The biophilic office: Reconnecting nature to the workforce

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The biophilic office: Reconnecting nature to the workforce

by Miriel Ko

August 11, 2020

How often do we say in the workplace that we could use a little vacation? And more often than not, what are the places we think of when we envision that place? Perhaps we think of a beach, a trail through the forest, the mountains or a quiet place in our very own backyards. When asked where our ideal place is in the world, most individuals would instinctively think of a place outdoors.

However, while Greening the office building has raised significant awareness on how to build more sustainably, it has done little to reconnect people to their natural environment. To many experts including Kellert and Finnegan, producers of Biophilic Design: the Architecture of Life, “it is the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development.”i

Despite strong evidence that indicate humans’ preference for natural systems and processes, people are increasingly isolated from the natural environment. With rapid urbanisation in the last few decades, people now spend upwards of 90 per cent of their lives indoors.ii

While the condition and qualities of our indoor space can vary, most offices over the last few decades also resemble nothing like the ancestral environments in which human systems have evolved.iii Realising the significant trade-offs to our health and well-being, the focus is no longer just about what buildings can do for the environment but rather what the environment can do for people.


Before the term biophilia was coined, Everett Conklin, a horticulturist and award-winning floral designer, implied that there is a “primal association” between man and plants.iv That nature’s flora “are not just luxuries to people but rather requirements” of both our biological heritage and happiness. Whether we are aware of it or not, the loss of connection with nature is not just a physical one but also psychological. The sensory deficiencies we experience from prolonged hours indoors can manifest itself into both short-term impacts such as loss of productivity, or long-term impacts such as stress and illness.v

According to Alla Katsnelson of Scientific American, city dwellers typically suffer “higher rates of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders and schizophrenia” when compared to their rural Furthermore, what we find in the workforce is that office employees are not only susceptible to sick building syndrome from exposure to poor indoor air quality but they may also suffer from “nature deficit disorder.” According to Richard Louv, our societal disconnect with nature and the tendency to be ‘plugged in’ to technology and the indoor environment is causing a number of behavioural problems. Some of which include attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and even depression.vii


Biophilia, a theory developed by Edward O. Wilson in 1984, can be best described as humans’ innate love for the natural world or attraction to all that is alive and vital.viii When part of the design process, it is both the theory and practice of creating buildings and spaces that are either inspired by nature or seek to connect an individual to nature in the environments in which they live and work every day.ix So how can biophilic design reconnect humans with nature?

What may be considered a re-emergence of what people have already known for centuries, biophilic design can reconnect individuals to nature through various patterns seen in the natural world.x In a report by Terrapin Bright Green, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment, there are three broad categories of biophilic design patterns that can influence our nature-health relationshipxi.

“Nature in the Space” refers to patterns with a direct, physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a place including plant life, water, breezes, sounds, scents and other natural elements. “Natural Analogues” are objects, materials, colours, shapes and sequences found in nature but manifested into artwork, décor, and textiles in the built environment. And lastly, “Nature of the Space” refers to patterns that represent spatial configurations found in nature, which we associate with our ancestral environment such as obscured or long-distance views, a fascination with the unknown, and trusted elements of safety.

Ranging from expected to unusual, these biophilic design patterns could incite various cognitive, physiological and psychological responses that regulate mood, stress levels and brain activity. Thus when carefully considered, the wide range of potential applications for biophilic patterns can be used to design spaces that enhance productivity, incite creativity, expedite healing, and improve the overall well-being of the workplace.


Organic materials, natural lighting and views of nature inside Tujuan Gemilang’s office in Selangor, designed by WHBC Architects (Photo by Miriel Ko)

There is an increasing amount of research to suggest that biophilic design can improve productivity and well-being in the workplace. However, while productivity is most often measured through financial gains, well-being requires a more qualitative approach. With the help of Robertson Cooper, who developed a market-leading stress evaluation tool (ASSET), there are six essential components of workplace well-being: resources and communication, control, balanced workload, job security and change, work relationships and job condition.

Evaluated more simply into the three scales of happiness, inspiration and enthusiasm, Human Spaces completed an online survey of 7,600 office workers across 16 different countries in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. One of the first studies to take a global perspective on biophilia in the workplace, The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace suggests that not only do existing design practices have a significant impact on workers but also the relationship between biophilia and well-being is not globally standard.xiii

What makes people happy, inspired or enthusiastic can actually differ by age, culture, gender, religion and geographical region. For example, while Australian respondents associate a window view of trees to greater levels of happiness, respondents in Indonesia associate happiness with stone elements in the office and views of the countryside. For respondents in India, the colour red within the office space was strongly linked to greater levels of creativity, while for the Philippines it was natural light and the colour blue. In China, which is witnessing one of the greatest urbanisation rates in the world, respondents indicate that above all else, natural light is the most important factor in maintaining healthy levels of well-being and productivity.

In comparison with other countries in the world that prefer the use of bright accents within the office environment, the colour brown was also found to be more significant to employee well-being and productivity in China. While the reasoning for these preferences is made unclear, what the studies do indicate is that there are important cultural differences in biophilic design that can influence people in a positive way.


While the relationship between culture and biophilia are still not completely understood, several companies are already using biophilic design to reinforce their cultural values. Upon entering Glumac’s office in Shanghai, green walls and lucky Chinese clouds welcome occupants and visitors. Carefully selected for their meaning to traditional Chinese, the plants and lucky Chinese clouds represent good fortune and happiness.

Aside from the office’s cultural association, there are also biophilic design features that reinforce the company’s ethos. For example, while the interior office has many ducts visible, these features were left exposed to illuminate the very structure and mechanics of the building. As Glumac is an engineering firm, leaving the spine of the building visible was an important reminder of what productivity means to the firm. While the green wall and Kvadrat Cloud art installation soften the interior and provide visual stimulation, its representation in the company’s colours can be a subtle reminder of the company’s values to the individuals that work there.

The VicSuper workspace designed by Gray Puksand Architects, a non-profit superfund located in Melbourne, also played on the company’s key values of shelter and security. Inspired by the “Nature in the Space” patterns of “shelter and refuge”, the office has a series of timber huts that provide a variety of points to meet, discuss and think. These include workspaces that act as socialisation hubs where the employees can have a discussion, an official meeting, play ping-pong or simply relax.

Considering the various cultural differences in biophilic design, there is never really one clear way to design a space. However, the Human Spaces report did find that a third of all respondents felt the design of an office would affect their decision to work for a company. So design does matter.

They also found that regardless of culture or company values, a connection to nature in both an internal and external environment could enhance overall well-being in the workplace by as much as 15 percent. However, despite this research, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) claims “biophilic design principles are still not being placed at high priority.” While addressing office health, well-being and productivity in their latest report, they believe the next big chapter for Green building is no longer about proving the benefits of biophilic design but rather finding more ways to implement it.


According to Terrapin, implementing biophilic design strategies is not hard, “you just need to do it, and now.”xv Ten years ago, when there was not much data available, Except, a worldwide sustainability cooperative in Amsterdam, took gathering knowledge on biophilic design principles into their own hands. Together with their other business unit Polydome, Except examined various environments that lower work stress, promote higher levels of concentration, and are enjoyable settings that people want to be in and return to. They also investigated psychological properties regarding kinship with plants and how they associate with relaxation and emotional support.

After developing their own database on how performance levels of people are affected by biophilic environments, they used this knowledge to convert an abandoned shipyard into their very own energy-neutral office. Filled with lush greenery and hydroponic modules, the Crystal Forest produces food, runs on chlorine-free rainwater, and is a great example of how biophilic design can improve well-being in the workplace.

Today, the Crystal Forest is “a healthier place to work, a more enjoyable one, a less stressful one, and one where people feel at ease and at home,” says Tom Bosschaert, the company’s director. Following a poll amongst office workers, lush green environments were found to win every time over stark designs with just straight lines of glass and metal. For the building tenants, “the plants help to reduce sick days by a significant degree and get higher productive employees” which are both linked to our emotional and biological response to nature.

According to research, our bodies actually undergo different physiological reactions when either exposed to an urban setting or natural setting.xvi For example natural light is known to regulate our cardiovascular systems, our hormones and even our sleeping rhythms, while colour and art can reduce stress and fear. However, while natural light, longer distance views, and access to nature are common attributes of biophilic design, not everyone has access to it. In fact, according to Interface, “up to one in five people have no natural elements within their workspace and alarmingly nearly 50 per cent of workers have no natural light.”xvii Considering some offices may have certain design limitations, what can be done?

Well for one, it is important to note that biophilic design is not limited to the indoor space but can also be implemented in the outdoor space. Medibank Place, which is situated in an area of Melbourne that is criticised for lacking soul and identity, used biophilic design strategies to improve their urban environment predominantly made up of concrete office towers. Covering the building’s exterior with native Australian plants, the office is now considered a “living, breathing building” which offers a welcome relief to the surrounding community.

Similar to Medibank, the architects at the Zalewski Group in Poland were inspired to add some greenery to their window views. However, given their position on the third floor and predominantly concrete façade, there were limitations to their biophilic design strategy. Having to be a little bit more creative, the Group designed a functional, sculptural and suspended “walk on balcony” that transformed the courtyard into an event space that neighbouring businesses could also use.xviii

Using elements of colour, art, shapes and form, a simulated natural environment can also promote a biophilic connection where a real environment cannot. Where furniture design, art and textiles can provide natural stimuli that keep the brain alert, images and sounds of natural environments such as organic materials or flowing water can calm the mind, alleviate stress or expedite healing. For those with limited access to windows or daylight, there is great challenge but also great need to act.

Despite all the different cultural preferences to office design, access to natural daylight is found to be the most common factor affecting workplace well-being.xix White walls and form can optimise on the reflectance of natural light but there are also new artificial lighting techniques that emit white light and mimic rays of sunlight.xx While only nature can really replace nature, sometimes these “Natural Analogues” can offer a final solution to the otherwise nature depleted workspace.


While all the benefits and research behind biophilic design are still in development, there is increasing evidence to show that bringing nature-inspired elements into the workplace has justifiable results. The last decade has already seen a steady growth in both research and design approaches that combine elements of biology and psychology with architecture.

Green building rating tools, which have lowered the ecological footprint of the built environment but have often produced buildings of stark contrast to their natural environment, are now incorporating biophilia in their sustainable design strategies.

For organisations, it also makes good business sense. While small investments may need to be made, biophilic design can promote a company’s brand, help retain employees and enhance productivity and well-being in the office space which all leads to significant financial gains.

Finally, as urbanisation shows no signs of slowing down, biophilic design can offer a sense of well-being to both the workforce and the communities it surrounds. Wherever the human connection to nature may seem increasingly lost, biophilic design can help to reconnect it once more.


i Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life; Stephen Kellert and Bill Finnegan (2011);

ii Report to Congress on indoor air quality: Volume 2; U.S. EPA (1989)

iii 7 billion and counting: Homo sensus in an Urban World; Christopher N. Henry (2011);

iv Nature in the Space: Indoor Nature Connections; Joe Zazzera; Terrapin Bright Green (2015);

v A New Era of Green Building: Health and Productivity in the Indoor Environment; Miriel Ko; FuturArc (2013)

vi 7 billion and counting: Homo sensus in an Urban World; Christopher N. Henry (2011);

vii Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (2005), Nature Deficit Disorder

viii Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia (1984)

ix Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace; Interface (2014)

x Ibid.

xi 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design; Browning W.D., Ryan, C.O, Clancy, J.O (2014); Terrapin Bright Green LLC

xii “What is asset”; Robertson Cooper;

xiii Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace; Interface (2014)

xiv Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(2), 166-171. Howell, A.

J., Dopko, R. L., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2011)

xv It’s Time to Bring Nature into Our Built Environments – Biophilic Design; Bill Browning & Allison Bernett; Ecology Global Network (2014);

xvi Christopher N. Henry (2011). 7 billion and counting: Homo sensus in an Urban World;

xvii Human Spaces: The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace; Interface (2014)

xviii A Suspended Walkway Between Buildings By Zalewski Architecture Group; Contemporist (2015);;

xix Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices: The next chapter for green building; WGBC (2015)


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