The importance of biophilic design

Design features that reconnect people with nature could drastically reduce stress
Friday, June 20, 2014
By Ilan Mester

Biophilic design (design features that reconnect people with nature) could help reduce stress in the workplace. Notably, the London office of global design firm HOK installed a grass boulevard along one of its main corridors to give staff a green indoor space to relax.

Such amenities are in line with scientific and psychological theories about humans’ intrinsic need for exposure to natural environments — a disposition known as biophilia.

“Yes, LEED has caused attention to some of the increased awareness of daylighting and views, operable windows, but I think there’s a whole lot more that we could be doing to work with decreasing stress,” professor Ann Callaghan told attendees at the Canada Green Building Council’s annual national conference in Toronto earlier this month.

Joint research from Carleton and Western Universities revealed that 57 per cent of 25,000 surveyed full-time employees reported high levels of stress.

“Stress levels have gone up and life satisfaction has gone down,’’ co-researcher Linda Duxbury said in a statement to Carleton when the study was released. “Email use has gone up, as have work demands. There are more employees balancing work, elder care and childcare. But despite the talk, many companies have not made progress in the area of work-life balance and employee well-being.”

Biophilic design

Callaghan says biophilic design could be a means to reduce stress in the office. Multiple studies have reached the same conclusion. For instance, a 2007 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research found that workers with views to trees generally reported less career-oriented stress and higher job satisfaction than those without views, regardless of age, gender or position in the company.

Similarly, a study published in the Landscape and Urban Planning journal found adults who lived in neighbourhoods with large areas of green space harboured lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Not every office can be situated beside a forest and have access to breathtaking views, but there are certainly other ways to incorporate biophilic design.

Ideas to consider

Green walls (also known as vertical gardens) offer a popular example. In Canada, companies such as Desjardins, EIA, Perkins + Will and ING Direct now have living green walls in their offices.

Unlike conventional ivy covered facades, plants are physically rooted to an existing wall, making them self-sufficient. In addition to the aesthetic benefit (multiple types of plants can be used to create unique designs), green walls can improve indoor air quality, dampen noise and provide additional LEED credits.

Natural materials offer another way to incorporate nature into the office. For example, consider trading plastic or laminate desks for ones made of wood. A University of British Columbia and FPInnovations joint study discovered a link between wood and human health, and concluded that the presence of wood surfaces in a room decreased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation, which is responsible for activating the body’s fight-or-flight response.

Cost-effective solutions

Potted plants are believed to have a similar positive effect. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Uppsala University found the mere presence of plants reduced stress and even assisted in health issues such as dry throats, headaches and dry skin.

Similar studies have been conducted in North America. Researchers at Washington State University concluded potted plants are particularly helpful for workers who do not have access to windows.

The study found that employees who completed a computer task in a room with plants were, on average, 12 per cent more productive compared to their counterparts in a plant-free room. Additionally, blood pressure rose by four points for participants without plants and only two points for those completing the task with them.

Finally, it turns out even images of nature have a positive impact on people.

“We’re not predicting how important nature is to us,” says Callaghan. “So instead of tucking it away, make sure it’s out there and it’s obvious.”

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