Among the many aspects of office and workplace design, biophilia could well be one of the least known among mainstream workers, let alone fully understood. Biophilia is simply defined as the human tendency towards the natural environment. It is also the principle behind the increasing amount of greenery and incorporation of other natural fibres and elements we are seeing in workplaces. Yet there is a lot more to this biophilic design than creating clean air and pleasant modern offices by installing foliage-filled ‘living’ walls, building with natural timbers or placing potted palms strategically around desks.
According to the science, incorporating biophilia into a workplace directly leads to a happier, more motivated and productive crop of workers. Research carried out by leading establishments such as Harvard University have found engaging with the natural world in any number of ways – from being able to open windows for fresh air to being seated near a pleasant view – can dramatically improve creativity, health and emotional well-being. Now in the age of covid where mental and physical health are top priorities, biophilia’s proponents believe it will be a primary reason we will see more workplaces than ever develop more in common with local nurseries and the great outdoors.
Working with nature
Former corporate executive and leadership coach Kirsten McLauchlan is so passionate about the power of biophilia she founded The Intuit Institute, a consultancy focussed on incorporating the concept into building and workplace design. While recognising that biophilia is certainly not new, among the Institute’s aims is raising mainstream awareness of its positive effects.
“A lot of workplaces are getting better at incorporating biophilia into their design but then the benefits aren’t being explained to those who end up occupying these spaces,” Ms McLauchlan said. “This is because it’s really only the architects, builders and designers who know about biophilia - not the everyday person or manager. Unless people are educated they can end up working in beautifully designed spaces without realising why there is so much greenery, why that plant they walk past every day is there and what purpose all these natural elements are actually serving.”
The Intuit Institute’s advisory team includes sustainability engineers, architects and designs with sound knowledge of biophilia. “The concept involves assisting workplaces in moving towards using nature’s systems which then creates a more natural way of working. People have a natural tendency to be drawn towards nature as it’s energising as well as calming. If organisations want people to thrive the answer is nature.”
One of the largest studies into biophilia was performed by Sir Cary Cooper, an esteemed professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester. His 2015 study The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace ( Human-Spaces-Report-Biophilic-Global_Impact_Biophilic_Design.pdf (greenplantsforgreenbuildings.org) ) surveyed 7600 people across 16 countries, consistently finding even small nature-inspired changes led to dramatic emotional and physical improvements. Where workspaces included natural plants, creativity rose by 15 per cent, headaches plunged by 25 per cent and eye irritations fell by about 50 per cent. One case study involved workers in a new office complex built with indoor gardens, water features, a clear glass exterior and abundant natural light; after 18 months, 75 per cent reported feeling a closer connection with their colleagues, and over 80 per cent a greater sense of well-being.
Power of Plants
Companies such as Sydney’s Junglefly are among those injecting new buzz into the biophilia concept. The company is breaking new ground with living infrastructure products, particularly its unique plant-filled ‘Breathing Wall’ recently installed in places as diverse as a northern beaches multi-storey car park, the international departures terminal of Sydney International Airport and a public school. The Junglefly Breathing Wall is one of the most advanced types of green walls, scientifically designed to accelerate removal of air pollutants, act as a sound barrier, improve acoustics and cool surrounding air resulting in lower energy and air conditioning costs.
In Victoria, Junglefly was brought in to help enhance the 2020 residential development by Medley Property Group at Bruce Street Kensington (which coincidentally was the first project to participate in the City of Melbourne’s voluntary new environmental assessment scheme called Green Factor Tool). As the development’s façade featured installations of cascading plants, Junglefly created a Biodiversity Green Roof to provide a seamless link with the greenery below. The end goals were to bring more nature into the lives of residents and locals as well as allow wildlife to travel more easily across the foliage.
Ms McLauchlan said the element of the unknown in nature is another part of the biophilia concept making it even more relevant in the current time.
“We are encouraging people to reconnect with nature not simply because it’s pretty but because it’s also providing a quality of becoming uncomfortable with uncertainty,” Ms McLauchlan said. “Uncertainty is exactly what we’ve all been dealing with lately and have been for over a year now with the pandemic. And it’s being able to connect to this quality that helps create resiliency in a workforce.”