In the same way that listening to a story engages our imagination, natural elements in the built environment beckon our instinctual affinity for nature, stimulating our behavior and expanding our consciousness.
As designers, we are creating a workplace experience, not just a place to work. We are designing environments that support collaboration, learning, creativity, and company culture. Design is re-defining the quality of the workplace in ways that deliver better business performance economically, socially and environmentally. Design now drives innovation. Never before have we had such opportunity to be the foundation for the success of an enterprise.
Designers are integrating elements that increase employee satisfaction, motivation and productivity. We are creating stimulating workspaces that encourage emotional and cognitive engagement. We are conceptualizing spaces for creative encounters and “learning opportunities” that connect workers with each other. We are setting the scene to sharpen the competitive edge. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution for clients, there is one tool often overlooked that has the power to positively impact behavioral and social outcomes that will drive your client’s company from good to great. It’s called “the natural imperative,” or, the human-nature connection.
“The human body, mind and spirit evolved in a complex matrix of interactions with the natural world that to this day continues to affect our ability to think critically, to be creative, to discover, to show compassion, to care and to realize a purposeful existence. Modern urban society has separated us from positive contact with nature and I believe that only by reconciling and harmonizing the natural and human built environment can we arrest this trend and restore the biological basis for our well-being. In this we can contribute to a future trajectory that leads to a world of enduring meaning and relation.”
Dr. Stephen Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, author of “Biophilic Design”
Humans have a physiological and psychological need for nature. The human-nature connection is human nature. Contact with nature improves health and cognitive functioning. It restores well-being, lowers stress, and fosters emotional balance. It cultivates a culture of innovation and collaboration, creativity and productivity. In 1964, psychologist Erich Fromm named this biophilia, or love of life, a concept developed further in the 1980’s by Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard biologist.
Biophilic design leverages the human need for nature through the design of the built environment. Our longing to remain in contact with nature, even as we build shelter to escape the elements, has been a fundamental principle in architecture for centuries.
We understand the physiological and psychological benefits of contact with nature but it is important to realize there are socio-cultural, environmental and economic benefits as well:
Contact with nature in the built environment creates community. When humans feel connected, communities function with less conflict, people experience a greater sense of belonging, levels of safety improve and neighborliness increases. (Read “The Economics of Biophilia” by Terrapin Bright Green for more on the social benefits of biophilic design.
Emulating natural processes in building design (called Biomimicry) is resulting in “living” structures with “bones, skin and organs,” that breathe and grow and self-sustain. Nature is providing innovative solutions to complex scientific, design and engineering questions while improving resource conservation. (Read the book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” by Janine Benyus)
When we design for maintaining human contact with nature, we directly impact the bottom line. Patients heal more quickly, retail sales increase, student learning rates improve, and corporate profits uptick as company cultural values are fulfilled by inspired, engaged and innovative workers. (Read “The Economics of Biophilia” by Terrapin Bright Green for quantifiable research on biophilic design.
Natural elements alone cannot transform “a place to work” into a “workplace experience,” but they contribute to stronger, more profitable businesses where the human spirit thrives. Natural elements provide us with something essential that is not fulfilled by other behavioral design techniques — a natural sense of place, purpose and connection.
Designers are embracing LEED standards and BREEAM in the UK that promote sustainable design and construction practices. Sustainable buildings are recognized for their efficient resource use, reduced environmental impact, increased profitability and improved occupant health and well-being. These are important goals but how do we go beyond LEED and achieve the behavioral and social influences we seek? The next step is to incorporate the behavioral implications of biophilic design principles into all buildings and achieve the most positive environmental, social and economic benefits available.
Biophilic Design includes six principles within which are nearly 100 components that affect the workplace experience. Although the list is long, it is important to consider the influence of each aspect, individually and combined, in the workplace experience. As identified by Dr. Stephen Kellert, these include:
- Environmental features: color, water, air, sunlight, fire, plants, animals, natural materials, views and vistas, green facades, landscaping, and connection to local ecosystems.
- Natural shapes and forms: botanical and animal motifs, columns evocative of trees, shells, spirals, ovals, curves, domes, arches, positioning within geological surroundings, simulation of natural features, bio and geo-morphology, biomimicry.
- Natural patterns and processes of nature: sensory variability, information richness and variety, patina over time, growth and efflorescence, central focal points, patterned wholes, bounded space, transitional space, linked chains, integration of parts to the whole, complementary contrasts, dynamic balance and tension, fractals, organized ratios.
- Light and space: light that is natural, filtered, reflected, warm, and diffused, light pools, light shapes and forms, spaciousness, spatial variability and harmony, space as shape and form, inside/outside space.
- Place based relationships: geographic, historic, ecological, cultural connection to place, indigenous materials, landscape orientation, landscape features defining building form, integration of culture and ecology, avoiding placelessness.
- Evolved human-nature relationships: prospect and refuge, order and complexity, curiosity and enticement, change and metamorphosis, security and protection, mastery and control, affection and attachment, exploration and discovery, information and cognition, fear and awe, reverence and spirituality.
But what about designing spaces that are isolated from nature?
Not every setting lends itself to literally incorporating nature into a space or creating contact with nature through windows, gardens and open-air walkways. Few workspaces, university research centers, public auditoriums or medical facilities are situated in the woods or at the beach. Often designers are faced with urban settings, inclement climates, and windowless interior spaces. What then?
In architectural situations where workspace is distant from nature, nature can be brought into the environment through visual and textural elements that make the human-nature connection. This does not mean creating buildings that are decorated like theme-park rides nor should it include architectural elements that verge on kitch. The effect desired is subtle and resonates subjectively. It does not draw attention to itself, rather it supports an attitude attuned to the job at hand.
We can integrate protected spaces (where people can concentrate and focus) with wider expansive spaces (where they can explore and engage in spontaneous conversation). We can design opportunities for dynamic changes in mood between different spaces within the building by contrasting static with movement, calm with invigorating, and light with shadow. Nature is rich with sensory experience; it is replete with variations on a theme. We can utilize organic shapes and forms, curves and fractal patterns. We can incorporate diversity and life-like processes and engage the senses in spaces that breathe and invigorate.
We must also use art to open our eyes. Some biophilic designers suggest limiting subject matter to vistas, water and trees. While vistas, water and trees are natural elements that people are drawn to, these are not the only ones in our biophilic palette. In fact, the limitation of art to representational paths in the forest, ocean horizons and tranquil lake scenics are, while soothing, overly familiar, overused and are now often overlooked or unnoticed.
The “postcard view” aesthetic to which some choose to be limited is an objectifying perspective that does not compellingly engage the viewer. It displays art in the representational manner of the realist still-life painters, who called their work “nature-morte.” If purely representational images were the only valid perspective, art would not have progressed past realism. Impressionism, for instance, would not have happened if humans did not crave the experience and feeling that emanates from natural elements instead of their mere representation.
New perspectives challenge us to view the world differently. This is an enabler for the inventive thinking that will propel businesses to new value and profitability. Design is changing. The reality is: You can’t see the future in the rear-view mirror, but dynamic environments and the choices listed by Dr. Kellert can shift our vision forward, where the future will be found.
The metrics have not yet been fully developed, nor enough quantifiable research funded to satisfy every skeptic. But the influence of nature, on human beings is profound and ubiquitous. It doesn’t take a statistician to validate the experience of “arrival” in a welcoming space. The future will reward designers who understand the economic, social and environmental value of building a “workplace experience” not just “a place to work.”
Stay close to Nature.
It will never fail you.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
Nature is the universal language that connects us all.
It is not a trend. It’s the truth.
About the author, Robin Acker Bush:
Robin is President and Founder of Voices of the Earth, a company that collaborates with architects and interior designers to bring the transformational power of the natural world into the built environment and positively effect behavioral and social outcomes. These experiential environments ignite innovation, foster collaboration, increase productivity and improve health and well—being. Voices of the Earth produces custom architectural and interior design materials from fine art natural imagery.
Great Places to Learn More:
Biophilic Design, Tamarack Media, 2011. Executive Producer: Dr. Stephen Kellert, Producer/Director: Bill Finnegan. This 60 minute film is a journey from our evolutionary past and the origins of architecture to the world’s most celebrated buildings in a search for the architecture of life. See a three minute trailer here: http://www.biophilicdesign.net/film-trailer.html
Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heeerwagen and Martin L. Mador, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2008.
Building for Life by Stephen R. Kellert Island Press, 2005.
The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense by Terrapin Bright Green, 2012. http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com
The US Workplace Survey Gensler, 2006 and 2008.
The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace by Rachel Kaplan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI published in Landscape and Urban Planning, 26, Elsevier Science Publishers, B.V. Amsterdam, 1993.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2002.
TED talks by Janine Benyus on Biomimicry:
Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Video on the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park by Cook + Fox architects: https://vimeo.com/17604569
Impact of Workplace Quality on Employee’s Productivity by Demet Leblebici
Journal of Business, Economics & Finance Volume 1, Issue 1 2012. http://www.jbef.org/archive/pdf/volume1/4-Demet Leblebici.pdf
TED talk by Thomas Heatherwick:
You Call That Innovation? The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2012
An article on replacing innovation with an inventive mind-set