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Biophilia is a growing and loosely defined topic within the smart workplace evolution. It relates to humans’ intrinsic need for nature but is often symbolized by the simple addition of indoor plants or photographs of nature on the walls, and therefore is often not given a significant amount of attention by facility management. However, the scientific evidence linking biophilic elements to worker productivity is growing and evolving, and biophilic theories are seeping into workplace design relatively unnoticed.

Light has been a key pillar of biophilic theories to date. Proximity to windows and skylights for natural sunlight is a biophilic concept that has been adopted and developed by the lighting industry through artificial sunlight-mimicking human-centric lighting systems. Air quality, similarly, has been taken on by the environmental controls industry who seek to mimic the characteristics of air in natural environments, namely by raising oxygen levels in the workplace.

Biophilia goes beyond access to light, better air, and the addition of natural elements such as plants and photographs. Neurobiologists, environmental psychologists, and many other experts, are discovering that our link to nature is much deeper than previously thought. Millions of years of evolution alongside nature means that we function best outdoors, in natural environments, but our computers and paper-based processes do not. That’s what biophilia is all about, making our un-natural environments more natural for human health, wellbeing, and productivity.

One of the biggest differences between a typical office and a typical natural environment is space. Even an “open-plan” office is still a confined space where we un-naturally spend around half our waking hours, in stark contrast to our ancient ancestry. Open-plan office culture could be seen as a biophilic trend, as could the floor-to-ceiling windows of our modern skyscrapers, and the gradual normalization of outdoor/walking meetings. The feeling of space provides a psychological and physiological state that is conducive with productivity but most workers are stuck in offices.

A survey commissioned by Ambius found that 35% of office workers don’t get more than 15 minutes of outdoor time during their typical workday. A further 13% say they are able to stretch their outdoor time to 30 minutes per day while only 22% manage to spend over an hour outside each day. The research found that the average office worker spends an average of 47 minutes outdoors each day. The average prison inmate, meanwhile, typically gets an hour of outdoor allowance per day.

“Our higher cognitive faculties – focused attention, memory, and planning – the ones we tax the most during work, require that we recharge them throughout the day. And having access to a view to nature that offers both prospect and refuge, allows occupants to scan a distant horizon line or gaze into the sky’s zenith,” explain Bill Witherspoon and David Navarrete of Sky Factory. “In addition to content, the dramatic change of scale in such an experience enables visual processing to facilitate one of the brain’s vital functions: cognitive restoration.”

Ambitious executives that seek residence in the corner office of a company based on the high floors of a skyscraper in a prime waterside location may not just be doing it for the expression of status and wealth, but for the more biologically pleasing and productive environment too. The fact that the corner office (or desk by the window) is seen a symbol of success in the business world can also be explained by biophilic theories and backed up by hard science.

“The best way to counterbalance the modern workplace’s excessive reliance on retinotopic or “tunnel vision” is to introduce what environmental designers call spatial polarity. Lifting our gaze from the dense array of both alphanumeric and iconic information to its spatial opposite allows the brain to function in what is called default-mode network (DMN). This signature brain wave pattern, DMN, correlates with the physiology’s automatic ‘Relaxation Response.’

DMN is activated when we’re not directly engaged in tasks and our eyes can shift focus from our immediate surroundings to a much larger scale, preferably a distant horizon line, the sky’s zenith or even when the eyes close as in meditation. When our organs of perception register the body’s relative (and dramatic) scale shift by multiple orders of magnitude, we experience the characteristic rest, and nourishing cognitive attributes, of default-mode network.

This is the neurobiological power of outdoor experiences,” discuss Witherspoon and David Navarrete in an article for WorkDesign.

Our urban civilization is a tiny blip on the timeline of human evolution. The natural habitat for humans is still a natural one that we only get glimpses of in the built environment. City streets lined with trees are not in most demand just because they are more beautiful. It is because, on some deeper level, seeing trees when you come and go every day, or through your window, can improve your health and well-being. Perhaps natural beauty itself is a function of the biophilic effect. Natural wonders still draw the biggest numbers of tourists and many of the greatest artworks depict natural scenes.

“Humanity is a biological species, living in a biological environment, because like all species, we are exquisitely adapted in everything: from our behavior, to our genetics, to our physiology, to that particular environment in which we live,” wrote Wilson in his 1986 book ‘Biophilia’. “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction,” he stated.

Biophilia proposes that despite the un-natural development of the built environment we must still find a place in our lives for nature, not just in our cities but in our homes and workplaces. Biophilia is not working against technological and urban development, it is instead slowly seeping into our lighting systems, HVAC control, our workspace design, architecture, and many more core elements of our buildings. By embracing these biophilic theories, the entire sector can help accelerate our journey to these bio-smart future workplaces.