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The healthy relationship of Biophilic Design and Post-occupancy evaluation

The health and wellbeing of building occupants is a hot topic. It has been acknowledged that buildings have a direct impact on human wellbeing and happiness, something that is compounded by the large amount of time we spend indoors. With this growing interest has come a move to understand biophilia and its potential to improve indoor environments. However with this comes the challenge of how we measure its impact. This brings the question, if we are to truly understand its impact on building occupants, how closely should we link Biophilic design with post-occupancy evaluation?

The term Biophilia was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm to explain our “love of life and all that is alive”. In 1984, Edward O Wilson released his book ‘Biophilia’ and defined the term as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. The concept suggests that humans have an innate attraction to natural processes, and hold a biological need for physical, mental and social connections with nature. Research has shown that being in natural environments, or even viewing scenes of nature, can have a general positive impact on our wellbeing. Presence in natural environments has been known to alleviate negative emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, depression and stress. Whilst also helping us to feel calm, balanced and inspired.

Through the industrial revolution and technological advances, our lifestyles have shifted in terms of how and where we both work and spend our leisure time. As a result, in the developed world, we spend on average 90% of our lives in buildings. This statistic is one we’ve heard many times before, maybe so many times that we’re now becoming desensitised to it. As a result it’s especially important to remember exactly what this statistic is telling us; that we spend the majority of our time indoors, separated from nature and the wealth of benefits it brings to us.

A way to address this is to bring the outdoors indoors, design our built environment to work with nature, and create internal surroundings that incorporate the natural world and its multiple facets (colour, light, air, plants, sound, texture, diversity) into our lives. Biophilic design does just this, and provides the built environment with a method of satisfying our need to connect with nature, even when spending time indoors.

The evidence base for Biophilic design is widespread across various building types. In office workplaces, over the long term, Biophilic design can reduce absenteeism, reduce comfort complaints and help to retain employees. In addition to this, the workplace can become more efficient as a result of Biophilic design through employees feeling more inspired, creative and productive. Likewise in school buildings, strategic Biophilic design has been linked to improved learning, improved health of staff and pupils and a more enjoyable learning experience. In healthcare buildings, Biophilic design has been said to support quicker recovery rates amongst patients, decreased medication dependency, reduced stress amongst staff and patients and improved mental wellbeing. In the retail sector, buildings that incorporate Biophilic design can find their store provides a more enjoyable consumer experience which can draw in customers and boost sales.

But, how do we go about measuring these reported impacts? If the health and wellbeing benefits of Biophilic design are understood to be present in various building types, can we measure the extent of their success? How do we determine which Biophilic design elements are most successful in different building types? These questions lead me to believe there needs to be symbiotic relationship between Biophilic design and post-occupancy evaluation (POE) methods, right from the get-go.

This might seem like an unusual pairing. Their names alone would suggest these two processes would occur at opposite ends of the scope of works; the design obviously coming first, and the post-occupancy evaluation doing exactly what it says on the tin by taking place long after building handover and occupation. However, to better understand the wealth of benefits known to Biophilic design, it could be argued that the design should influence the methods of POE, and likewise the POE should impact upon the design.

During the design process, questions and research methods for the POE could be formulated based around the design intent as it develops, right from the beginning of the project through to the start of the construction phase when final design details are ironed out. Similarly once completed, the outcomes of POE could then influence changes to the Biophilic design. Alterations and tweaks could be made to the design based on which Biophilic design elements have met their design intent, those that haven’t, and those that might have produced unexpected outcomes.

Further to this, restrictions to the POE methods could be taken into account whilst making decisions around the Biophilic design. For example, if during the design the end tenant’s intended office floor plan is unknown, locating a living wall at one end of the floor space might mean that half of the office occupants rarely experience or interact with the feature. This will in turn impact on the POE, meaning that half the occupants will not be able to answer questions investigating the impact of that feature. As such, to support the POEs ability to thoroughly investigate each Biophilic feature, the design decision could ensure the living wall is located in a communal break-out space, or incorporate two living walls in each end of the office space.

The BRE and Oliver Heath Design, supported by a wide range of partners, are embarking on a new research project around Biophilic design. A live office refurbishment will provide robust building environment and occupant data as evidence for positive health and wellbeing impacts of Biophilic design. Occupant surveys and POE quite clearly will have a very important role to play in understanding the outcomes of the project. The project is creating a baseline of data by monitoring the existing building for one year before intervening with Biophilic refurbishment, and monitoring the office again.

The long-term findings from which are intended to be linked to the Biophilic elements thus giving a better understanding of the extent of product and design on occupants. This will support the case for Biophilic design in numerous areas of the built environment industry, including BREEAM. With Strategic Director Alan Yates on the Project Board, BREEAM intends to utilise the findings to better inform the Health and Wellbeing category and work around POE methodologies.

In its widest context. Biophilic design has a lot to offer the refurbishment and fit out sectors that will benefit clients, building owners and occupants. It doesn’t have to be deep refurbishment, complex or expensive – the simple choices of floor covering, paint on the walls and lighting have significant biophilic qualities. The use of POE is key to understanding the evidence base of this, and educating the industry so that informed well researched choices can help create workplaces of the future, that are healthier and more energising, from the offices of the past.

For more information on BREEAM click here.