Biophilic design can have a significant positive impact on occupier wellbeing, but to adequately measure these impacts there must be close links between design and post-occupancy

It has been acknowledged that buildings have a direct impact on human wellbeing and happiness, something that is compounded by the large amount of time we spend indoors. With this growing interest has come a move to understand biophilia and its potential to improve indoor environments.

However, with this also comes the challenge of how we measure its impact. If we are to truly understand its impact on building occupants, how closely should we link biophilic design with post-occupancy evaluation?

The term “biophilia” was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm to explain our “love of life and all that is alive”. The concept suggests that humans have an innate attraction to natural processes, and hold a biological need for physical, mental and social connections with nature.

Research has shown that being in natural environments, or even viewing scenes of nature, can have a general positive impact on our wellbeing. Presence in natural environments has been known to alleviate negative emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, depression and stress, while helping us to feel calm and inspired.

In the developed world, we spend on average 90% of our lives in buildings, separated from nature and the wealth of benefits it brings to us. A way to address this is to bring the outdoors indoors, design our built environment to work with nature, and create internal surroundings that incorporate the natural world and its multiple facets (colour, light, air, plants, sound, texture, diversity) into our lives. Biophilic design does just this, and provides the built environment with a method of satisfying our need to connect with nature, even when spending time indoors.

Humans have an innate attraction to natural processes, and hold a biological need for physical, mental and social connections with nature

The evidence base for biophilic design is widespread across various building types. In office workplaces, over the long term, biophilic design can reduce absenteeism, reduce comfort complaints and help to retain employees.

In addition to this, the workplace can become more efficient through employees feeling more inspired, creative and productive. Likewise in school buildings, strategic biophilic design has been linked to improved learning, improved health of staff and pupils and a more enjoyable learning experience.

In healthcare buildings, it has been said to support quicker recovery rates among patients, decreased medication dependency, reduced stress among staff and patients and improved mental wellbeing. In the retail sector, buildings that incorporate biophilic design can find their store provides a more enjoyable consumer experience, which can draw in customers and boost sales.  

But, how do we go about measuring these reported impacts? If the health and wellbeing benefits of biophilic design are understood to be present in various building types, can we measure the extent of their success? How do we determine which biophilic design elements are most successful in different building types?

These questions lead me to believe there needs to be symbiotic relationship between biophilic design and post-occupancy evaluation (POE) methods, right from the get-go. This might seem like an unusual pairing. Their names alone suggest these two processes would occur at opposite ends of the scope of works: the design obviously coming first, and the post-occupancy evaluation taking place long after building handover and occupation. However, the design should influence the methods of POE, and vice versa.

Biophilic design has a lot to offer the refurbishment and fit-out sectors that will benefit clients, building owners and occupants

During the design process, questions and research methods for the POE should be formulated based around the design intent as it develops, right from the beginning of the project through to the start of the construction phase. This will ensure the POE is project-specific and designed to thoroughly investigate the biophilic design elements, and their ability to meet their design intent. Likewise, as the design should influence the POE, the POE can in turn influence design.

For example, to avoid some occupants experiencing the biophilic design features and others not, features should be located in areas accessible to all future occupants, such as communal break-out areas. This will ensure more occupants interact with biophilic design features thus giving the POE a larger sample to investigate impacts.

The BRE and architect and interior design firm Oliver Heath Design, supported by a wide range of partners, are embarking on a research project around biophilic design. A live office refurbishment will provide a robust building environment and occupant data as evidence for positive health and wellbeing impacts of biophilic design. Occupant surveys and POE will have an important role to play in understanding the outcomes of the project.

The project is creating a baseline of data by monitoring the existing building for a year before intervening with biophilic refurbishment, and monitoring the office again. The long-term findings from this are intended to be linked to the biophilic elements, thus giving a better understanding of the extent of product and design on occupants. This will support the case for biophilic design in numerous areas of the built environment sector, including BREEAM, which intends to use the findings to better inform the Health and Wellbeing category and work around POE methodologies.

In its widest context, biophilic design has a lot to offer the refurbishment and fit-out sectors that will benefit clients, building owners and occupants. It doesn’t have to be deep refurbishment, complex or expensive – the simple choices of floor covering, paint on the walls and lighting have significant biophilic qualities. The use of POE is key to understanding the evidence base of this, and educating the industry so that informed well-researched choices can help create workplaces of the future, that are healthier and more energising, from the offices of the past.

Kerri-Emma Dobson is technical consultant for BREEAM at BRE