Will groundbreaking BRE study into the impact of biophilic design take it into the mainstream?

Stress and depression are fast becoming major causes of illness and forward-thinking employers are taking note.

The BRE Academy where the study will take place - image: HW

Stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health and 45% of all working days lost to ill health in the 2015-16 financial year, according to The Health and Safety Executive. In the same year 11.7 million working days were lost to stress.  The World Health Organization meanwhlie has warned that depression is fast becoming one of the biggest causes of illness and disability.

So this is the perfect time for a groundbreaking study into the effect of biophilic design led by the UK’s leading built environment research institution, the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

The Watford-based organisation will take one due-to-be-refurbished floor of a standard 1980s office block on the BRE campus and study its 50 occupants for one year as they work alongside strip lights, brown carpets, magnolia walls and functional furniture, to collect baseline data. Then the office will be refurbished using biophilic design and the occupants studied for another year to test the impact.

BRE will create a series of zones in the compartmentalised floor with one large office being used as an intensive and regularly changing zone to test different approaches at different times. A large, currently empty balcony at one end of the floor could also be turned into a garden space.

The research will be led by project managers Dr Ed Suttie and Dr Flavie Lowres, with design by Oliver Heath, whose commitment to biophilic interior design has led to him being sought after by commercial clients and as an events speaker.

Speaking at the launch of the project in July, Suttie pointed out that in European offices 55% of employees do not have access to greenery, 42% work with no natural light and 7% have no windows. "We are creating a legacy of office environments that are detrimental to occupants," he said.

Heath agreed, adding: "Stress is endemic in our society. We spend 90% of our time indoors. We are not giving ourselves the opportunity to switch off and have a break, and regain our cognitive function."

The theory of biophilia, introduced by Edward O Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia, says that humans possess an innate tendency to need connections with nature. It was followed by the Savanna Principle, a term coined by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa in 2004, positing that humans are hardwired to favour the savannah living conditions that evolutionary successful humans adopted, which equate to having safe shelter with secure walls — such as an elevated cave — but with a view from on high out over the savannah so that you can see danger coming. Both hypothesis state that the past few hundred years of industrial and post-industrial urban living are an aberration to which humans, having evolved in nature for millions of years, will have problems adapting.

Heath sees biophilic design as adopting "a human-centred approach". Since companies spend 90% of their operating costs on staff, he says it makes financial sense to refocus on improving building outcomes for humans, such as cutting energy costs, which typically only represents 0.1% of overheads.  

"There are fantastic opportunities to be realised when we take this human-centred design. The research suggests that the best thing we can do is improve that connection with nature. In so many of the spaces we simply don’t have that critical connection with nature." Research shows that improving a link to nature can improve health and well-being, he adds.

Biophilic theory suggests that so powerful is this effect that it works even if living nature stays outside. Using more natural materials, or even "biomimicary", where the materials look like natural textures and colours, can produce better outcomes. Natural light is also key — studies have shown that children learn better and quicker in natural rather than artificial light.

"Biophilia can be as simple as a walk in the park," says Heath. "Views into plants improve productivity by 15%. In hospitality this idea is ingrained in the business case — that what makes it so interesting. For the first time really design can prove its value. It’s not just a fluffy extra on top of the architecture."

The issue really is although we have all these great individual studies what we are missing is a large holistic study. Suttie agrees, saying that when humans are involved, short studies do not produce enough data.

Heath says when businesses and business owners recognise the value of biophilic design they have a competitive and commercial advantage over their competitors. "I believe the work and the opportunities that will come out of the biophilic project are going to be fantastic."

BRE is running the study with a range of product partners, including green wall expert Biotecture, and dissemination partners, including several trade organisations.

Product partners

  • 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

Biotecture managing director Richard Sabin says: "We really believe in the power of plants and we believe in form and function and the qualitative and quantative benefits." Gathering data on how a green wall inside the building would impact the well-being of staff is key, he adds.

Efig chairman Chris Jenkin says his organisation has a huge vested interest in having more planting inside. Sara Kassam, head of sustainability development at CIBSE, adds: "We’re really interested in looking at green infrastructure as a building service. This is a great opportunity to test some of these ideas out."

Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists vice-president practice Eddie Wier says biophilic design is currently a specialist topic but suggests this study could bring it to into the mainstream.

Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors associate director of the built environment Alan Cripps says: "Health and well-being is becoming more and more involved in staff retention."

In a skills shortage high-employment economy, with widespread predictions of a Brexit brain drain, commercial property consultancy GVA also says it is interested in the data to help better inform its clients how they could make workplaces that people would enjoy.

Sustainability consultant James Matthews says: "For me it’s about what we already know but it’s having that hard data in front of you saying to your clients that the reason for investing in high-quality products is you will get a return on your investment and look at the productivity increase."

Arnold Struik from Dutch company Royal Ahrend, which makes high-end office furniture, says: "We’re really excited about the project. We believe that we are on the verge of a big disruption in the way we furnish buildings. If you want to outperform you need your people to perform and for that you need vital buildings." The company’s approach can be demonstrated by a desk it is developing that has the ability to programme in personal passports. Users log in and the desk adjusts accordingly.

Duncan Lockhead from Akzo Nobel, which makes Dulux paint, says: "We’re fed up with bland boring colours and we think colour has a massive impact on the people in the building. Getting the data to prove that is really critical." Jonathan Barton, business development director at circadian and horticultural lighting manufacturer Plessey, adds: "It’s exciting to be involved in such a seminal project."


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