A new word is making waves in sustainable building design: biophilia. Coined by social psychologist Erich Fromm and brought into usage by biologist Edward O. Wilson in the 1980s, it means literally ‘love of life’. Wilson used it to highlight the innate affiliation humans have to nature; its planes, spatial dimensions, shapes and colours. Its proponents argue that incorporating biophilia into the design of buildings and workspaces has beneficial impacts on health, productivity and general wellbeing.
As we hurtle toward resource scarcity and climate change, companies are increasingly being asked to incorporate their environmental externalities into decision-making and reporting. Biophilic design is the counterpart; nature giving business benefits when it’s brought into the work environment.
It’s not just a theoretical notion: a considerable body of research exists to demonstrate these benefits. Last year, the consultancy group Terrapin Bright Green published The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Economic Sense. The report details the science behind the claims that biophilic design can improve productivity. Some of it isn’t news: we know instinctively that good natural lighting is preferable to low or strip lighting.
But some of it is surprising. A study by the University of Oregon found the quality of a person’s view (on a continuum of no view through urban vistas to nature scenes) was the primary predictor of absenteeism. Employees with views of nature took 57 hours off sick on average per year, compared with 68 hours for employees with no view whatsoever. Productivity is also seen to improve when views of vegetation are provided: a 2003 study on a call centre found that employees with such a view handled calls 6-7% faster than their counterparts. Retail can also benefit: Walmart has experimented with natural daylight, finding that it significantly raises sales figures compared to non-daylit stores.
Investments in workspaces are often seen as unjustifiable, particularly when businesses are accountable to shareholders or the economy is on a dip. But embedding biophilic design could bring many of the same benefits that sustainability leaders like Marks & Spencer and Unilever are pursuing with their employee health programmes. Some companies are already up to speed on this: Interface, a company renowned for its sustainability credentials, launched its Reconnect competition earlier this year with a focus on biophilic design.
The Bank of America Tower in Manhattan has already put the idea into practice: it was purposefully designed to ensure that 90% of all employees had views to parks, green roofs and/or rivers. This was explicitly to attract and retain the best employees. It’s not alone: the recently opened Centre for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh is a shining example of biophilic design. Its features include reclaimed wood, rain gardens to conserve water, a ‘wall’ of plants to improve air quality and even a bird-friendly wind turbine. Executive director Richard Piacentini sees the building as an example of “the highest level of achievement in environmental sustainability.”
Few companies will be able to commission their own biophilic buildings, but there are a range of actions they can take to embed this innovative thinking. Maximising natural daylight, keeping windows clear, and even that old forgotten favourite, the pot plant, have all been shown to bring some degree of improvement in workplace wellbeing and productivity. When it comes down to it, biophilia is just a fancy word for what we’ve known all along: nature knows best.
Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.