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How a BRE office became the centre piece for major biophilic design research

A chance encounter in a traffic jam has led to a major scientific investigation on the wellbeing effects of biophilic design

History tells us that people have always been influenced and attracted by nature. For example, tomb paintings from ancient Egypt, as well as remains found in the ruins of Pompeii, demonstrate that people brought plants into their houses and gardens more than 2,000 years ago.

The term ‘biophilia’ was first coined by social psychologist Eric Fromm in 1964 as “love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom” and it was extended and popularized by biologist Edward Wilson in his book ‘Biophilia’ twenty years later. All various denotations relate back to the desire for a (re)connection with nature and natural systems.

Nowadays, people spend around 90% of their lives in buildings and most of the time these are offices, built as enclosed and relatively sterile spaces, sheltered away from elements of nature.

Government research shows that over 130 million days are lost to sickness absence every year in the UK, and working-age ill health costs the national economy £100 billion a year. A 1% reduction in absenteeism would help save not less than £1bn to the economy.

With changes in society have come changes in workplace design, shifting from individual cubicles and private offices to open-plan designs, standing desks and whiteboard walls to emphasize increased focus, teamwork and flexibility. More recently, the relation with nature has been recognised as a key consideration when designing and developing workspaces. Biophilic design acknowledges that we are genetically connected to nature and that a human centred approach can improve many of the spaces that we live and work, with numerous benefits to our health and wellbeing and efficiency.

A live office refurbishment using biophilic design principles project led by building science centre BRE in partnership with designer Oliver Heath will provide environmental and human data as evidence for positive health and wellbeing impacts on office occupants.

“Across the building industry, energy efficiency is now firmly embedded in the construction thinking and processes”, says Flavie Lowres, Associate Director at BRE who is also one of the project coordinators. “The focus is shifting more and more towards the health and wellbeing of the building occupants, but there’s a gap when it comes to long term holistic research looking at the impact a building interior can have on the people inside.

“I first met Oliver [Heath] at a St Gobain event on building a multi comfort energy efficient school in Worcester. We started chatting after the event whilst stuck in traffic and we realised our work had a lot in common; once we started talking about biophilic design, we could see a lot of opportunities on how we could work together.

“Helping develop efficient, safe, and high quality buildings has been at the heart of BRE since 1920s; kicking off the biophilic research project was a natural step for us.”

The two-year research project, currently underway, will show how quantified improvements in productivity and wellness can bring rewards for landlords, occupiers, developers and all those concerned with the office and wider built environment. The project centres on a 650m2 first floor office in a 1980s building on the BRE campus in Watford, which will be refurbished according to biophilic design principles.

Researchers will carry out a baseline year of pre-refurbishment and a year of post-refurbishment monitoring, evaluating the office environment for daylight, lighting, indoor air quality, acoustic, thermal and humidity comfort. The design items and furniture will be provided by a range of partners including Interface, Biotecture, Akzo Nobel, Plessey, Royal Ahrend, Coelux, Ecophon and GVA. The combined impact of the products will be assessed in the refurbished office, as well as be evaluated separately in a special environmental room.

The volunteer occupants, who are BRE employees, will fill in regular questionnaires, take part in focus groups and undertake computer tasks that will test attention and concentration; they will also be asked to keep a sleep diary to help monitor their mood and health. Some physiological and business measures (absenteeism, turnover etc) will also be taken into consideration to help measure productivity.

Previous research showed that simulated “window views” of a large nature photograph in hospital rooms can render patients less anxious and needed fewer doses of strong pain medicine, improving healing processes and health outcomes; other research showed better performance under ‘warm’ white lighting when working with short term problem-solving tasks.

Principal Consultant Mindy Hadi from BRE, an occupational psychologist with over 20 years’ experience, is leading the social research within the biophilic office project.

“There isn’t any research out there that quite looks at biophilic offices with such a variety of elements the way we are, Mindy tells us. Of course, as this is a real life project, we need to be aware of potential factors that can influence someone’s behaviour such as the organisational culture or the relationship with line manager and colleagues. Undertaking the research across a longer period of time (ie. two years) will help identify patterns of behaviour and understand more accurately the impact of the environment on the occupant.

“We also hope to compare the results from the biophilic design project with the second floor within the same building which was refurbished two years ago, as it is the same orientation size and shape as the first floor, but it was a standard refurbishment instead of biophilic.”

BRE’s office is currently in the pre-refurbishment monitoring phase and design plans are starting. In the coming months researchers will continue monitoring of space and people, develop design drawing, followed by the refurbishment phase which will take about a year.