There was a time when no self-respecting office came without its big, Triffid like Swiss cheese plant, lurking in the corner trying to avoid being used as an ashtray and struggling for breath in those smoke-filled, low tech, mostly brown coloured rooms in workplaces of the 1980s.
Plants fell out of fashion, just like that favourite tie that looked as if it had been cut from a carpet tile, but nature is making a big comeback and this time it’s the science of evolutionary psychology that’s greening the office.
In Edward Wilson’s 1984 book The Biophilia Hypothesis he advanced the thesis that we have an instinctive connection with other living things. We have lost something, he argued, not least a degree of respect for the natural environment, by living increasingly in hermetic internal environments. This innate desire for connection with other living things remains unfulfilled in our increasingly urban habitats unless it can somehow be reconciled with the more compelling, pragmatic needs like protection from the weather, robustness and closely maintained internal environments.
In recent project work with one of the world’s largest tech businesses, which spends a lot of time thinking about creating productive and healthy work settings for its many employees, we have been looking at research about subtle changes in our buildings. Changes that can modulate our behaviour in a positive way. Biophilia is one, but there are others. Intriguingly, there is now an emerging idea that how we think, the fundamental process of thinking itself, is affected by the qualities and scale of the space we occupy, so creativity might be unlocked simply by moving from one kind of space to another. Air quality too, at a micro particle level, is being seen as a factor that has an influence on health, and correspondingly on productivity. We are now seeing greenery being reintroduced to the workplace with a range of planting; real and fake, edible plants, internal living walls. Moss walls have proven to require minimum maintenance, and contribute to mitigating poor acoustics and background noise.
The thrust of building design over the last twenty years or so has been to build sustainably and that, amongst other things, has made us more familiar with green roofs, living walls and the idea of being much more sparing about the impact our buildings have on the environment. That agenda is about building responsibly. Biophilia is something different. Its focus is on us, how we behave inside buildings, how our psychological wellbeing might be improved by reconnecting with nature and how this might also reduce workplace stress which is estimated to have increased by 20% in the last thirty years.
If contact with nature does stimulate wellbeing, what aspects of the natural world can we usefully connect to and how will that manifest itself in our buildings? The theory argues that we don’t have this innate affinity with any kind of natural environment, it needs to be one that over our long path from prehistory has supported us in the evolutionary development of our health and wellbeing.
So, views of the natural world (where possible), improved natural light, human scale spaces, materials sourced from nature, and of course plants and living things – even auditory stimuli like bird song and the sound of water - all contribute to increasing our connection with nature.
After the theory comes the measurement. Academic research is beginning to show the benefits of biophilic design in terms of employee wellbeing and productivity. From CBRE Netherlands wellness research (CBRE Healthy Offices) with the University of Twente it was found that over 60% of staff felt happier, healthier and more energised in their working environment when plants were introduced. Results also indicated that planting contributed to an improved performance of over 10%. What was also interesting was that artificial plants also positively affected occupant wellbeing.
Given the cost of lost productivity or poor staff retention to businesses, some simple changes to the workplace to affect a degree of reconnection with the natural world is a low-cost investment.
It’s time to tell the Swiss cheese plant it’s safe to come back inside.