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Biophilic design for more natural offices - is there an elephant in the room?

The quest for more natural and humane workplaces raises some fundamental questions about the what and where of work

There was sharp growth in interest in 2015 in the concept of biophilic design in the workplace. It’s all part of the welcome trend to make workplaces more natural and human-friendly, with features that provide good sensory experiences for all who go there.

‘Biophilia’ may sound like something you catch, or possibly find in yogurt. In fact in evolutionary psychology it refers to the ‘innate human attraction to nature’, the idea that we have an instinctive bond with nature. Being able to see, touch, smell, and be amongst natural objects improves our sense of wellbeing, and helps us to perform better in whatever we are doing.

Biophilic design then is all about introducing into offices, factories, hospitals, schools and homes features such as views of nature, plants, flowing water, access to natural light and air and natural sounds like waterfalls or waves breaking on an ocean shore. Even facsimiles of such natural features can have a positive effect on productivity in offices or recovery time in hospitals.

‘Living walls’, or ‘vertical gardens’ – walls covered in plants – or ‘sky ceilings’ that provide views of the real sky and natural light are part of the mix. This article from Office Snapshots gives some good examples.

And if all this sounds a bit new age, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot of credible industry and academic research behind the claimed impacts. In many ways it’s common sense. The artificial division between ourselves and what should be our natural habitat can only be described as ‘unnatural’. And like caged animals in unnatural environments we may be more susceptible to stress and listlessness. So a bit of habitat enrichment, as animal behaviourists call it, may be a good solution.

Is there an elephant in the room?

But there’s an elephant in the room – a big one.

You might be tempted to think an elephant in the room would be a welcome feature of biophilic design, or perhaps occasional herds of antelope bounding through.

And that’s the point – these are not what you are going to find. You generally won’t be doing work in natural settings, but rather working where natural elements are artificially grafted on to architectural business-as-usual. Or where you get a glimpse of the sky or some planting outside.

So while there are some interesting and innovative biophilic features coming into workplace design, isn’t there something fundamentally odd about the whole process?

Basically the model of work hasn’t changed. Developers, architects, interior designers, employers and employees alike – we all still expect to be taken out from our natural biological and social habitats on a daily basis and put into concrete, glass and steel boxes to work.

Then, having put us in a naturally less productive and less comfortable environment, we try to retrofit some natural sensations as meagre compensation for the uprooting.

In an age when work can be wherever we are, don’t we need a fundamental rethink about what the workplace is and what and where it should be?


Biophilic design

January 2016


Further information

There's an old saying that doctors bury their mistakes, while architects grow ivy over theirs.

Biophilic design is about getting it right from the start. It's all about incorporating natural features by design into workplaces and other parts of the built environment.

For further information, here are some useful links:

Terrapin Bright Green - The Economics of Bioplhilia: Why designing with nature in mind makes financial sense

Office Snapshots Brief Guide to Biophilic Design

HR Zone - Why bring green space into your working day







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