Working with nature to create better buildings

'Biophilia' is changing the way we think about how to integrate nature and design in buildings for a more harmonious relationship.

March 30, 2016

For centuries, nature and the built environment have not been on good terms as humans build upwards, downwards and outwards.

Now, however, a more harmonious relationship is developing – which benefits both sides, and, crucially, the health and wellbeing of the people in the middle. The belief system behind this shift is known as ‘biophilia’ and it’s changing the way we think about and design our buildings.

The term Biophilia was first popularised by American biologist and author Edward O Wilson, in his 1984 book. In modern usage, it is typically taken to refer to the innate affinity we humans feel for the natural world – in short, our love of nature.

Applied to architecture and interiors, biophilic design thinking looks to strengthen the relationship between buildings and the natural world. For Franz Jenowein, Director, Sustainability Consulting & Research at JLL, taking a more holistic view of property in this way simply represents an inevitable market progression.

“It is a natural evolution from the real estate side: you start with a piece to transact or rent, then move on to thinking about greening it, then, to figuring out that buildings are actually for people. It is a state of mind, where we have the whole spectrum of physical and psychological dimensions,” he says.

While the idea of biophilia has been around for some time, its popularity in design circles appears a recent phenomenon. Aligned with mindfulness and wellbeing, the concept is in tune with the values of Millennials, making biophilia a hot topic for global consumer brands.

It is very much in vogue for corporate HQs, as architectural designer, biophilic guru and UK TV presenter, Oliver Heath, founder of Heath Design, explains: “It is emerging science and style. In the last six months there has been a dramatic increase in interest. Those at the forefront of workplace design have grasped the idea, so companies like Apple, Amazon and Google are running with it.”

Whether it is Apple’s tree-filled UFO-donut in Cupertino, California or Google’s translucent eco-dome at nearby Mountain View, or the green-space biosphere bubbles for Amazon in Seattle, there is a common design denominator: biophilia. Nature is running freely within, around and through each light-filled high-tech structure. Of course, it cannot hurt the business case that biophilia scores highly in sustainability metrics at planning stage, says Beth Ambrose, Associate Director – Upstream Sustainability Services, JLL.

“If you are trying to achieve planning, the team really have to be conscious of the public realm and how you bring landscape into your development, particularly mixed-use. Also some of the agents, letting or selling, see the impact of green space around buildings, which can add a premium of 3-5 percent.”

Addressing multiple challenges

For Ambrose, potential benefits to local and city planning departments are multiple, as they wrestle with more systemic concerns and challenges of rampant urbanization, resilience risk and climate-change adaptation. Working both with water and landscape can mean the combined benefits of blue-green infrastructure in biophilic design promise a win-win on many fronts. Biophilia is not just, however, about the outdoors; neither is it only for the big-budget, grand-scale new-build projects.

“Part of biophilic design is about bringing planting into the office space, where the cost element is completely manageable, but in terms of improving internal air quality and reducing stress for workers, the impact has been well documented,” Ambrose says.

“There are so many corporate wellness programs now, with research filtering through to the business sector from medical and psychological disciplines, allowing Human Resources (HR) to start talking to corporate real estate managers about what they need. One of the top two causes of absenteeism in the UK last year was depression and mental health conditions – biophilic design can help.”

The role for HR is also flagged up strongly by Jenowein: “The growing interest for health and wellbeing of occupants represents an opportunity for HR, who could jump on this in terms of the business case and how to make people more productive, reduce churn and keep talent in-house. There are tools here which help them manage staff better.”

As with many sustainable property benefits, the first hurdle to overcome in the race towards mainstream acceptance is being able to provide the proof and crunch the numbers. Here, biophilia already has some of the hard facts needed and is rapidly accumulating more datasets: peer reviewed science, national reports and academic study into healthy buildings support the argument; plus economic assessments suggest $2000 a year can be saved per office employee.

Building a business case for biophilia

While sectors where biophilia has the best-documented track record to date are perhaps education and healthcare – with study topics ranging from cognitive ability in children, to postoperative recovery in patients – the business case for commercial buildings is where it has most relevance, Heath believes.

“Biophilic design takes an evidence-based approach,” he explains. “So, in the commercial world of workplace design, there are a number of different metrics. We can look at quantitative issues of productivity and absenteeism, but, equally, take some qualitative aspects – just discussing with people how they feel.

“For example, Interface conducted a really significant study recently of 7,600 office workers across 16 different countries globally and what they found was quite shocking: 47 percent of people have no natural light, 58 percent have no plants. Yet, where workers were situated in offices with natural elements, they reported a 15 percent higher level of wellbeing, were 6 percent more productive and 15 percent more creative. When you consider that 90 percent of typical business operating costs are in staff benefits and salaries, these numbers start to have really sizeable potential returns.”

Biophilic design therefore not only makes a positive environmental statement, engaging with urban greening initiatives, but also works on human-centric principles, leveraging social goods. This all-round sustainability impact should not, however, necessarily make it difficult to tackle, Heath believes.

“It is really about taking a design approach that strengthens the connection with nature and these ideas can start from the ground up. Interface create a biomimetic carpet tile that has references to nature – forest floors, grassy areas, natural timber. Design can start there (with something as simple as a carpet tile),” he concludes.