A biophilic design project

A pioneering project has been collecting evidence over the past year to show a biophillic office can improve health and well-being


  • Flavie Lowres
  • Ed Suttie

16 September 2019

It is perhaps not surprising that health and well-being is a hot topic in the built environment, with the World Health Organization predicting that stress-related illness will be the primary cause of sickness by 2020. In 2017/18 in the UK, 15.4m working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, representing 44 per cent of all cases of occupational ill health and 57 per cent of all sick days.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) and its core partners – AkzoNobel, Ambius, Ahrend, Avison Young, Biotecture, CoeLux, Ecophon, Interface, Oliver Heath Design, Poly, and Waldmann Lighting – are one year into a research project to strengthen the evidence base for biophilic design and its positive effects on office occupants.

An office on the BRE Watford campus is the subject of this study, and the initial phase of the project has established a one-year data baseline for the existing office and its occupants, compared to a similar control office on our campus.

By collecting data over the long term, the project is able to account for seasonal differences in the quality of the indoor environment, views from windows, and occupants' psychological and physiological well-being. The indoor environment has been continuously monitored and the occupants meanwhile surveyed by questionnaires and cognitive tasks, with their heart rates, sleep patterns, activity and exposure to daylight being tracked by wearable technology.

There has also been physiological testing to support this work. The collection of saliva samples from office users, for instance, can give an insight into their stress levels, and data relating to the contribution of the teams to business outcomes is being gathered as well.

The control office is a vital part of the project as we move into monitoring the biophilic office subsequent to refurbishment, collecting data on its impact and other external influences – for example, business changes such as our new chief executive officer, or nationally significant events such as Brexit.

As the control office takes these external influences into consideration, we can then allow for them in our analysis of the experimental office and identify the impacts directly associated with biophilic design. The one-year baseline shows that:
  • indoor air quality and acoustic measures are within acceptable limits, and most impacts are generated by the activities of occupants themselves, such as use of deodorants or fragrances or acquisition of new furniture
  • lighting is adequate in a few areas, but generally below the level of the recommendations in British Standards.
When the occupants were asked how they feel about the building, most of them generally rated its look as poor, and would not feel happy showing the space to clients or colleagues. This attitude is probably representative of many older offices across the UK.

The next phase of the study is to refurbish the office, creating three zones that each adopt a different biophilic design strategy. The first will introduce elements of biophilic design that can be included at any stage of a refurbishment, such as plants on desks, relaxed sitting areas or orienting the desks to maximise access to daylight.

"By collecting data over the long term the project can account for seasonal differences in the environment"

The second will introduce biophilic design that, if given full consideration early in the project, can easily be incorporated in a refurbishment, such as flooring design that mimics patterns found in nature.

The third zone includes higher levels of biophilic design intervention and innovation, such as living walls on which plants grow, soundscaping systems and biodynamic lighting that changes colour and intensity throughout the day in line with circadian rhythms.

The analysis of people and indoor environment will continue for at least a year after this refurbishment. Results will be compared to the baseline to evaluate the impact that biophilic design has had, and as one of its professional dissemination partners, RICS will help the project communicate its findings.

Flavie Lowres is associate director, BRE Strategic Advisory Services, and Ed Suttie is a director of research at BRE flavie.lowres@bregroup.com ed.suttie@bre.co.uk

Related competencies include: Design and specification, Inclusive environments

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