Picture the word "office." You might imagine clusters of gray cubicles and unnatural, blue light pouring from computer screens. (Or, if you're in tech or advertising, open spaces with trendy trappings but annoying chatter.) There might be a wilting fern in the corner—occasionally watered, mostly ignored.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Over the past several years, design inspired by nature—also known as "biophilic design"—has become more popular in the workplace, in part to reduce stress and increase productivity, according to studies published by the environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green.
"Addressing stress in our culture has become a leading topic across sectors, and biophilic design has the potential to reduce the negative impact of a stressful work or study environment," says Catie Ryan, a senior project manager at Terrapin Bright Green. "Science is continuing to say that our stress normalization time is faster when we're exposed to nature, so it seems like the logical next step."
For HR reps, biophilic design could improve business from a number of angles: employee satisfaction, retention, absenteeism and, for those of you in open offices, visual and sound privacy. In fact, a study from the University of Oregon found that 10 percent of employee absences can be attributed to architecture with a lack of connection to nature. And according to The Economics of Biophilia, creating biophilic work environments could lead to more than $470 million in recouped productivity for New York City office workers.
What does biophilic design look like in practice? Beyond the obvious—natural lighting and greenery—Ryan gives three compelling and easy-to-implement examples.
1) A privacy barrier
The Art Aqua office in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany, has planter partitions as well as modular water walls to create a vibrant workplace that also respects staffers' privacy. Photo by Bill Browning.
The cubicle of today doesn't have to be a gray particle board—instead, tall grasses on filing cabinets could be the perfect touch of nature to give a worker visual privacy. "And if you're positioned near a fan or air vent, they move in the breeze," Ryan says. "Moving stimuli is important in the workplace. You have privacy, but also something that creates this visual stimulation that relaxes the eye muscles and helps prevent headaches and eyestrain."
Water fountains are another design option, providing not only moving stimuli, but also sound privacy by masking other noises. For workers spending around eight hours staring at computer screens in crowded offices, eye relief and privacy are considerable—and affordable—perks.
2) Natural analogues
Inside the Clif Bar Bakery, wooden details provide a natural analogue. Photo courtesy of Babcock Design Group.
The surprising thing about biophilic design? It doesn't have to be living or even made of natural materials. Analogues provide another way of bringing natural elements indoors. They include artwork and designs with biomorphic shapes, colors, textures and patterns—"complex enough that they fascinate us, but not so complex that it's overwhelming," Ryan explains. For instance, a piece of art or architecture could include the Fibonacci sequence or Golden Mean, mathematical patterns found in nature.
A simpler example would be a wooden table. "If you had the choice to sit on a plastic bench or a wooden bench, most people would pick the wooden bench," Ryan says. "There's the visual component as well as being able to touch it and feel the natural texture. We have some weirdly intrinsic connection with nature that makes us appreciate real wood over plastic."
Of course, the workplace transcends the white-collar office, and each environment has its own biomorphic design needs. In factories, natural analogues can be especially useful. Inside the Clif Bar Bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, living plants can't enter the space because of food regulations. Instead, Terrapin Bright Green recommended that the manufacturing facility project images of nature onto the walls.
3) A dense forest
An interior courtyard for the New York Times building. Photo by John Zacherle.
There's a misconception that plants should be sprinkled throughout the workplace for everyone to see and enjoy them. "Distributed plants tend to be less effective," Ryan says. Instead, cluster together diverse species. A designated space for nature will encourage people to dwell a little longer, resulting in a larger boost to their health.
Another potential bonus to this simple strategy of rounding up your plants? "With good seating, it becomes another workspace," says Ryan.