How a well-placed plant can save your office money

This commentary is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, The Federal Office of the Future.

Biophilia—the innate human attraction to nature—is a concept that has been recognized for decades by the scientific and design communities, and intuitively for hundreds of years by the population at large.

Biophilic design incorporates nature into the built environment.

Green building traditionally focuses on costs of energy, water, and materials—all important topics. Yet, human costs are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace (Browning, et al., 2012). Incorporating nature into the built environment is a sound economic investment that supports employee well-being, improves productivity, and boosts the bottom line.

Graphic showcasing costs associated with office space designs.
Click the chart above to read a report by Browning on the topic of biophilia.

Humans have evolved in the larger context of the natural environment and we respond to these natural surroundings. As a result, we innately favor specific sensory interactions with nature and the spatial properties of natural landscapes (Wilson, 1984).

Whether one is engaging with nature by walking through a park, interacting with animals, or having a view of greenery from one’s place of work, biophilia has many applications that help transform mundane settings into stimulating environments.

A growing understanding of the neurological and physiological functions associated with contact with nature has supported biophilic design. Neuroscientists have found that viewing complex, dynamic natural scenes is a pleasurable experience; whereas, viewing scenes with less visual richness, such as a blank wall or a treeless street, trigger less pleasurable mental reactions (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). Studies in Japan (Park, et.al. 2010) found that walking through a forest decreases stress hormone levels, blood pressure and heart rate compared to walking through urban areas.

These studies support Attention Restoration Theory (ART): that nature serves as a positive restorative environment for brain function (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). A recent experiment at the University of Melbourne demonstrated that this can occur with just a 40-second view to nature (Lee, et. al, 2015), indicating how easy it is to create impactful biophilic interventions.

Biophilic office environments can also deeply affect our cognition and health. Research at the University of Oregon (Elzeyadi, 2011) found that 10 percent of employee absences could be attributed to architectural elements that did not connect with nature and that the quality of a person’s view was the primary predictor of absenteeism. This study and others demonstrate how biophilic environments can decrease illness and absenteeism, increase staff retention, and improve job performance through the reduction and prevention of mental stress and fatigue.

An experiment conducted in a call center for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District found that a biophilic intervention saved three times the cost of its installation. The office is located on an upper floor with large windows that look out onto trees. The building achieved a LEED Gold certification with great daylighting, raised floors for ventilation, good thermal performance and high indoor air quality. The workstations were situated perpendicular to the windows, and since the workers needed to focus on their computer monitors, seeing the view out the windows required them to consciously turn their bodies.

By rotating the workstations a few degrees toward the windows, any movement in the trees outside became perceptible in the occupants’ peripheral vision. This caused the occupants to occasionally glance out the windows, relaxing their eyes due to a shift in visual focus  and provided them brief mental pauses that restored cognitive focus.

Moving the workstations cost about $1,000 per occupant. But the call handling capabilities of the staff increased by over 6 percent, resulting in savings of approximately $3,000 per occupant (Heschong, 2003; Loftness, 2008).

Certain biophilic design strategies have specific cognitive or physiological outcomes. Project leaders and designers can select interventions that will have the specific effects their workforce requires to perform well. Terrapin Bright Green’s paper, 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, (Browning, et al., 2014) identifies patterns with proven health benefits to help guide designers in creating effective biophilic spaces. The strategies fall under three general categories:

  • Nature in the Space
  • Natural Analogues
  • Nature of the Space

Nature in the Space addresses the direct, physical and ephemeral presence of nature in a space or place. For workplaces this can include plant life, water, and animals, as well as breezes, sounds, scents, and other natural elements. Common examples include potted plants, flower beds, bird feeders, butterfly gardens, water features, fountains, aquariums, courtyard gardens, and green walls or vegetated roofs.

Natural Analogues address organic, non-living and indirect evocations of nature. Such interventions can include objects, materials, colors, shapes, sequences and patterns found in nature and manifest as artwork, ornamentation, furniture, décor and textiles in the built environment. Mimicry of shells and leaves, furniture with organic shapes, and natural materials like wood planks and granite tabletops are all examples of natural analogues.

Nature of the Space addresses spatial configurations in nature. For office spaces in particular, a designer can incorporate refuge conditions for solitary work and places of prospect for surveying the space.

Google has metrics for the incorporation of biophilic elements into the design of their offices and campuses. As noted in the New York Times, Google officials, “…cited studies of ‘biophilia,’ or love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels” (Hardy, 2014).

The General Services Administration (GSA) has also invested in biophilic design. The GSA’s Office of High Performance Green Buildings has undertaken studies to look at federal workers’ responses to green building measures. Their team includes some of the leading researchers in post-occupancy evaluation and health responses to green building and biophilic design.

Biophilic design is increasingly recognized as an important element in workspace design. It reminds us that employee comfort, health and happiness is crucial to conducting successful business.

Luckily, biophilic design does not require extensive or expensive interventions to have an impact.

Simply ensuring offices have views to the outside, contain plants, receive adequate daylight or have decorative nature-inspired art all help create a more inviting, healthy environment.

Biophilic design is not a luxury, it is sound economic investment in our health and well-being.


Bill Browning, Hon. AIA, is a partner and cofounder of Terrapin Bright Green. He has coauthored several publications, including, The Economics of Biophilia and 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design which can be read online or downloaded from http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/publications/. Bill can be reached at info@terrapinbg.com.


Commentary References:

Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. (2006). “Perceptual pleasure and the brain.” American Scientist, 94, 248–255.

Browning, W., Labruto, L., Kallianpurkar, N., Ryan, C., Watson. S. & Knop, T., The economics of biophilia: Why designing with nature in mind make financial sense, Terrapin Bright Green LLC, 2012.

Browning, W., Ryan, C., & Clancy, J., 14 patterns of biophilic design: Improving health and well-being in the built environment, Terrapin Bright Green LLC, 2014.Elzeyadi, I.M.K., “Daylighting bias and biophilia: Quantifying the impact of daylighting on occupants’ health,” USGBC, 2011.

Hardy, Q. “The Monuments of Tech.” New York Times, 1 March 2014.

Heschong, L. Heschong Mahone Group. (2003). “Windows and Offices: A Study of Office Worker Performance and the Indoor Environment.” California Energy Commission: Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Fair Oaks, California.

Lee, K.E., Williams, K.J.H., Sargent, L.D., Williams, N.S.G., Johnson, K.A. (2015). “40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration.” Journal of Environmental Psychology. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.04.003.

Loftness, V. (2008). “Sustainable Design for Health & Productivity.” Center for Building Performance & Diagnostics.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Morikawa, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2009). “Physiological effects of forest recreation in a young conifer forest in Hinokage Town, Japan.” Silva Fennica, 43(2), 291–301.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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