In our nature – biophilia and built environments

by Ben Ice
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Trees, plants, views of nature, rocks, natural materials and water don’t just look and sound nice, they have profound impacts on the human condition, our health, happiness and productivity. Biophilia and biophilic design principles provide new ways to envision, enliven and enjoy our spaces.

Biophilia, translating to a love of nature, describes human beings’ instinctual desire to be surrounded by and connected to the natural world. Instilled over hundreds of thousands of years, during which time we evolved, learned to survive, reside and flourish in nature, the connection has been alluded to throughout human history since the ancient Greek philosophers, though it only received its name much more recently.

Today, it is explored and applied in the sciences, design, architecture and urban planning – and it has many implications for facility managers. How can a window overlooking trees increase employee productivity? How can pot plants in a hospital expedite patient recovery times? How can water features minimise absenteeism among staff? More importantly, what can be learned by this human urge and how can we apply it practically?

The hypothesis was introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who described “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). The term was later used by biologist Edward O Wilson in Biophilia (1984), which proposed that the tendency of humans to connect with nature has, in part, a genetic basis. Since these hypotheses, countless studies have been performed on biophilia, and how certain principles and designs that bring humans closer to nature, or the perception of it, can be used in planning, building and managing built environments.

Sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green’s ‘Economics of Biophilia’ report sums it up well: “The concept of biophilia implies that humans hold a biological need for connection with nature on physical, mental and social levels, and that this connection affects our personal well-being, productivity and societal relationships.

“Whether one is engaging with nature by walking through a park, by interacting with animals or simply by having a view of greenery from one’s home or place of work, biophilia has many applications that help transform mundane settings into stimulating environments.”

In an urbanising world, satisfying our occupants’ need to feel a connection with the land and the living is becoming ever more important – and perhaps more challenging. Many of the grander ideas of biophilic design apply to architects, builders and designers but a greater understanding of the concept, and a few of its core principles, could help rethink layout, fitout, furnishings, lighting, windows, water and air flow to great effect.

Flourish and thrive

The economic benefits of biophilic design in the workplace are many and varied. For business leaders, the most enticing benefits are likely on productivity, staff illness and absenteeism, staff retention and job performance.

Health and absenteeism

In 2011, Ihab Elzeyadi, director of graduate studies in architecture at the University of Oregon, tested the biophilia hypothesis in an administrative office building on campus. In the building, 30 percent of the offices overlooked trees and a manicured landscape, 31 percent overlooked a street, building and parking lot and 39 percent were on the interior, offering no outside view. The building’s occupants were a mix of office administrators, with no hierarchical placement of employees within the floor. The occupants all rated the view with greenery as their favourite, followed by the urban scene, with no view the least favoured. Employees situated with the leafy view took an average of 57 hours of sick leave per year, compared with 68 hours per year of sick leave taken by employees with no view. Employees with an urban view were somewhere in between. When view quality was combined with lighting quality and window area, architectural elements explained 10 percent of the variation in sick leave days taken.

There are many other health links, such as natural lighting’s reduction of eye strain, poor air quality leading to headaches, and the presence of water’s ability to relieve stress and lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Productivity

Elzeyadi’s study also found employees with better views were more likely to spend more time at their desk. In 2003, a consultant named Lisa Heschong found that strategic seating arrangements at the Sacramento Municipial Utiliity District Call Center influenced worker performance. The number of calls handled per hour by employees with seated access to views of vegetation through large windows from their cubicles was about six to seven percent faster than those with no views.

Terrapin Bright Green’s report sums it up: “The value proposition was clear: with a large number of employees, profit margins grew significantly. Construction costs for the operable windows and the slight increase in square footage requirements totalled US$1000 per employee, whereas the annual productivity savings averaged $2990 per employee.” There are examples like these from all around the world and today biophilia has made its way beyond mere studies into practical, professional application everywhere.

Standards

The WELL Building Standard was set up in 2014 by the International WELL Building Institute to help business leaders ensure that spaces were doing the utmost to encourage the physical and mental health of staff, occupants and clients. Many of the principles and ideals touched on in the Standard echo the ideals of biophilic consideration. “As humans,” says its WELL v2 Building Standard pilot introduction, “we have always been dependent on our environments to nurture and sustain us. We rise with the sun, we eat off the land, we make shelter of stone and trees.

“Our buildings are designed to keep us safe, to protect us from the elements. But many of the places where we spend our time also get in the way of our health, putting one degree of separation between us and that which has always kept us alive.”

“Nature has long been our caretaker,” it reminds us, “[and] with intentional design, our buildings can be too.”

WELL-accredited professional and CEO at interior design and well-being consultancy WELL Space, Eminè Mehmet, outlines the human role in the connection: “You can have the best healthy environment in the world but if [people] don’t take part in what’s available to them then it doesn’t work.” In line with WELL Standards, Mehmet and her team help people build awareness of their spaces and their own physical and mental health. “When we talk about biophilia,” she says, “we’re talking about this really prehistoric requirement that is in our genes, in our DNA, to have a connection to nature.”

WELL Space worked with office furniture design firm Wilkhahn to establish a new green sanctuary in an atrium of its Sydney office (pictured above). “[Wilkhahn] has a very rare space,” Mehmet says, “it’s a bit of an outdoor space, indoors.” A light tunnel coming from an upper floor lights the ground floor atrium creating a greenery that’s not exposed to the elements. The space is now full of plants, a Google Home device that can play nature sounds and enough seating for solo work, conferring and unwinding.

“That whole space is very much about supporting the human condition,” she says. As for the results and feedback, it is now the “most used space in the whole showroom.” Wilkhahn uses the “much-loved” space for presentations, meetings and client visits.

There’s no better time than now to realise our sensitivity to these natural forces. With what’s happened with COVID-19, our world, our spaces and our people, we are ripe for change. “Now it’s even more relevant,” says Mehmet. “People are realising what’s important, what nurtures them, because they had that time away from the workplace, away from the day- to-day office environment, so they’re becoming more aware of what nourishes them and allows them to thrive. “It’s going to be interesting, as we move back into a form of normality, what will come out of it and what organisations and companies will do to support the new needs of their staff, and clients as well, will never be the same.”

Sustainability

Biophilia is gaining traction, too. As talk of sustainability permeates best practice in building design, construction and management, biophilic design has not been left out of the conversation. While not by its definition linked to ecologically sustainable pathways, it makes sense that something focusing so closely on our planet’s natural systems, and our connection to them, should go hand-in-hand with sustainability solutions. Biophilic design now appears in a number of sustainable building standards worldwide, including the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge (LBC) – regarded as the world’s most stringent.

In the LBC, buildings are encouraged to operate as simply as a flower, receiving energy from the sun, using and circulating water, producing neither waste nor toxicity and looking beautiful. Buildings must generate at least 105 percent of the energy they require to operate, be built of sustainable or recycled materials, incorporate urban agriculture and connect people to light, air, food, nature and community. Plenty of scope for biophilic consideration there, and the ILFI includes biophilia as one of the LBC Core Imperatives under the Beauty Petal.

“The intent of the Beauty Petal,” says its ‘Living Building Challenge 4.0’ guidelines “is to recognise the need for beauty and the connection to nature as a precursor to caring enough to preserve, conserve and serve the greater good.

“We are often surrounded by ugly and inhumane physical environments. The key to creating beautiful buildings is to embrace a biophilic design process that emphasises that people and nature are connected and the connection to place, climate, culture and community is crucial to creating a beautiful building.”

Biophilic design requirements of the LBC include considerations for how the building will be transformed by incorporating nature through environmental features, light and space and natural shapes and forms, as well as how the project will be transformed by natural patterns – through natural processes and evolved human-nature relationships.

Before we go slapping a conservatory of pot plants, rocks and waterfall noises into the nearest corner, we should seek to understand why elements of nature are so important to us, and how they can apply to those around us. With a richer understanding of our spaces and how, through measures within our means, we can use them to optimise their occupants’ connection to nature, we can develop and maintain healthier, more productive and more appealing spaces, lifestyles and futures.

Mehmet prescribes a tailored approach, where a building or organisation’s clime and character is reflected in specific guidelines. “It’s really important to understand the company you’re working with, its culture, its people, and to build something based around that.”

 

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