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Digging Nature

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— April 15, 2019

Digging Nature

  • Bringing the outdoors indoors is the latest in office design.
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Bringing the outdoors indoors is the latest in office design.

When Connor LaMontagne attended Rutgers University, he often used to study at the cafe housed in the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health on the New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus. The building hosts a living wall, one covered entirely by plant material, and conveys a serene ambiance, which LaMontagne appreciated.

He enjoyed that space “for a number of reasons, like the large amount of natural lighting and the use of biodegradable plastics. These, along with the living wall, represented a commitment to sustainability that I really appreciated and felt good about patronizing,” remembers LaMontagne, 23, now a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Inviting Natural Elements Inside

The wall of plants, the extensive natural light—all the elements that LaMontagne loved about the building at Rutgers—are part of an architectural concept known as biophilic design. Stemming from the word biophilia, which means a love of living things, the concept focuses on incorporating nature, including natural forms and elements, into buildings.

At its most basic, biophilic design rests on three supporting pillars: Nature in the space, natural analogs, and nature of the space.

“Nature in the space” means bringing plant life—its sounds, its textures—into the work environment. That living wall that LaMontagne fell in love with certainly falls into this category, as do butterfly gardens and flowing water.

So do large amounts of natural sunlight: Buildings following biophilic design often have big windows to let light in. Part of feeling immersed in nature involves being able to track light and seasons changing over time, which such windows allow one to do.

The “natural analogs” part of the biophilic design equation comes from the texture of the walls and the carpeting and shaping indoor structures in a way that mimics nature. Organic shapes for furniture and even mobiles hung over tables, which provide texture and gentle movement in air currents, all work to play up the natural analogs aspect of biophilic design. Such an emphasis also necessitates that commercial establishments be built according to their locations, with materials harvested sustainably from area environments.

“I think of biophilic design as habitats for human beings that are related to that specific place and climate,” says Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute.

The final tine in biophilic design’s three-pronged approach, a focus on “nature of the space,” draws attention to feelings that such buildings nurture. Does the space provide a refuge to withdraw from the stressors of the day? Does it include sensory clues that add a touch of mystery to the environment?

“I think of biophilic design as habitats for human beings that are related to that specific place and climate,” says Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute, an environmental nonprofit, and author of Creating Biophilic Buildings (Ecotone). “If you’re really practicing biophilic design, buildings would look different in different cities.

As it’s becoming more widely implemented, one of the challenges of biophilic design is that the approach is different based on place. It’s not about what somebody else did. It’s really about the process versus the outcome,” Sturgeon adds.

“You can really think of biophilic design as like building a meadow on a lovely spring day, and you can lean against a tree in that meadow and you have an unimpeded view of the landscape around you,” says Sally Augustin, applied environmental psychologist with the American Psychological Association and an expert on the subject.

When it comes to mimicry of nature, Augustin says what you really want is to emphasize calm and quiet. Wild forests are natural of course, but also too much in terms of their visual complexity, not to mention lurking danger. This means biophilic design necessitates less visual clutter but, as Augustin explains, it’s a fine line between being too stark and adding enough visual interest.

Regaining a Lost Connection

While the idea of biophilic design sounds great, there are also good, practical reasons for bringing the outdoors in.

“Research shows that student test scores increase by 25% in classrooms that have daylight,” says Sturgeon. “A window in a hospital room has been shown to reduce both patient stays and the amount of pain medication patients need.” Such studies are not surprising, Sturgeon says since humans are programmed for contact with the natural world.

Somewhere along the line, though, corporate America came to develop large cubicle farms with no outdoor light or connection to nature, Sturgeon laments. Worse, she adds, each commercial establishment has begun to look just like the rest, consuming massive amounts of energy for air- conditioning and heat. Fortunately, as biophilic design becomes more mainstream, that is beginning to change.

Case in point: the lobby of 888 Boylston Street in Boston, where you’re greeted with a stunning living wall that is irrigated by rainwater collected from the building’s roof. Solar panels on the roof also contribute to making the commercial establishment one of the most sustainable in the city. A seated statue in a yoga pose adds to the serene ambiance this decor is meant to impart.

In Maine, the Nature Conservancy’s office in Brunswick features curvilinear structures made from locally harvested wood, and even the carpets are made from recycled fishing nets. Arguably the most spectacular example of biophilic design in the US is Amazon’s Spheres project in Seattle, with more than 40,000 plants in a greenhouse environment that directly connects employees to nature. The much-touted work environment has a living wall that stretches four stories in height and accommodates “treehouse” meeting rooms, dining areas and a conference room.

Biophilia Love While Amazon’s Spheres project might be way too large in scale for most corporations to execute, there’s motivation among companies to make the work environment more biophilic. The reason? Millennials.

From all indications, LaMontagne is not alone among people his age in his love of such working spaces. Biophilic design has been gaining accelerated traction in recent years, and Millennials might be able to take at least some of the credit for such growth.

A majority of younger workers want employers to actively support their health and well-being, according to a Consumer Health Mindset report. A focus on a healthy work environment is one of the ways employers are seeking to gain currency as they woo Millennial talent. Biophilic design overlaps with wellness; the WELL building standard that evaluates establishments according to a variety of factors, including air, water, light, and comfort, pays homage to biophilia, too. So it stands to reason that such design principles are being increasingly adopted in the construction of new workspaces.

Biophilic design also overlaps with sustainability, which is something Millennials—and their younger cousins, Gen Z—value. For example, Nielsen research finds that almost three out of four Millennials will pay more for products that are sustainably produced.

This love of wellness and sustainability is putting out roots in contemporary workplaces. “Take a look at coworking spaces these days. They’re trying to bring natural elements like hardwood floors or reclaimed wood into their environments,” says Valerie Navarre, a WELL-accredited professional, and creator of Viv Spaces, an online shop dedicated to biophilic work environments. Workspaces are about developing an appreciation for the variations in daily experience, Sturgeon notes. “It’s about mixing it up, adding a rock-climbing wall, game rooms along with spaces where you can unwind and just think,” she says, adding that calming biophilic design doesn’t equate to so much relaxation that employees become sleepy and unproductive.

“Biophilic design also mimics security in nature,” Augustin says. “Imagine a tree you can scamper up to get a view of risks if any.” That same principle translates to the flow of desks and walls in office environments. Bye-bye, right angles, and cordoned-off conference rooms. Hello, curved sofas and lounges and open meeting pods.

Too Much Green?

Sturgeon says that while many companies assume building biophilic structures will be more expensive—
living walls can cost thousands of dollars, so there’s some basis for such concern—she predicts that working with regional climate to heat and cool buildings will decrease consumption of fossil fuels. It’s about working with nature, not fighting it. “Using the sun to power the building, using local materials for construction, all this is about reducing carbon impact,” Sturgeon points out. Navarre says that companies worried about costs might start small by incorporating green spaces and even redoing the workspace furniture arrangement, following a less angular approach. “I would recommend that employees tend to the plants in some way because doing so really refreshes the mind and helps you relax,” she adds.

In the end, it’s about small steps toward a wellness attitude that employees appreciate and that can make everyone more productive. That biophilic design also overlaps significantly with the principles of sustainability is icing on the cake, experts say. “We’re facing a choice between two different views of nature: Are we separate from nature or are we a part of it?” Sturgeon notes. “Biophilic design is not just an approach to architecture that’s good for the planet. It’s an approach that allows us to celebrate all that is good about being alive, and in doing so, we become a better, happier and healthier version of ourselves.

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