19 July 2019/ rent_office_guide

Biophilic design: Bringing the outside into your office

Experts share how designs that connect our workspaces to nature are evolving

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Thirty years ago, elements of biophilic design – a concept used within the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment – were little more than impractical afterthoughts. From an extravagant water feature in an office lobby to a miniature ‘jungle’ as a shopping centre’s focal point, building managers and landscape contractors alike struggled to maintain these features. In many cases they were disconnected from their surroundings – and they were bothersome and expensive to look after. Designers will tell you that this is the opposite of the harmonious natural connection that they're looking to achieve today.

From sustainable materials to energy-efficient construction, the green building realm encompasses a broad spectrum of practices and principles. In recent years, one tenet of green design has soared to top the list of practices that attract tenants and customers. No longer simply an aesthetic upgrade, biophilic design – the practice of bringing elements of nature indoors – has been proven to impact mental health, productivity, and morale.

Wellness by design


“Humans have a physiological need to connect to nature,” says Eric Corey Freed, whose San Francisco-based firm organicARCHITECT has specialised in green building, including biophilic design, for nearly three decades. “Applying biophilic design principles in an office improves cognitive function and increases profitability. People report being happier.”

Freed cites a research report on workplace design conducted by integrated commercial real estate firm STOK to support this statement. The report – The Financial Case for High Performance Buildings – evaluated employee health and wellness, occupant productivity, and talent retention, and ultimately found that a high-performance building enhanced productivity by nearly 10%.

The biophilic evolution is gathering momentum in the UK too. Last September, the University of Greenwich Green Roofs and Living Walls Centre and the Department of Architecture and Landscape held an ‘Activating Biophilic Cities’ conference, bringing together academics, architects, planners, landscape architects, environmental specialist, educational and health professionals. The aim was to share the latest research and best practice in biophilic design and to kick-start the pace of change by developing a ‘Biophilic City Framework’.

Activating the senses


“When we talk about biophilia now, it's sense activation,” says Colleen Arria, principal at international commercial design firm Stantec. “We're integrating materials that relate to nature that are tactile and softer and have texture and dimension. This also applies to warmer lighting. We’re looking at circadian rhythms of lighting throughout the day.”

In London, The Boutique Workplace Company’s Southwark Bridge Road combines natural light and wood to create a beautiful, uplifting workspace. Techspace’s Luke Street features a brilliant use of stone and the meeting room is decorated in soothing natural colours. BUPA’s new flagship waterfront office in Manchester has wellbeing at the heart of its design – the building features fully glazed façades, a large central atrium and glazed rooflight above that creates light, open internal spaces and a vibrant working environment within.

Bringing the outside in, all year round


While it might seem easier to adopt the principals of biophilia in locations that are naturally green year-round, part of the evolution is figuring out how to connect with nature's elements in regions that don't benefit from temperate climates.

“In the UK, there's a solid portion of the year when you don't want to venture outside, but an amenity area adjacent to an outdoor space reaps the benefits of sunlight and views without subjecting tenants to the elements,” Arria continues. “It's also wise to curate plant species that provide year-round foliage or colour.”

And, of course, there’s always the option of bringing elements of the natural world inside. At Immediate Media’s newly refurbished office in central Bristol, the seven-storey glass sided atrium features a suspended 4m tall tree with its root-ball encased in a bespoke dodecahedron planter, providing a ‘green chandelier’ solution to what could have been a wasted space.

New York City-based firm Krause Sawyer, whose ethos promotes ‘natural luxury’ for commercial spaces, has a few guidelines for bringing biophilic elements into a building. “A large, well-lit art installation created with natural materials or seasonal plants lends an air of organic sophistication,” suggests co-founder Kajsa Krause. “Bringing natural materials indoors through tactile, organic surfaces partnered with a neutral colour palette lends a feeling of ease to large spaces.”

Making an inspirational entrance


Krause Sawyer also recommends creating green spaces around the outdoor entrance area that are interesting and inspiring – and changing the greenery over the seasons to stay connected to them. “Green living walls, roof decks and trellises that weave between indoors and outdoors blur the line and create a seamless integration of biophilia into public space,” says Tracey Sawyer, Krause Sawyer's other co-founder.

Stantec also notes an increased interest in using rooftop spaces. “When the amount of green space and usable outdoor area is limited, we try to capture underutilised spaces – such as rooftop areas usually relegated to mechanical equipment storage – as social spaces,” says Colleen Arria. The International Solidary Centre in Reading (RISC) has done just that, creating a multi-layered woodland ecosystem forest garden on what was a leaky conference hall roof.

Although such spaces may task owners with increased maintenance, tactics, such as using hardscaping instead of plants, or implementing floor-to-ceiling sliding glass walls to separate a terrace from areas exposed to the elements, can ease the process.

Vertical gardens and living walls


A handful of start-ups are working toward making nature not just indoor-friendly, but flexible and portable. Commercial real estate innovation experts are quick to shout-out Sage Green Life, a ‘living wall’ company that designs vertical gardens that use patented cement to hold water without using soil, and employ smart tech to gauge water usage and oxygen production. UK company Treebox uses simple, modular living wall designs that can be installed indoors and outdoors to provide year-round colour.

Trend forecasters say that biophilic design will be among the most important factors for attracting Generation Z tenants and talent. Even if large-scale implementation isn't in the budget, it's possible to get creative and let sunshine replace some of the fluorescents.

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