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Biophilic design: bringing nature indoors

16 Aug 2018

In Seattle, Amazon has created a jaw-dropping workspace in the form of three giant domes stuffed with tens of thousands of plants and a 65-foot green wall.

What were they thinking?

At the grand opening, Amazon Vice President for Global Real Estate and Facilities, John Schoetter, explained. ‘We wanted a space for employees to collaborate and innovate. We asked ourselves: what is missing from the modern office? We discovered that missing element was a link to nature.’

Biophilic design is one of the hottest trends in office and facilities management. As employee wellbeing rises up the corporate agenda, the role of the office environment in supporting its occupants’ health and happiness (and therefore productivity) has come under intensifying scrutiny. How can the design of the workplace influence such subtle matters as mood, morale and emotional wellbeing?

Evidence is mounting that part of the answer lies in restoring the connection to nature lost when as a race we moved out of the woods and fields and into factories and offices.

It’s not a new concept. In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, pioneer and biologist, defined biophilia as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. The theory is that as living beings, humans seek a connection with other living organisms. Our feeling of wellbeing relies on a sense of oneness with the natural world around us – a link we’re not necessarily aware of, but which can have a powerful impact on our psyche.

Numerous studies have found a correlation between wellbeing and access to nature. The presence of plants in the office, for example, is credited with reducing stress and headaches, lifting mood, boosting creativity and concentration, and improving cognitive performance. Plants also do wonders for air quality – supplying oxygen and removing impurities.

However, sticking a few plants around the office won’t cut it. The sight of a sad, dusty houseplant in a plastic pot is unlikely to do much to lift the spirits. Biophilic design is more likely to have an impact if it is integral to the look and feel of a workplace. Natural elements should be a seamless part of the interior landscape, in harmony with the organisation’s culture and values.

We probably don’t have to go as far as Amazon. Green, moss or ‘living’ walls are attractive visual reminders of forests, gardens and the role of greenery in our lives. Plants can be incorporated into furniture, used to provide accents and focal points, or used as natural boundaries. There is growing evidence that representations of nature, such as a digital print of a rainforest, can be just as potent as living plants in creating a sense of connection to the natural environment.

Other elements might include use of materials such as wood, stone, granite, cork or marble; colours and textures that reflect the living world; water features, or even a view from a window.

People in such enriched environments are likely to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more likely to stay with their organisations. And who can argue with that?

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