Most of us take pleasure in everyday encounters with nature, whether it’s watching birds in the garden or listening to the babbling of a nearby brook. We intuitively know that nature is good for us, and as a species we’re built to roam and forage in open spaces.

But what is it about nature that keeps us healthy and happy? ‘Biophilic design’ looks at the way we can benefit from bringing elements of the outdoors into the built environment, and research suggests a broad range of factors comes into play. Here are six considerations for bringing biophilic design into the workplace.

1. Build a room with a view

Heart rate recovery from stressors such as working in an office is 1.6 times faster with access to a natural view (Kahn et al., 2008) [1].  As stress is a well-known factor in lost productivity, you can use this knowledge to create workplaces that are both calmer and more dynamic.

Strategically placed windows let occupants benefit directly from engaging landscapes. Even better, features like glass façades and balconies enhance visual access to the outside.

In many workplaces, though, an inspiring view outside simply isn’t possible. In these cases, it’s better to display simulated views such as pictures or videos rather than using nothing [1].

2. Grow indoor plants

Natural views don’t have to be kept outside, and you can increase access to nature by incorporating plants into interior design.

As well as creating a relaxing space, plants reduce particulate matter in the air, urban heat island effect and perceived levels of noise pollution, while improving air infiltration rates (Forsyth & Musacchio, 2005) [1].

Biodiversity is more important than the number of plants used [1], which is encouraging for workplaces with limited space or budget. If there’s a reason you can’t use real plants inside the building then, as with views, it’s better to use artificial ones than none at all.

3. Let there be light

While researchers have long known that natural light increases productivity, more recent findings emphasise ‘illuminance fluctuation’. Daylight changes from yellow to blue to red throughout the day, and the body’s circadian rhythm uses these transitions to create the right balance of serotonin and melatonin [1]. This hormonal balance is strongly linked with aspects of wellbeing including sleep quality, depression and even breast cancer.

You can recreate natural lighting variation in the workplace with the help of different layers of light sources and qualities, as well as through shadows, reflections, and by avoiding extreme lighting patterns such as glare.

4. Get some fresh air

Light breezes don’t just feel refreshing; they’ve also been shown to improve concentration (Heerwagen & Gregory, 2008; S. Kaplan, 1995) [1]. At the same time, natural air flow helps prevent sick building syndrome (Loftness & Snyder, 2008) [1].

While most buildings regulate temperature and ventilation to create a similar experience for everyone, biophilic design mirrors outdoor variability while giving occupants individual control. To achieve this, create work spaces in areas with a range of temperatures and airflow levels, using factors like solar heat gain and open windows alongside mechanical heating, cooling and ventilation.

Natural ventilation is often limited during cold weather, meaning it’s important to have other methods of maintaining good air quality. Ceiling tiles containing ACTIVair technology reduce formaldehyde levels by up to 70%*, converting it into inert compounds.

*Formaldehyde reduction is based on experimental data following ISO16000-23 standards from 0.4m2 to 1.4m2 installed/ m3 room.

5. Make sound choices

We rarely think about how our environment sounds until it interferes with our work. Biophilic design, however, strives to create an acoustic experience that actively contributes to wellbeing.

In workplaces like offices, acoustic ceiling panels can help by reducing artificial-sounding echoes and making indoor acoustics more natural. They also curb distraction by absorbing noise, whether it’s a nearby printer or a loud conversation between colleagues.

But preventing unwanted noise is just the first step, and work environments can be too quiet as well as too loud. For workplaces situated away from busy roads, it can be as simple as letting sounds like birdsong or a nearby stream in from outside. For those not lucky enough to work in oasises of wildlife, soundtracks are helpful.

Where appropriate within the broader design of a building, water features can also create a calming acoustic backdrop. In fact, one study showed that participants were more energetic and motivated after experiencing river sounds, compared with participants who only listened to office noise or silence (Jahncke et al., 2011) [1].

6. Use biomorphic design

Biophilic design isn’t all about letting the outside in, and you can incorporate nature into things that are clearly man made.

While materials like wood, stone and natural textiles let you bring natural elements indoors, you can also represent naturally occurring patterns in architecture, furniture and art. From honeycomb-shaped external walls to carpets featuring a leaf motif, there are limitless ways to symbolise nature in the workplace. Even green walls can help evoke nature in a corporate environment.

Biophilic design features: bringing it all together

Before you use elements of biophilic design in your next project, consider how your choices will contribute to your broader objectives. Can the impact of initiatives be measured in the long term?

The efficacy of biophilic design initiatives is more important than the volume. This means a good biophilic design strategy depends on carefully selecting features and methods based on how well they complement the building and, most importantly, its occupants.

British Gypsum - Biophilic Design in the Workplace

References

[1] Browning, W.D., Ryan, C.O. and Clancy, J.O. (2014), ‘14 Patterns of Biophilic Design’, Terrapin Bright Green llc, New York.