nature in the office workplace

Biophiic architecture

It’s hard to over-estimate the influence of tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon on society today. Their meteoric rise has been well charted, their market valuations scrutinized, their founders’ stories narrated ad infinitum. Until recently however, they were better known for their innovative stance on green energy than their architecture.

Sustainable interiors

Google office, London, UK.jpeg

Now though, a new wave of sustainably designed, eco-friendly headquarters is on the horizon, as the tech giants aim to establish an architectural identity for themselves and their home town of Silicon Valley, giving giant-sized physical expression to their belief in responsible business practices.

According to David Radcliffe, Vice President of Real Estate at Google, its new Californian campus in Mountain View will have “trees, landscaping, cafes, and bike paths weaving through its structures… to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature”. If Google has its way, this new type of connection with nature will re-define our approach to workplace wellness forever.

Green buildings

Never short of a grandiose claim or two, when Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at the Climate Week conference in New York back in 2014 he stated that the company’s new 176-acre Californian headquarters would become “the greenest building on the planet”.

Known simply as Apple Campus 2 and expected to open some time in 2017, the futuristic, circular-shaped building is projected to be 100% powered by renewable energy and has understandably attracted a lot of attention. After all, where Apple leads, others follow.

Productivity and talent

Scratch the surface though and there is more to this new trend than first meets the eye. When dealing in billions of dollars of annual revenues and tens of thousands of highly qualified, highly sought-after employees, employee satisfaction and office productivity are crucial in maintaining a competitive edge. Yes, these tech companies are intent on using responsible architecture and renewable energy sources but they are also exploiting the latest research that explores the intersection between neuroscience and biology. The key to it all is something known as ‘biophilia’.

Connection to nature

The last 60 years have seen a massive process of urbanization in populations around the world marking an unprecedented shift away from natural to heavily built environments with limited exposure to greenery, open spaces and wildlife. Yet humans have millions of years of evolutionary history that is intimately intertwined with nature, an experience that has left us with an innate connection with other living organisms.

biophilia

The concept of biophilia then, literally ‘a love of nature’, builds upon this relationship and attempts to reunite indoor and outdoor worlds through the sensitive use of natural materials, shapes, breezes, colours, scents and sounds in contemporary architecture and interiors.

Biophilic design cafe in Google office, São Paulo, Brazil.jpeg

healthy interiors

“These new corporate campuses in California are an interesting type of human-centric live-work space” states London-based biophilia expert and landscape architect Lily Jencks, “it’s about creating a healthy, happy and green environment that fosters innovation”.

office gyms

On-site gyms, games and sports facilities all promote friendly competition and physical activity amongst the workforce while reducing stress levels and making sure valuable employees think twice before leaving for a competitor business.

“Cross-pollination of ideas between different departments is encouraged via casual break-out spaces while informal garden areas are ideal for chance encounters and natural views to stimulate fresh thinking”, adds Jencks, who often bridges the gap between garden and art in her own projects.

biophilic design in the workplace

Hard evidence for this comes from a recent study undertaken by Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health Sir Cary Cooper entitled ‘Biophilic Design in the Workplace’ that surveyed a sample of 3600 office workers across Europe and the Middle-East. The results showed that office environments incorporating natural elements such as internal green spaces, natural light and an abundance of plants ensure higher levels of employee creativity, motivation and wellbeing.

workplace wellbeing

 “The work environment has always been recognised as essential to employee wellbeing and performance but often as an element which can only have a negative impact if organisations get it wrong” Professor Cooper points out.

“Most modern employers now take a different view, designing environments to help people thrive, collaborate and be creative. Being connected to nature and the outside world is a big part of that”, he concludes.

Elina Grigoriou of Grigoriou Interiors in London was involved in creating the UK’s SKA rating system, an environmental assessment tool for sustainable interiors. For her this shift towards sustainable design is not just about delivering financial returns, although it does that too, “it’s about the health and wellbeing of employees and enhancing the company’s brand value”.

Silicon Valley’s technology companies have a well defined internal culture and a generally young workforce operating in a sector that thrives on innovative thinking, all of which is reflected in the type of work environment now emerging in California.

“Every organization is different however, each has its own distinct culture that can change from sector to sector and according to the age / gender mix of the workforce”, points out Grigoriou. 

biophilic design in retail

US-based consultancy Terrapin Bright Green specialize in helping businesses harness the positive effects of biophilic design. In their report ‘The Economics of Biophilia’ they illustrate that the biophilic approach doesn’t end at workplace design, it can also be applied effectively to retail areas to boost visitor spend and educational facilities to boost students’ learning speed.

biophilic healthcare

Arguably the most powerful illustration of how a man-made environment infused with nature can proactively improve human wellbeing however comes from the world of health care facility design. Lily Jencks and her family are behind the Maggies care homes in the UK and Hong Kong, collaborating with architectural giants such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers.

What more poignant illustration of the role nature can play in uplifting the human spirit than in these indoor-outdoor healing spaces? The tech corporations may be focused on creating the future but even they seem to understand the power of nature.

Matt Morley