By Darlene Burns
Nature is all around us. The sky, trees, air, wind, wildlife, and water are all parts of the great outdoors we experience every day. Yet most of us spend most of our time indoors, surrounded by concrete and glass away from the natural elements that connect us all. By electing to work inside, we’ve deprived ourselves, perhaps unknowingly, of things that would not only make us healthier, but more productive. Studies show that nature benefits us. These benefits, which are important to a better existence, are driving organizations to incorporate biophilic design into their spaces.
Biophilic design was derived from term “biophilia,” which means “love of life,” and was mainstreamed by American biologist and naturalist, Edward O. Wilson, 35 years ago. Wilson believed that people have an innate desire to be connected to nature. Biophilic design is the application of this connection to our life and work spaces through the incorporation of natural elements or bringing the outdoors.
How does biophilic design benefit us? We can all see that development and technology are moving us further away from nature and its ability to reduce stress and aid in recuperation. Going deeper, extensive research from the last few decades demonstrates how biophilic design positively impacts our lives.
Well-Being. Environmental psychology studies reveal that being connected to nature is an adaptive human function that allows for, and supports, psychological restoration. Visible connections to nature can reduce stress levels, and according to one study of office workers in Europe, well-being can increase by up to 15% when people work in surroundings integrated with natural elements. This is especially critical to address now, as people increasingly seek positive influences on their health and well-being in all aspects of their lives, and as wellness is often a factor in employee recruitment and retention. Employee performance is directly linked; healthy well-being can increase satisfaction, creativity, teamwork, and productivity, all of which impact an organization’s bottom line.
Attention. The theory of attention restorations, for one, suggests that natures captures our attention without us having to consciously focus on it simply because it is inherently fascinating. By focusing on nature, even subconsciously, humans can replenish mental stores of attention control. What’s more, little time is needed observing nature to reap its benefits. By taking nature-focused microbreaks — looking at nature through a window, taking a walk outside, sitting on a park bench for five minutes — can boost attention spans in the workplace.
Creativity. Studies have also shown that nature can stimulate creativity. Creativity often depends on memory, which is improved through exposure to nature. Overall brain function is critical to lowering stress, which can also be accomplished by spending time in nature. Stress is often associated with mental blocks. Without these blocks, creativity flourishes.
Productivity. It should come as no surprise that an individual’s well-being, attention, and creativity are directly proportional to productivity; when one or all increase, so does productivity. These aspects can be increased simultaneously by implementing basic biophilic designs. Simply exposing employees to plants throughout the office can raise productivity by as much as 15%.
Now that the case has been made for biophilic design, how does an organization incorporate it into its space? The process is not as difficult (or as expensive) as you may think. Small biophilic changes can be made to almost any space, even on a limited budget. Here are a few of those ways.
Textures, Finishes, And Colors… Oh My!
Textures, finishes, and colors can go a long way to bringing nature indoors. Patterns inspired by nature displayed on walls, artwork, or textiles are easily applied and accessed and have shown to increase employee engagement and ease mental fatigue. Wood or stone flooring, wallcovering, or special architectural touches also provide a stylish opportunity to introduce elements of biophilia.
If your organization is lucky enough to have extra space it can utilize outside of its main structure, why not make it an outdoor workspace? Patios, lawns, or even a small seating area — especially when equipped with adequate WiFi — provide employees with not only an alternative place to complete assignments, but also to recharge, revitalize, and find inspiration.
Green, Living Systems
Biophilic design wouldn’t exist without life, so adding plants – as living organisms –throughout a workspace is one of the simplest ways to exercise biophilia. Plants also improve the health of those around them by removing dust, mold, and CO2 levels. And because they come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties, potted plants can be placed almost anywhere within a space.
Additionally, living systems are becoming more mainstream. Living systems are basically a wall of plants, growing vertically, that can be scaled to fit any available space and easily removed for maintenance or replacement. What’s more, living systems can help building owners and developers earn LEED credits, when a project is pursuing certification.
Let There Be Light
Most of us need ample light to work, and yet most of the light we use is unnatural. Windows that let in natural light can have a significant, positive impact on space. Brighter floorplans with enclosed spaces at the center of the floorplan rather than the perimeter, for example, not only make a space feel bigger, they also improve the mood and wellbeing of employees who now have increased access to natural light. If windows are limited, yet your space requires separation, the use of glass modular walls can divide rooms while allowing natural light to pass through.
As you can see, even some simple biophilic design techniques can go a long was to improve employee productivity and benefit a company. Talent acquisition and retention are major challenges for many employers today, as is the aging infrastructure of our cities, where many companies are moving. Biophilic design that promotes employee well-being and improves the office environment is an effective way to overcome these challenges and improve employee engagement, both of which are good for business in the long run.
Burns is director of design at dancker, a leading interior solutions firm based in Somerville, NJ with offices now in Baltimore and Capitol Heights, MD. With a focus on creating spaces that improve well-being, Burns leads dancker’s design team in specifying products that help clients achieve business results while supporting the people using them. She has a background in textile design, environmental and occupational health science, and project/facility management and earned her Master of Science in Environmental Science from The State University of New Jersey, and her B.S. in Textile Design from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.