Good for the soul, but does it improve productivity?
It’s not difficult to accept that exposure to nature is good for us, but can this really be turned into improved health and productivity in a normal workplace - and by what practical means? A two-and-a-half-year study in a real working office building aims to find out.
Report from – Tom Harvey
Most of us would concede that access to nature can give us a feeling of wellbeing. “It’s good for the soul,” as a keen gardener friend often says. And there is now hard evidence of the quantifiable health, wellbeing and productivity benefits of building designs that are influenced by humans’ innate attraction to nature.
Again, one might accept that expensively designed new office buildings with their water features and airy ambiance could enhance wellbeing. But what about your bog-standard existing offices? How can they be made to satisfy our innate attraction to nature – and would it be cost effective?
A study of a working 1980s office block on the Watford site of building science centre, BRE, aims to answer these questions, as part of the two-and-a-half-year Biophilic Office project. Sustainable architecture and interior design expert and broadcaster, Oliver Heath, will take the lead in designing a refurbishment of office building to introduce Biophilic features.
Biophilia (meaning love of nature) is a term popularised by American psychologist Edward Wilson in the 1980s, when he observed that increasing urbanisation was causing a disconnect between people and nature.
"Biophilic design acknowledges that we are genetically connected to nature," says Ed Suttie, Research Director at BRE, "and that a human-centred approach can improve many of the spaces we live and work in, with benefits for our health and wellbeing”.
The Biophilic Office project will investigate a whole floor (650m2) floor of a typical office building. It will ask the staff how they feel about their office, and will record how they are affected by the space, before and after the refurbishment.
"In the first year of the project researchers will monitor current working conditions," says Suttie. "The building will then be refurbished, followed by a further year of monitoring. The office environment for daylight, lighting, indoor air quality, acoustics, and thermal comfort will be investigated. Meanwhile, the office occupants will participate in confidential interviews and a series of online questionnaires and surveys."
The office refurbishment will include an Oliver Heath led design process consisting of tiers of refurbishment starting with simple interventions and then increasingly biophilic design.
"We believe the new design will reduce workplace-related stress and aid mental and physical recuperation", says Oliver Heath. “It’s hoped that this will lead to staff feeling more valued and having an increased desire to work in the office space, which will in turn lead to increased staff retention."
The project will also include a 'laboratory like' environmental room to test materials and technologies in more detail. And several founding partners will bring their industry expertise to the project, including:
Interface – global manufacturer of modular flooring
Biotecture – designer and supplier of living wall systems
Akzo Nobel – global paints and coatings company
Plessey – innovative lighting and ECG sensing technologies
Royal Ahrend – professional work environments, furniture products and services
Coelux – innovative skylights to reproduce natural light
Ecophon – acoustic products and systems for working environments
GVA – real estate and project management solutions
Each of the partners will be using the office and its test facilities to evaluate their product’s role in promoting the health and wellbeing of office occupants, and in wider biophilic design.
The Biophilic Office project team also hopes to show that large, prestigious developments are not the only ones that can benefit from biophilic design - and that simple steps, such as maximising natural light or adding plants, can bring real benefits to the occupants.
"We hope that biophilic strategies will be increasingly adopted as we find more solid evidence on how best to incorporate them,” says Ed Suttie. "Some architects and designer, for example, may already be trying to do this, but finding it difficult to convince clients of the benefits. This research should bring the tangible evidence that they need."
For more information or to become involved in the project contact Ed Suttie.