The biophilic effect

4th April 2024

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

What do you think of when people say green economy? There may still be some who roll their eyes and talk about “tree hugging”, but thankfully that 1970s sitcom mentality is getting rarer.

Knowing the impact of your business on the world is not only ethical, it is essential. In whatever way we operate, manage and build our businesses, we will have a direct impact on the world and those around us, now and in the future.

Biophilic design

This is why for me, and thousands of others, biophilic design is key. In simple terms, if we implemented biophilic design in our interiors, exteriors, city planning, hospitals, workplaces, schools and homes, we would meet net-zero goals.

Biophilic design uses materials and methods that support the circular economy, reduce energy consumption and prompt more sustainable behaviour, while also supporting wellbeing and productivity.

So what is biophilic design? Biophilia refers to our innate tendency to seek connection with the natural world and life around us, and our interdependency with nature. The term was coined by Erich Fromm and then embraced and moulded by sociobiologist E O Wilson, who studied ants and observed how the whole community was interdependent, how the termite mound had natural air flow, how the seasons affected behaviour, and so on. Being a scientist, Wilson realised this applied to humans too and he spent the rest of his life exploring this biological interdependence between us and the natural world.

When applied to design, biophilic principles aim to bring in as much direct connection with nature as possible, including natural light, better acoustics, natural materials, zones for safety and respite, and natural haptic experiences (such as gravel underfoot, or wooden door handles).

That’s before we even start looking at plants, which most people think biophilic design is exclusively about. Plants are natural air cleaners. And, as Nasa discovered, the soil also plays a major role in cleaning the air.

Environmental psychology research shows that having two big green leafy plants beside us when we are working helps us to focus and be more creative. It also reduces our cortisol and stress levels and ultimately cuts absenteeism and staff turnover, which is all good for the business’s bottom line. It helps with ESG, BREEAM and WELL certification goals too.

Keeping staff and pupils happy

Biophilic design helps to create environments and workplaces that people want to come to and are proud of. One such building is the De Verwondering primary school in the Netherlands, which was designed by Orga Architect and won last year’s Stephen R Kellert Biophilic Design Award.

The building is made of wood, with plants growing up its sides. It has outdoor spaces for classrooms and indoor areas have large banks of windows looking out on to trees and nature. Passivhaus design principles allow for natural air flow, so there is no need for a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, which reduces energy costs. The school has natural insulation, which the children can see through a hole cut into the wall to encourage some understanding of sustainable building practice. There are also beautiful, planed tree logs holding up the interiors in some areas and images of nature dotted around the school. The furnishings are in soft, natural colours, and are not derived from fossil fuels.

In the Netherlands, there is a shortage of teachers, but there is a waiting list to work in this school.

Sustainable Development Goals

It’s 2024, and we have only six years left to meet the 2030 deadline for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by countries in 2015. So many things are interconnected, from food production to improving city street environments.

As in nature, there are vast networks of co-operation being forged across borders and industries, so much so that, for example, we have an improved understanding of how communities are implementing circular systems of water supply and waste, and how cities are managing flood risk and reducing the impact of excessive temperature increases by planting trees. And there are things we can all do to implement biophilic design (see right).

Biophilic design is key to helping unlock the ESG challenge. It sits prominently under the ‘E’ for environmental (net zero, carbon and energy reduction) and the ‘S’ for social (employee health and wellbeing initiatives, customers and society at large) and ‘G’ for governance (staff retention). And I haven’t even mentioned the phenomenon that is ‘awe’. What’s not to like?

Five biophilic design tips for your workplace

1) Use natural light
Turn off lights and position your desk to make use of natural light. Have a look at your workplace – are the desks all facing the wall? We often talk about putting plants by the window rather than in the dark where they might die, but then we put our staff by the back wall or in an internal office and wonder why they are depressed and not performing. What’s good for the plants is also good for us. Shift those desks, lift those blinds and if you can plant some trees or bushes for people to look at (but more of that below), even better. We also know that natural light sources can decrease energy usage for lighting by up to 75%.

2) Plant something outside
Create a green space for your staff to hang out in during their lunch break or to take a breather. You can create a mini pocket park even in the smallest space. For instance, think hanging baskets, living walls, roof gardens, food gardens… There is so much inspiration. Green roofs and walls also act as natural insulators, reducing the heat island effect and providing additional thermal resistance. Studies have shown that green roofs can improve insulation and cut energy demand by up to 10%. They also reduce stormwater runoff by up to 65%, decreasing strain on drainage systems. I’m a big fan of green walls, which can help to reduce indoor temperature fluctuation, cut environmental footprint and improve energy efficiency.

3) Clean the air
As mentioned previously, Nasa research shows that plants clean the air. We now know that the soil plants sit in also acts as a mini air-cleaning machine. So, buy some plants from your nearest garden centre or, even better, engage a local plant company to come in and maintain some plants in your office. We know that the money spent on their maintenance more than pays off in terms of the productivity and creativity of your staff. Green spaces in offices lead to a 15% increase in productivity and a 6% increase in creativity (University of Exeter). It’s a no-brainer.

4) Use natural materials
I can’t stress this one enough. We know from an environmental psychology point of view that seeing wood grain helps us study better, so replace those white plastic table tops the supplier keeps showing you, and bring in some oak tables – they’ll support your sustainability rating and will be good for the circular economy. Natural materials also reduce the number of pollutants in the air (glues in plywood, fibres from plastics in polyesters, off-gassing fossil fuel-based varnishes). Remember that anything that is made from plastic also releases fibres into the air. Not nice.

5) Reduce office noise
We can’t see sound, but we know the impact noise has on us. Psychoacoustics is a science that shows how different noise levels affect our brains. Open-plan offices are mega culprits for unwanted noise. Not everyone wants to hear the sales team for eight hours a day, especially if you need to work on a spreadsheet or a report. Plants absorb and deflect sound and so banks of plants are ideal in helping reduce office noise.

Dr Vanessa Champion is the editor and founder of Journal of Biophilic Design


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