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Natural Environment

The Economics of Biophilia

Biophilia – the innate human attraction to nature – offers a framework for creating spaces that improve productivity and wellbeing and boost the bottom line.

Bill Browning, Founding partner, Terrapin Bright Green
23 August 2018

Biophilia – the innate human attraction to nature – offers a framework for creating spaces that improve productivity and wellbeing and boost the bottom line.

Green building practices traditionally focus on costs of energy, water, and materials – all important topics. Yet, sometimes these design criteria neglect the most important factor: us. Human costs are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace. Statistics like this are encouraging occupiers, landlords and developers to demand buildings that support health and improve occupant experience. Biophilia – the innate human attraction to nature – offers a framework for creating spaces that improve productivity and wellbeing, reduce stress, and therefore boost the bottom line.

Humans have evolved in the larger context of the natural environment, and therefore respond to the experiences of a place based on that connection with nature. As a result, we innately favour specific sensory interactions with nature and the spatial properties of natural landscapes. Whether one is engaging with nature by walking through a park, or simply opening a window to catch a breeze, biophilic design – the concepts of biophilia in practice – have many applications that help transform mundane settings into stimulating environments.

Natures positive effects

Positive experiences of nature can elicit beneficial psychological and physiological responses, such as lowered blood pressure and heart rate, reduced muscular tension, better mental focus, lowered levels of stress hormones, and enhanced creative problem-solving abilities. Researchers at the University of Oregon found in 2011 that 10% of employee absences could be attributed to architectural elements that did not connect with nature, and that the quality of a person’s view was the primary predictor of absenteeism.

A 2015 Harvard-led study, meanwhile, found that as CO2 levels in office environments increased, cognitive function of participants was impaired by as much as 50%. These results point to the need for natural ventilation and increased airflow similar to outside conditions, in line with the principles of biophilia.

An experiment conducted in a public authority building in Sacramento found that a biophilic intervention saved three times the cost of its installation. The office occupies an upper floor and, while it has large windows that look out on to trees, the desks were arranged perpendicular to them. Since the workers needed to focus on their computer monitors, seeing the view out the windows required them to turn their bodies. By rotating the desks a few degrees toward the windows, any movement in the trees outside became perceptible in the occupants’ peripheral vision. This caused them to occasionally glance out of the windows, relaxing their eyes and providing them with brief mental pauses that restored cognitive focus. Moving the desks cost about $1,000 per occupant, but their call handling capabilities increased by more than 6%, resulting in savings of around $3,000 per occupant.

Several leading companies already use biophilic design to improve their workspaces. The Bank of America Tower in New York is designed so that more than 80% of its occupants have a view to the outside, many of them over Bryant Park. This visual connection to nature is enhanced by the use of natural materials such as stone with visible fossils on the core walls, bamboo ceilings in the lobby, and wood grain on the handles of the entry doors.

Biophilia is increasingly recognised as an important element in building design for creating spaces that support health and wellbeing. Luckily, biophilic design does not require extensive or expensive interventions to have an impact. Simply ensuring offices have views to the outside, contain plants, receive adequate daylight or have decorative nature-inspired art all help create a more inviting, healthy and desirable environment. Biophilic design is not a luxury, it is sound economic investment in our health and wellbeing.

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.