to help enhance employee engagement and well being, as well as a database of projects related to other social aspects of sustainability. Sign up for a webinar if you want to learn more.