When you imagine an office or a workplace, most of the time you would imagine desks, cubicles, a coffee machine... Offices may seem intimidating, with employees bustling and working on their desks trying to reach a deadline. However, in modern times, offices don’t seem to be like this anymore. Many offices have incorporated biophilic design in their interiors thanks to its numerous benefits. Find out in this article why it makes sense to use biophilic design for workspaces and business.
Is this article, we cover the following:
What is biophilic design?
Why do we need biophilic design?
What are the benefits of biophilic design?
Financial benefits for businesses
How to measure the impact of biophilic design in your business?
What is the future of Biophilic Design?
1. What is biophilic design?
Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 per cent of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.” – Yoshifumi Miyazaki
Our response to natural environments stems from our evolutionary development and survival. It makes sense that our ancestors felt calmer in places that had an abundance of greenery and living elements, as they indicated the availability of food and water and this meant they could focus on other things. Similarly, spaces that both offered the security of being contained, or sheltered, and had a good vista over the landscape would have been essential for our ancestors to keep an eye out for predators or animals to hunt.
We still experience a psychological inheritance of this survival instinct (even though we don’t have to worry about foraging for sustenance or predators in the same way) in our urban environments. This means that a space designed to have a sense of refuge and prospect with plenty of living elements in (or references to them) can make us feel less stressed and more productive.
In our modern times, buildings are designed to enclose us inside and away from the outside world and its phenomenon. These structures protect us from harsh sunlight, rain, storms, etc.. However, as they protect us from the elements, they also separate us from nature.
With this in mind, Biophilic Design offers an approach to creating buildings and spaces that respond to our human needs. Biophilic Design principles can be applied to existing and new buildings, interior and exterior spaces alike. They can be implemented at a range of scales and budgets and have greatest impact within the urban environment where we have strayed the furthest from nature. It is essential that, as we spend more time indoors and in urban environments, we find ways to increase our contact with nature and natural elements to take advantage of its benefits.
If you dissect the etymology of biophilic, you will see two words: “bio” and “philic,” bio means life and philic is a word used to denote fondness of a thing. If you combine the two words together you get “fondness of life.” As its literal phrase suggest, biophilic design is bridging interior design with nature. It is bringing nature close to us through the design of our indoor spaces.
2. Why do we need biophilic design?
In photo: Plant Wall Art
Creating spaces that enhance wellbeing is an important design aim to achieve. Why? Because as urbanisation has increased, stress rates have also rocketed. Coincidence? We don’t think so. Here’s some astonishing facts that demonstrate why:
- By 2050, 66% of the developed world will be urbanised, and thus we are becoming increasingly distanced from nature.
- North Americans spend 93% of their time indoors whilst Europeans spend 85-90% of their time indoors.
- Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization, causing significant costs for employers and increasing the need for individuals to focus on their physical and mental health.
- We recover significantly faster from stress when exposed to a natural environment, in comparison to an urban setting.
- In the UK in 2015/16, 11.7 million working days were lost due to stress. This doesn’t take into account the indirect stress related costs, such as decreased concentration and productivity.
- In 2002, the European Commission calculated the costs of work-related stress in the EU at €20 billion a year.
With a vast body of research to support the ethos, it’s important that we find ways to creatively develop the implementation of the principles of Biophilic Design and make it financially accessible, to increase the uptake.
At Forest Homes, we hope to explore and promote the discussion around creating positive human-centred spaces, whilst helping the architecture and design community expand the services they offer.
Find out next how a Biophilic approach to design can improve the Triple Bottom Line: wellbeing for building occupants, employee productivity for businesses, and return rates for clients. Considering that our health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked to that of the natural environment around us, surely we should want to protect it and enable it to flourish.
3. What are the benefits of biophilic design?
Despite so many office workers living in city-dominated lives, with increasingly limited access to natural elements, they all share an affinity with the natural world. No matter where they are, people yearn for more natural light, peace and quiet, and most importantly, the chance to be closer to nature.
It follows, then, that businesses that boast offices with design elements inspired by nature, such as more natural light and greenery, will have employees that are happier and more productive at work, and perhaps healthier too.
– Sir Cary Cooper (CBE FAcSS), Psychologist
There is overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that the design of an office
impacts the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants.
People are increasingly demanding environments that lower stress: living and working spaces that act to keep us healthy.
Using Biophilic Design can create a greater sense of health and wellbeing for inhabitants, staff and visitors alike. But it can also have hugely beneficial financial implications that stem from improving the health and wellbeing of the building occupants. We have listed the following research on a few of the sectors for which the economic benefits add up.
Financial benefits of Biophilic Design
Biophilic Design can have tangible benefits within the workplace, educational, hospitality, retail and domestic sectors – creating savings and improving profits.
Financial benefits for offices / workspaces
Offices can be more productive and create lower levels of stress, fostering greater happiness and creativity, whilst helping to retain staff and reduce absenteeism. A healthy, happy workforce is a vital component of a productive, successful business in the long-term. Find some evidence below:
- Energy costs make up just under 1% of business operating costs, whilst staff costs in salaries and benefits are over 90%.
- In 2013, the cost to Europe of work-related depression was estimated to be €617 billion annually.
- Studies have shown that 10% of employee absence can be attributed to working in environments with no connection to nature.
- Costs of ill-health vary by sector and country, and are rarely comparable, but the impact is clear:
- The annual absenteeism rate in the US is 3% per employee in the private sector, and 4% in the public sector, costing employers $2,074 and $2,502 per employee per year respectively.
- Poor mental health specifically costs UK employers £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence
- The aggregate cost to business of ill-health and absenteeism in Australia is estimated at $7 billion per year, while the cost of ‘presenteeism’ (not fully functioning at work because of medical conditions) is estimated to be A$26 billion.
- The inclusion of living elements or views of nature in an office environment can:
- Prevent fatigue when completing tasks that demand high levels of attention.
- Speed up call processing by 6-12%
Financial Benefits for Education
In photo: Plant and Moss Dividers
Schools can increase focus and concentration in students and staff whilst reducing the impacts of cognitive fatigue, stress and ADHD. This can improve the schools performance and staff and student retention.
- Increase performance by 10% to 25% on tests of mental function and memory recall
- Increase wellbeing by 15%, productivity by 6% and creativity by 15%
- Reduce absenteeism by 15%
- Optimising exposure to daylight alone can:
- Increase the speed of learning by 20-26%
- Improve attendance by an average of 3.5days/year
- Improve test scores by 5-14%
- Creating naturalised learning spaces for children can:
- Enhance their cognitive abilities and increase ability to focus
- Reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Increase physical activity, nutrition and creativity
- Reduce stress
Financial Benefits for Hospitality
Hotels and restaurants can decompress the stress of everyday life for their guests and staff, whilst commanding higher rates of return on rooms with nature connections.
- The Opryland Hotel in Nashville, which is abundant with Biophilic features, enjoys 85% occupancy year. This is well above the national average of 68%
- Hotels charge more for rooms with views of natural landscapes, as guests show a preference for views and request them.
- Hotel rooms with a view of the water have room rates 11%-18% higher than those without a view.
- Hotel guests spend 36% more time in Biophilic hotel lobbies than conventional lobbies, thus spending more money inside the hotel.
4. How to measure the impact of biophilic design in your business
In photo: Moss Frames
There is an important difference between showing how things are related and showing how things are relevant. The question that really matters to most executives is this: How does my building impact my people?
Here's a way for office owners and occupiers to directly engage with this
agenda, using a simple framework for measuring organisational or financial ‘outcomes’, perceptions of the workforce and the physical features of the office itself.
A key objective in developing the framework is to set in place a process which
encourages more data collection by more businesses in more common ways.
Financial (or organisational)
1. Absenteeism: Number of days (or hours) of absence due to illness annually.
2. Staff turnover/retention: Percentage of regular, full time employees leaving employment in a given year.
3. Revenue breakdown: Revenue per division/department/team, per building/building zone, and/or per employee.
4. Medical costs: Expenses associated with providing medical insurance or medical care to employees annually.
5. Medical complaints: Incidents of reported/documented medical complaints resulting from the physical work environment or work activity.
6. Physical complaints: Number and type of complaints of physical discomfort associated with the work environment (e.g. temperature, glare, noise).
The financial or organisational metrics above are concerned with measuring objective indicators. What they can miss are important underlying attitudes about the workplace that can be harder to quantify but can have significant impacts on human performance.
An effective perception study tests a range of self-reported attitudes to gain insight into health, wellbeing and productivity in the workplace. The answers that workers provide can contain a wealth of information for improving office performance.
To test the premise that the physical design and operation of your office affects the health, wellbeing and productivity of office workers, you need to gather information about the physical office environment itself.
Some of this can be done with very direct measures (illuminance, pollutants or
temperature for example), others are more a case of evaluation (views outside or quality of amenities, perhaps). The extent to which this can be done ‘in-house’ or requires external expert support varies and is changing as new tools come to the market.
One of the most exciting developments in this area is portable and wearable technology. This has the power to measure physical conditions and human impacts in real time. At the time of this study they are just beginning to go mainstream. It looks likely that these devices will substantially expand our understanding.
5. The Future of Biophilic Design
Green building is now a truly global movement and, partly through the use of green building rating tools (energy, water, waste, etc.), is helping to drive change in markets all around the world, increasing demand for low carbon, resource-efficient building products and services. However, it could be argued that green building professionals and advocates have not been as attentive to the needs of building occupants as they should have.
Symptomatic is the development of most green building rating tools, which started with environmental impacts and have incorporated more socioeconomic measures in due course – but perhaps not quickly enough.
This complex relationship between health, wellbeing, productivity and ‘green building’ points to a need to reinterpret – some might say rescue – the term ‘green’ from an association purely with the environmental movement; or we may need to move ‘beyond green’ to talk much more about sustainable buildings.
Either way, the goal should be buildings that maximise benefits for people, and leave the planet better off as well. Low carbon, resource efficient, healthy and productive - really what we are talking about is higher quality buildings.
We believe that plenty of relevant data already exists, but organisations need to implement more systematic collection for that data to be useful. In particular, the data tends not to be thought about in terms of place – i.e. it is often not gathered on an office-by-office basis. In fact, many organisations are sitting on a treasure trove of information that, with a little sifting, could yield important immediate improvement strategies for their two biggest expenses – people and places, and the relationship between the two.
This is less difficult than it seems. It requires a different way of thinking and working rather than a great deal of extra, expensive data capture. Facilities managers, for example, are likely to have a wealth of data about the building itself, its physical features and even some outcome metrics – such as physical complaints. Likewise, HR departments are already in possession, in many cases, of data about worker attitudes as well as performance data – absenteeism, medical costs, retention, etc. And, of course, the CFO or finance director will be well aware of revenue and related financial metrics.
The sweet spot in this agenda is where the circles on buildings (FM), people (HR) and finance (CFO) overlap, and yet so few businesses take advantage of this rich space. This represents a huge missed opportunity.
If we better understand the relationship between the office, people and organisational performance, the potential for practical application is significant. This includes due diligence on new space, rent review on existing space, fit-out guidance on refurbished space, and so on. A better understanding of how buildings impact people should drive improvements in the workspace, which may be one of the most important business decisions to be made.
At the start of this article, we highlighted the importance of staff costs for a typical business. With this research, it became clear that there was no ‘magic formula’ for ‘proving’ the business case. What we have done is demonstrate quite clearly the physical office environment (and indeed its location) has an impact on the health, wellbeing and productivity of staff. We have also shown that there are tools available to help make this as relevant as possible for individual organisations.
It is down to individual organisations, and their advisors, to apply these findings to their own circumstances. That means considering your own operating costs, and the impact that small improvements in productivity would have across the organisation as a whole.
What is the financial value of even a single-digit improvement in productivity, or a small reduction in absences in your organisation, compared to savings on energy costs or even rent?
There is clearly an opportunity for organisations to begin to think differently and use their physical premises for competitive gain. This is true from investors right through to occupiers, whether companies are trying to command a higher price for a high-performing building or looking to take the kind of space needed to help drive business success.
The method we suggest could be used, in part or in whole, by all kinds of actors in the industry who want to understand the issue better and get the best from their buildings.
Finally, what role for the sustainability executive? They should perhaps have the keenest interest of all. The forward-thinking sustainability professional could be viewed as having a role in helping to get all three sets of actors above to start thinking and working together.
There is even an argument for suggesting health, wellbeing and productivity should be synonymous with sustainability.
In the next few years will we start to see the rise of the Chief Wellbeing Officer? Surely, in the long-term, those who do not engage with this agenda will suffer as a result. Those companies who take their employee health, wellbeing and productivity seriously, will prosper.