We spend a great chunk of our lives in close spaces. For some, this isn’t so bad. But the way we design our homes and offices is critically important to influence our mood, from the big aspects to the small, from the obvious to the obscure.
The art of designing and building efficient, yet livable and enjoyable spaces - especially when it comes to offices - has evolved greatly during the last 50 years, going from spaces designed with the sole purpose of utility, to much more organic and intricate designs.
Biophilia is a word that you’re going to be hearing a lot more in the coming years, and it’s going to have an ever increasing influence on interior design and architecture. Yet many of us probably still remain unfamiliar with this term. In this article we will try to explain the concept of biophilia and its application in an indoor environment as well as investigating the potential benefits of plants in the workspace and why they are so often a forgotten element.
What is Biophilia?
The term biophilia derives from the Greek words bios meaning “living thing” and philia, meaning “love”. Roughly translating to “love of life”.
As all living beings, we also share a deeply ingrained connection with the natural world, and an quasi biological need for “immersing ourselves in nature” that is hard to describe, let alone explain. The relationship between people and plants has always been profoundly important for our evolution for hundreds of thousands of years.
Biophilic design stems as a response to this human need, and its objective is to re-establish contact with nature in the artificial environments we build. Plants affect every aspect of our lives: without them life as we know it would not be possible. Plants not only make the air breathable, but kick off the food chain and absorb toxic substances that otherwise would accumulate in the air, soil, and water poisoning us.
We feel good in nature, if you were asked to picture a place where you feel calm and relaxed, chances are you would pick a scene involving nature. This is backed up by statistics which show that 90% of us imagine a natural setting when presented with this task. Our mental and physical well-being depends on engagement with the natural environment, being in a drab room without windows and piped air makes us feel lethargic, even depressed.
A connection with the natural world is clearly very important. Yet we are living in ever more urban environments, deforesting trees to build our cities around the globe. The increasing academic and organizational interest in biophilia and biophilic design as a whole is driven by the positive outcomes that it can help to create, for both individuals and businesses alike.
This increasing interest in biophilia comes at a time when, as a species, we are more disconnected from nature than we have ever been. Living in a urban area, one can go days without seeing a patch of grass. At a time when businesses have more knowledge than ever before on the effect of work environments on their people and their bottom line, it’s surprising that the biophilic agenda is still in its infancy.
And for the most skeptical it’s worth mentioning how Biophilia is more than just a philosophy: biophilic design has been found to support cognitive function, physical health, and psychological well-being. At Botany Labs, for instance, we try to incorporate biophilic design into all our offices to encourage the connection between humans and nature, as well as promote staff wellness and productivity.
Under the umbrella of biophilic design, there are three main categories:
- Nature in the Space. The direct presence of nature in a space in the form of plants, animals, water, breeze, scents, light, shadows, and any other natural element.
- Natural Analogues. The representational presence of natural materials, patterns, objects, colors, and shapes incorporated into building design, facade ornamentation, decor, and furniture.
Nature of the Space. The incorporation of spatial elements commonly found in nature such as expansive views, places of sensory refuge (such as a quiet and dark room that simulates a cave), and a mild sense of risk (like stepping stones over a shallow pond).
Within the three categories of biophilic design architects identified 14 patterns that detail different ways to incorporate each category into a space. Which of these patterns to incorporate depends on both the needs of the structure as well as on the personal preference of its occupants. The beauty of biophilic design is that its elements can be mixed and matched to create a personalized ecosystem.
Bringing nature indoors
Biophilic design brings any indoor space to life. The benefits of biophilia stretch far beyond the practical benefits of recycling clean air.
Recent research into biophilia has found the positive impacts contact with nature can have. Research has shown that this impact includes increasing academic performance, increasing consumer’s willingness to spend, and even reducing stress and anxiety before medical procedures. People exposed to natural surroundings feel more energized, less stressed and have improved attention spans - all great news for their employers. Recently, white papers such as ‘The Economics of Biophilia’ have shown us that natural materials in a workspace are not extravagances, but a way to make cost-savings and drive profits.
Analysis has shown that individuals with a view from their desk of natural elements such as water, trees or countryside have greater levels of well-being that people who have a view of buildings, roads or construction sites. This is particularly important when considering that other studies found that just 58% of workers have natural light reaching their desk and 7% have no windows at all: a clear indication that the benefits of bringing nature to work are not appreciated or applied to the workplace nearly enough.
Introducing plants, trees, water fountains and images of nature are all ways to add a biophilic element to an indoor space, increases the connection people will have with nature and reap the benefits this sows.
The problem with the modern office
The way we structure our offices has changed considerably over the past few decades with the world of the modern office being dominated by open plans. It’s not hard to understand the reasons for this, the cost of space has sky rocketed and open plan provides a very cost-effective way to maximize the number of staff on the office floor. Yet evidence suggests that the costs of open plan offices might offset the benefits of savings in terms of space if it is not implemented properly, as part of a multi-layered office design. Open plan offices are often cramped, noisy and starved of light with staff sometimes finding themselves in the position of having no opportunity to express their identity at work – at all.
Studies across the board found that 70% of American workers personalize their workspaces. Yet it is managers and employees with enclosed offices who decorate more than their co-workers in open plan spaces. In open plan spaces, personalization of low-status working space is often infrequent and discouraged. The dominance of open plan offices means that the majority of staff now suffer from a lack of identity at work and a 2010 study by Knight & Haslam found that clean-desk policies resulted in high levels of personal identity threat, increased stress and a reduced willingness to contribute to company policy. This is thought to be due to the limited opportunities these staff had to express their personal identities, for example by decorating their workspace.
Open plan offices themselves are not the problem, as they do have some benefits. Nevertheless, it is important that offices get designed with the drawbacks open plan can have in mind and counteract these issues – for example by including quiet spaces, artwork and greenery.
Is having plants at work useful?
Several studies investigating the impact of plants indicated that we experience a beneficial psychological and physiological reaction from being exposed to nature. Physiological stress, or arousal is often lower after exposure to plants and nature as compared with urban settings and exposure to nature has been shown to have the capacity to improve attention.
As it stands, there are three main classes of explanation for these responses:
The first states that plants, as living organisms, have a beneficial influence on the climate of the working environment – in particular because they improve air quality. Indeed, indoor plants have been shown to remove many types of airborne pollutants and chemicals from both indoor and outdoor sources. In offices with plants, staff well-being increases and there is a reduction in sick leave. Plants ability to absorb carbon dioxide also has beneficial implications for the office, with studies finding that both student performance and workplace productivity decline with increasing CO2 levels.
The second explanation of plants’ beneficial effects revolves around our evolution. Evolutionarily speaking, a green environment reflects the natural world and so it appears soothing for human physiology.
The third and final class of explanation moves away from physiology and instead considers the managerial consequences of enrichment. The basic premise of this theory is that enrichment of the workplace (whether through plants or other means) signals that attempts are being made by management to improve staff well-being. This sense of managerial care communicates their focus on employee well-being, which leads to increased attention at work, greater productivity and engagement and lower absence and attrition.
Additionally, this study emphasizes the previous point that transforming a lean office to a green one contributes not just to employee welfare, but also to profits and organizational output.
When we’re happy and feeling good, we have a more positive outlook and are generally able to do more. There is clear evidence which directly links biophilia with improved organizational output. For instance, a 2017 study of call center workers, the numbers of calls handles per hour was 6-7% greater for those with a view of the outdoor environment, in comparison to those with no view.
It is clear that enriched spaces lead to improved job performance and greater productivity. Yet of course, this idea that empowering organizational strategies have positive consequences is not new to either social or organizational psychology.
So, with this abundance of evidence pointing to the fact that enriched spaces make us happier and more productive, why are aspects such as plants not a feature in all modern office spaces?
A conclusive note
BIOPHILA IS MORE THAN JUST DESIGN.
Bringing natural life and energy into our daily routines can make a day off at home feel like a vacation, invoking the same feelings of peace and relaxation, without the need to pack up and travel for hours at a time. Imagine closing your eyes and getting the same sense of serendipity, the same sounds, smells, and feelings as you would in a forest, all while sitting on your couch. Having this sensation of peace all around you has been proven to increase productivity, mood, healing, and overall happiness.
While biophilia may feel like a bit complicated for these reasons, it can easily be obtained by anybody willing to make minor changes to their homes and make them more “nature friendly”.
In case you are wandering about what plant might be the best to improve your home or office, we have got your back: check out our article about the 9 best air purifying plants.