By Skye Witherspoon
LEED certification’s drive for energy efficiency and resource conservation has led to high performance, sustainable buildings. However, this transformation hides a more substantive change, one that has come about as our understanding of the complete role of buildings emerges. Even if you missed this year’s BOMA Annual Conference and its slate of keynote presentations, the emphasis on restorative environments and occupant outcomes represents a watershed change in thinking.
Buildings, no longer simply structures with sophisticated mechanical systems, are more and more recognized as dynamic environments with a direct bearing on occupant productivity, health, and well-being. The reason is as simple as it is revealing. Research shows that building design impacts the single largest cost for every organization: people.
Our collective understanding of the built environments has essentially confirmed that the human physiology is genetically wired for a life outdoors. Our peak productivity, mental alertness, and emotional balance function most harmoniously when we are surrounded by green spaces, views to nature, and abundant daylight.
To provide the best possible environment for people, the first thing facility management professionals need to know is the emerging science behind biophilic design and how it pertains to their buildings.
1. Biophilia: Our Innate Connection to Nature
Biophilia, though coined by Erich Fromm in 1964 to describe a psychological orientation towards living systems, was popularized by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and eminent Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, 20 years later. In his first exploration of the concept, Wilson proposed that humans shared an innate, genetic based need to affiliate with natural ecosystems.
Wilson’s keen observation encouraged researchers to look more closely at the effect of nature in the built environment. Roger Ulrich’s landmark study on patient recovery times noted that hospital rooms with views to nature as opposed to rooms with no such views contributed significantly to quantifiable clinical outcomes, including stress and anxiety reduction, lower pain medication, and even faster recovery times.
Ulrich’s findings help pioneer the field of evidence-based design and transformed the way healthcare facilities are built. The knowledge gleaned from these clinical trials began to penetrate adjacent markets until companies began experimenting with what has come to be known as the field of biophilic design.
The second thing you need to know is about the economics of biophilic design and how it impacts occupant outcomes.
2. The Long Life of Commercial Buildings
According to Edward Mazria, the visionary architect and founder of Architecture 2030, an organization dedicated to achieve carbon neutrality in new building design, the average global life span of a building is 80 years.
Coupled with this figure, the Institute for Building Efficiency estimates that over 50% of the buildings that will be still in use by 2050 have already been built.
Furthermore, a recent survey by the U.S. Energy Information Agency found that approximately 46 billion square feet of floor stock belongs to buildings constructed more than 20 years ago—before the principles of biophilic design were well understood, let alone widely applied.
In this light, facility executives are charged to ensure properties remain competitive for the next 35 to 50 years. But what can you do to create sustainable interiors for long-term human occupancy in older buildings that we already know are far from biophilically optimal?
Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consultancy and strategic planning firm based in New York City has helped create the business case for biophilic design strategies with “The Economics of Biophilia,” a white paper that quantifies the economic gains of applying biophilic design strategies.
For example, Bank of America’s One Bryant Park Tower was designed from the outset to provide views to green spaces to 90% of their employees. The bank figured even a 1% increase in productivity would save them $10 million annually.
The third thing you will want to know is that cost-effective retrofit solutions enable older properties to glean the advantages of biophilic features.
3. Restorative Environments Measure Performance
Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a non-profit research and educational foundation dedicated to foster efficient and sustainable use of resources, calculates the average annual salary, with benefits, at $75,000 with an office space allocation of 250 gross sq. ft. per employee (including common areas and corridors).
Dividing the salary cost by the worker density in a standard building yields an annual salary expense of $300 USD/sq. ft. If employees take, on average, eight sick days out of a total of 250 working days, then about 3.2% of the overall salary cost, or $9.60/sq. ft., accounts for sick days.
Given that employees in areas with a visual connection to nature require 15% less sick hours per year (68 to 59), retrofit features that offer biophilic engagement deliver a hidden health dividend to a building of about $1.44/sq. ft. per year.
Since the average annual energy bill for a corporation is $3/sq. ft., even a modest reduction of 15% in employee absenteeism from biophilic interiors translates into significant savings.
A building’s value is now measured in terms of whether it enhances or hinders occupant productivity. As our understanding about the built environment changes, so should our toolbox. Biophilic design offers such an opportunity.
This is particularly important in owner-occupied buildings where public perception of the building’s image may not a competitive factor because attracting tenants is not a top priority. However, considering how biophilic design is rapidly changing public perception about building design, owner-occupied buildings must assess the exposure to their brand when clients visit their offices.
How you take care of occupants speaks volumes about the quality of service clients can expect. Managing buildings as a restorative environment that aids human productivity and maintains genuine wellness is an extremely compelling value proposition.
Long-term sustainable environments for human occupancy is the new currency in commercial buildings and biophilic engagement inside a building’s core is the new standard. Understanding both the clinical and economic implications will enable facility management professionals to adapt and transform the built environment.
Witherspoon is the CEO of The Sky Factory, a fine art and technology company based in Fairfield, IA. The company creates realistic Illusions of Nature™, virtual skylights and windows that transform interior spaces. An electrical engineer by trade, he leads the R&D engineering and product development teams, and co-owns one of the company’s core technology patents. Witherspoon has been with the company since 2002, when it was founded by his father, Bill Witherspoon.