Creatif Talks: "Biophilia, Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace" with Oliver Heath

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, you cannot have escaped the wellness design trend that has been reverberating around the world: Biophilia.

Modern interiors across all sectors – from retail to education, office to healthcare – are beginning to prominently feature biophilic elements. Not just because we like to look at plants and natural elements, but because a true biophilic space provides a tangible link to the outside world, reduces stress, aids recuperation and boosts productivity, cognitive function and creativity.

But how can you incorporate biophilia into your next office design? Well, to answer that question, we invited Oliver Heath to 79 Clerkenwell Road to deliver a Creatif Talk on the topic of biophilia, health and wellbeing in the workplace.

As a designer passionate about the built environment and sustainability, incorporating a sense of nature has been a recurring theme to much of Oliver Heath’s design and media work. Using case studies, extensive data and research to underpin his philosophies, Oliver keenly demonstrated the benefits of incorporating biophilic principles into built-up and populated areas.

With mental health issues continually on the rise, UK firms are estimated to lose 130 million working days a year due to absence, sickness and ill-health, at a cost of around £100 billion to the national economy. Due to that, it’s no surprise that businesses are taking the issue of wellbeing in the workplace extremely seriously.

We spend 90% of our lives in buildings and enclosed, be it at home, in the office or commuting, so it’s important that link to natural environments is maintained as often as possible.

There is more and more evidence emerging that health and wellbeing are influenced by the spaces we inhabit and, worryingly, it is believed that 60% of workers in the UK do not get sufficient access to daylight.

This is something that biophilia can address.

“With offices…even simple and relatively cheap inventions can have a positive effect: Making sure employees have access to plants and natural light can raise productivity by 6% and creativity by 15%,” Oliver said, adding that where natural light is not available, it can be mimicked very easily.

The approach to biophilic design for Oliver is clear and simple with tangible financial benefits. Crucially, he adds, it’s extremely “versatile”.

He summarises the key principles of biophilic design as “to trigger human responses to space – responses that can be either aspirational and energising or calming and restorative, just like nature itself.”

Oliver also discussed at length six key principles for biophilic design. Those were:

  1. Contact with nature, including visual connection, senses and non-rhythmic sensory stimuli.
  2. Natural light and the positive impact of considering circadian rhythms.
  3. Natural materials, patterns, products and textures that are proven to have a restorative quality.
  4. Quality of air. Toxins, air movement, CO2, temperature and humidity.
  5. Opening and non-threatening views through spaces, be it a park, garden, terrace or simply imitating the shelters and savannahs we know from the cavemen of old, these offer an opportunity to provide calm and serenity in any environment.
  6. Retreat - each of us needs space to restore our energy and focus after a period of activity.

A number of case studies provide evidence that where a primary experience of natural elements is not available, mimicking nature and using natural analogues (such as natural textures, patterns, colours and images in the floor and wall coverings) can positively impact perceptual and physiological stress responses.

One example shown that received a lot of feedback and questions was one of Oliver’s projects for an outstanding school for 4 -16-year-olds with special educational needs.

 Although trials have demonstrated that having plants in classrooms can lead to improved performance of 10-14% and reduce the impact of ADHD, it is not always possible to incorporate them. For the Garden School, plants would not withstand physical interaction with the students.

Oliver’s design included varied seating: a window seat that offers safe views onto the playground with an abundance of natural light. Playful built-in hexagonal seating providing somewhere for children to relax and restore their physical and mental energy whilst improving students’ concentration, attention and perception of safety.

Textured carpets with varying pile heights and wallpaper with images of woodland provide tactile and visual references to nature; visual references to natural forms and patterns and tactile stimulation were used to reduce stress and promote relaxation - particularly important for students with special educational needs.

A multi-sensory feature which children could interact with ensures that when each of the natural surfaces is touched, the colours of the LED lighting discs change softly to increase visual comfort and have a positive impact on circadian system functioning. Natural sounds (i.e. leaves in the wind) can also be triggered. Hexagonal plinths in a variety of height made from a natural wood create a further material connection with nature that has been shown to decrease blood pressure and improve creative performance.

Whilst many associate Biophilic Design with the addition of plants to interiors, this space is rich in sensory stimuli achieved without any plants but through carefully planned design features, many natural textures and colours, aiming to strengthen a connection with nature whilst helping to calm and soothe the users and meet the various demands of the small space.

Once it is understood and accepted that our psychological and physiological wellbeing is intricately connected to that of nature and environment, it is easy to measure the many tangible benefits and begin to put a financial value to them, Oliver commented.

He went on to highlight that conversations around sustainable buildings are often focused on engineering and energy usage. However, this only accounts for around 5% of business’ costs, whereas people amount to 90% in terms of wages and associated benefits. Therefore, there is a tremendous opportunity for interior designers and architects to play a key role in creating spaces that staffing costs – cutting absenteeism and high staff turnover.

It was argued that biophilic offices also help to attract and retain talent, which is one of the main reasons Amazon built a new rainforest-inspired complex in Seattle.

Oliver went on to highlight the effect of nature on circadian rhythms and the benefits of understanding light and colour within the interior design of spaces before moving on to taking questions from the floor.

During this Q&A session, Oliver was asked what advice he has for those who want to incorporate biophilic design into their next project, to which he responded:

“Observe the key principles and use an evidence-based strategy to convince clients of the value of it. You have to inspire and motivate people to reduce the risk of short-term capital expenditure taking precedence over long-term wellbeing gains.”

It was great to see so many people attending the Creatif Talks seminar and staying back to take part in the discussion.