biophilia in incheon airport

In 1877, naturalist and author John Muir, writing about his adventures to the rugged and largely unchartered planes of Alaska reflected that “In every walk with nature, one received far more than one seeks”.

All those years ago, Muir was writing about the innate connection humans have with nature– a connection forged during our time as hunter gatherers, when the natural environment was all that we knew.

Fast forward to the present day and we are spending increasingly less time in nature. A 2008 study found that compared to 1987, Americans spent 25% less time in nature. In England, a two-year study found that 10% of children hadn’t stepped foot in a natural setting for a whole year.

We spend around 86% of our time indoors, and another 5% in vehicles; dedicating only 7% of our time to the outdoors.

The disconnect we have with the natural world is more real than ever.

But what’s the big deal, really? After all, the built environment offers us all the safety, comforts and amenities we need to thrive as a species.

Well, the thing is there are some things that the natural world provide us that the built world can’t. The rewards from nature referred to by Muir are very real.

Psychological studies and research demonstrates that fostering our innate biological connection with nature can wield a raft of positive physiological responses including stress relief, increased concentration and creativity, reduced inflammation and lower blood pressure and heart rate.

It is little surprise then that one of the latest architectural trends is endeavoring to fuse the built environment with the natural – to give occupants a boost from nature, within the comfort and confines of the built.

Enter Biophilic Design.

What is Biophilic Design?

green wall in modern office

Greenery and natural light are two vital aspects of biophilic design.

Biophilic design is an architectural approach to reconnecting building occupants with nature. It is a way to seamlessly integrate natural materials and mediums with the modern architectural practices.

A simple introduction of natural lighting, outside views, and vegetation are ways to bring the outside world inside – to give building occupants a chance to engage with the natural environment and reap the mental and physical benefits that come with it.

One distinction to make about biophilic design, is the efficacy of consistent and immersive design, rather than single, isolated biophilic installations. Stephen Kellert, writing for Metropolis Mag puts it best: “simply inserting an object of nature into a human built environment, if unrelated or at variance with other more dominant characteristics of the setting, exert little positive impact on the health and performance of the people who occupy these spaces.”

Take Wood Bagot’s office in Melbourne, Australia, for example:

office with greenery

The studio’s design is a deliberate dedication to the incorporation of natural elements, which span the studio’s length. The sustained use of timber and greenery is an intentional effort to counteract the industrial finished of the studio, softening the aesthetic and creating a space that feels more like an airy balcony held aloft trees than merely an office decorated with plants.

Biophilic Design For User Happiness & Health

photo of building cross-section

Genzyme Corp’s headquarters in Massachusetts is a shining example of biophilic design, and surveys suggest it has a positive effect on the happiness and productivity of its workers.

Making building occupants happier and healthier is the heart of Biophilic Design.

The practice’s underlying theory contends that humans have a biological need to interact and observe the natural environment, and by satiating that need, Biophilic Design boosts individual happiness and well-being. It isn’t just theory, though; there are innumerable studies that support it:

Corroborating Biophilic Design

  • One study from the University of Queensland School of Psychology examined the impact of ‘lean’ versus ‘green’ office space on employees from two large commercial offices in the UK and the Netherlands over a two month period. It concluded that an office enriched with plants makes staff happier and boosts productivity by 15%.
  • Similarly, a 2015 report by Human Spaces found that workers with access to natural light and greenery reported a 13% higher level of well-being. Rather bleakly, the report also revealed that across Europe, The Middle East and Africa, 42% of workers had no access to natural light in their workspaces, 55% no greenery and 7% had no windows.
  • In 2003 Genzyme Corporation designed a new corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which achieved LEED’s Platinum Status. Features of the building include “natural light; a clear glass exterior; a central atrium with chandeliers at the base, which reflect sunlight; indoor gardens, and windows”. 18 months after the structure opened, a survey found that 88% said having direct views and access to the natural elements indoors improved their sense of well-being. Additionally, 75% said the building’s design increased their feeling of connection to their colleagues.
  • A 2013 study out of the University of Essex found that visual exposure to the natural environment can reduce blood pressure and heart rate following exposure to a stressor. The study was carried out by comparing the physiological responses in humans to the built and natural environments following external stressors.
  • If that doesn’t prick up the ears of business owners, then perhaps this will. A case study of an administrative office building at the University of Oregon found that workers with access to views of trees and landscapes took 10% fewer sick days than workers with ‘unnatural’ views. The study compared 30% of offices that overlooked trees and a manicured landscapes with 31% that overlooked a street, building and parking lot and 39% offering no outside view at all. Workers with natural views took 57 hours of sick leave per year, compared with 68 hours for those with no view. The study also monitored the workers’ break patterns and found that those with landscape views sat at their desks for longer while those with no view took exterior walks and longer breaks.
  • A detailed list of the health benefits of biophilic design include can be seen in the table below from Terrapin Bright Green from their 2014 report ’14 Patterns of Biophilic Design’.

The Effect Of Biophilia on Acoustics and Interior Noise Levels

From stress reduction, to increased happiness and productivity, there is a wealth of evidence supporting the benefits of Biophilic Design.

One of the often overlooked benefits, however, is acoustics.

While biophilic design can undoubtedly make a happier office worker, what is making office workers unhappy in the first place?

A 2013 study out of The University Of Sydney found that the greatest cause of dissatisfaction amongst workers across all office types was the lack of sound privacy, overwhelmingly so:

graph of employee dissatisfaction in the office

This was followed by temperature, visual privacy and noise level.

The good news is that Biophilic Design can improve all these factors.

The benefits of green walls and roofs on a building’s energy performance are well documented. One study from the Australian Government revealed that green roofs can be up to 20.5°C lower in summer months when compared to uninsulated steel roofs.

Plants, of course, can also provide visual privacy.

Of even greater importance, however, is the ability of plants to reduce noise levels.

How Do Plants Regulate Noise?

moss wall in office

High density moss walls are one of the most effective ways to absorb sound using greenery.

The acoustic benefit of plants and shrubbery has only recently come into the line of sight of acousticians; spurred on by a handful of researchers who have highlighted the ability of greenery to regulate sound.

One such study has come out of The University of The Basque Country. The study tested the acoustic properties of modular green walls using two different reverberation chambers. It showed that green walls, when compared to untreated walls, resulted in “a weighted sound reduction index (Rw) of 15db and a weighted sound absorption coefficient (a) of 0.40”.

The spearhead of the study, Zaola Azkorra stated that the study demonstrated that “the green wall showed a similar or better acoustic absorption coefficient than other common building materials, and its effects on low frequencies were of particular interest”. Azkorra has suggested that this points to new uses for green walls in public places such as restaurants, workplaces and hotels.

But just how to plants manage noise? There are a few ways:

Sound Diffusion

One of the main ways plants and shrubbery can manage noise is by diffusing sound.

When soundwaves strike a flat surface such as masonry, marble or plasterboard, they are reflected uniformly and in a straight line, thanks to the smooth flat surfaces. Diffusion occurs when sound waves strike a dynamic or uneven surface, breaking up the uniformity and concentration of the sound waves and scattering them evenly around a room’s area.

Plants and shrubbery are naturally uneven, and when sound waves hit their surface, they are reflected around any given space more evenly, reducing echoes and the intensity of sound.

Sound Deflection

Plants can convert sound waves to other forms of energy – in much the same way that acoustic panels absorb sound by converting sound energy into heatwaves.

When sound waves hit a rigid surface such as marble, they are immediately deflected back into the room. When sound waves strike a flexible material, like plants, the material will vibrate and the waves are transformed into other forms of energy.

Using Biophilia For Good Acoustics

The use of plants and greenery in offices is a bit of a misunderstood practice. There are several articles out there that tout the miraculous benefits of chucking in a few novelty planters in an office and expecting noise to simply disappear. On the contrary, using greenery to control noise in offices and other commercial spaces requires careful consideration.

Here are some pointers to using plants effectively in your office:

  • Spread plants evenly throughout the space, as clustering them in one area will not produce the desired effect.
  • Use green, modular walls that have been tried and tested for their acoustic properties in order to effectively manage and control noise. Companies such as Acoustic Factory and Ambius have products that meet international acoustic standards.
  • Kenneth Freeman, the head of innovation at Ambius suggest using large plant containers with more compost and with a greater area of top dressing. As Freeman states: “both of these have a significant effect on noise reduction, so it follows that they make a larger impact on the room acoustics. Experiments have shown that arrangements of different plants in groups appear to work better than individual plants.”
  • Use plants and shrubbery as natural dividers in open-plan offices. Instead of unsightly partitions, consider placing dense foliage ontop of filing cabinets, or on desks, to create a natural and sound absorbing barrier between workers.