There was sharp growth in interest in 2015 in the concept of
biophilic design in the workplace. It’s all part of the welcome
trend to make workplaces more natural and human-friendly,
with features that provide good sensory experiences for all who
‘Biophilia’ may sound like something you catch, or possibly find in yogurt.
In fact in evolutionary psychology it refers to the ‘innate human
attraction to nature’, the idea that we have an
instinctive bond with nature. Being able to see,
touch, smell, and be amongst natural objects
improves our sense of wellbeing, and helps us to
perform better in whatever we are doing.
Biophilic design then is all about introducing
into offices, factories, hospitals, schools and
homes features such as views of nature, plants,
flowing water, access to natural light and air and
natural sounds like waterfalls or waves breaking on
an ocean shore. Even facsimiles of such natural
features can have a positive effect on productivity
in offices or recovery time in hospitals.
‘Living walls’, or ‘vertical gardens’ – walls
covered in plants – or ‘sky ceilings’ that provide
views of the real sky and natural light are part of
the mix. This
article from Office Snapshots gives
some good examples.
And if all this sounds a bit new age, it’s worth
pointing out that there’s a lot of
and academic research behind the claimed impacts. In
many ways it’s common sense. The artificial division
between ourselves and what should be our natural
habitat can only be described as ‘unnatural’. And
like caged animals in unnatural environments we may
be more susceptible to stress and listlessness. So a
bit of habitat enrichment, as animal behaviourists
call it, may be a good solution.
Is there an elephant in the room?
But there’s an elephant in the room – a big one.
You might be tempted to think an elephant in the
room would be a welcome feature of biophilic design,
or perhaps occasional herds of antelope bounding
And that’s the point – these are not what
you are going to find. You generally won’t be doing
work in natural settings, but rather working where
natural elements are artificially grafted on to
architectural business-as-usual. Or where you get a
glimpse of the sky or some planting outside.
So while there are some interesting and
innovative biophilic features coming into workplace
design, isn’t there something fundamentally odd
about the whole process?
Basically the model of work hasn’t changed.
Developers, architects, interior designers,
employers and employees alike – we all still expect to be
taken out from our natural biological and social
habitats on a daily basis and put into concrete,
glass and steel boxes to work.
Then, having put us in a naturally less
productive and less comfortable environment, we try
to retrofit some natural sensations as meagre
compensation for the uprooting.
In an age when work can be wherever we are, don’t
we need a fundamental rethink about what the
workplace is and what and where it should be?