Using Nature-Inspired Design to Foster Workplace Wellness

An innovative and educative refurbishment is happening in the UK as a part of a two-and-a-half-year project. Entitled ‘The Biophilic Office’ that will follow the principles of biophilic design the project focuses on the needs of the people in buildings and their inherent connection to nature. It is being conducted by UK-based building science centre BRE – in partnership with sustainable architecture and interior design practice, Oliver Heath Design, and a range of industry partners.

Biophilic design
Biophilia (meaning love of nature) focuses on human’s innate attraction to nature and natural processes according to Oliver Heath Design. It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings.

The term was popularised by American psychologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980s when he observed how increasing rates of urbanisation were leading to a disconnection with the natural world. Biophilic Design uses these ideas as principles to create a human-centred approach that when applied improves many of the spaces that we live and work in today, with numerous benefits to our health and well-being.

The impact of natural environments
The urbanisation observed by Wilson continues around the world at a pace that shows no sign of abating. Previous research has supported the idea that being in natural environments, or just viewing depictions of nature, can have positive impacts on people’s wellbeing. Natural environments can alleviate negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression and stress while helping people to feel calm and be inspired. But the fact is that most of us spend
the majority of our lives in buildings that usually isolate us from nature.
Biophilic design helps bring us back into contact with nature in the built environment. This is not just about incorporating plants – although that is often a factor – but also making use of natural materials and textures, colour variations, personalised workspaces, views, refuge spaces and much besides. One example of biophilic design is the provision of high quality natural and artificial lighting, which takes account of the impact that lighting has on circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms
Circadian rhythms refer to the mental, physical and behavioural changes and patterns across a day and all inhabitants and workers in buildings respond to external factors that affect them. Exposure to light, particularly blue light, has been shown to maintain or potentially alter the body’s circadian clock.
This has prompted the development and testing of circadian lighting, with the aim of maintaining the correct timing of the circadian clocks of the people in a place. Most commonly the idea is to improve alertness during daylight and working hours – so delivering better performance – then change to lower brightness, warmer coloured lighting when it is time to relax.

The design of buildings can often put too little emphasis on the fact that buildings are for people, with more focus on factors such as energy use. Important though that is, energy accounts for just 1% of typical office business running costs, while staff costs amount to 90% as per the World Green Building Council’s Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices report. Building layouts often pay little attention to the wellbeing of their occupants, ignoring the potential impacts on their mental, social and physical health, and so missing opportunities to lever better business outcomes.

Hard evidence needed
Innovative new office and other buildings around the world are now being designed around their occupants’ health needs – maximising natural light, clean air and so on. But this is not the reality for the great majority of office workers. They work in existing buildings, the owners and managers of which have limited budgets and a need to ensure a return on investment. Hard evidence for the benefits of biophilic design is needed if they are to be convinced that investing in refurbishments that prioritise the wellbeing of building users will enhance their business.

The building where its happening
Located just off the M25 motorway on BRE’s headquarters site near London, the building at the centre of the Biophilic Office project was built in the 1980s. It has a mainly cellular layout with some open plan space and is typical of office buildings around the world.

This office space will be refurbished using biophilic design principles in 2019. Prior to that – throughout 2018 – the office conditions have been extensively monitored and the occupants’ wellbeing investigated. This will be continued for a year after refurbishment, giving comparable before-and-after data.

Initial findings
Initial investigations of the quality of the indoor environment – factors such as lighting, temperature, CO2 and VOC levels, relative humidity and acoustics – found that while lighting was poor in some areas of the building, in general, these issues were within prescribed levels.

When asked about office conditions, however, most of the occupants rated the look and feel of their office as ‘poor’, and 67% reported that they would not want to show clients or colleagues around. This feedback was part of a questionnaire survey being conducted quarterly throughout the project, on how the occupants feel about their offices and issues such as lighting, glare, noise and other comfort factors.

BRE researchers have found that it is quite uncommon for organisations to ask their staff about the buildings they work in, although doing so can generate valuable information on improving staff comfort and wellbeing.

Other aspects of staff wellbeing being monitored include their fitness, ability to concentrate and stress levels. They have been given wearable technology to monitor their heart rate, activity levels and sleep patterns, and the project is gathering business and HR data of such number of days’ sick leave. Stress levels will be monitored by testing saliva samples.

Refurbishment plans
The current cellular offices are occupied by teams performing varying tasks with different requirements. The new layout will have three zones, presenting three different biophilic design refurbishment strategies.

The project’s design partner has consulted with the occupants on their current working conditions, comfort needs and business requirements. Based on this, and the findings reported on the building’s working conditions, Oliver Heath Design is developing areas with different biophilic design approaches, so a wide range of design features can be investigated.

The office design is now in the final stages of checking and approval. To bring this to reality, Oliver Heath Design is working with the project’s core innovation partners who are supplying the necessary products, technologies and expertise to deliver the refurbishment. The innovation partners for the project are Ahrend, Akzo Nobel, Ambius, Biotecture, Coelux, Ecophon, GVA, Interface, Plantronics and Waldmann.

Future workplaces
The evidence from the before-and-after monitoring of the offices and occupants will be widely publicised to help ensure that health and wellbeing, through biophilic design, become a routine element of office refurbishment.

To build the momentum and spread information and interest on the subject, a Wellness and Biophilia Symposium will also be held at BRE on 6th & 7th June 2019. It is a two-day conference about biophilic design that also invites papers from experts working on the subject.

The aim is that future workplace will enhance the mental, social and physical health and well-being of their occupants, and in turn enable better business outcomes for office-based companies.

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