Our fifth Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working talk on IBA Forum questioned what an evolution and elevation of biophilic design in the workplace could offer with Oliver Heath.

As our understanding of the link between access to nature and personal wellbeing grows, so does the belief that much of what currently constitutes ‘biophilic' design is insufficient. To truly build human-centric workspaces, employers need to understand the the true value unifying the workplace with nature. Such is the expertise of Oliver Heath, founder of Oliver Heath Design, who joined Frame, ORGATEC and IBA to paint a picture of the benefits of approaching workplace design with biophilic principles.

‘It’s in the workplace that we can most accurately measure the real benefit of biophilic design,’ believes Heath. ‘It’s where it's been proven to reduce costs, with things like absenteeism and staff turnover, and improve outcomes, [with respect to] creativity, productivity and engagement.’ Developing truly sustainable workplaces is not ‘just about bringing plants, and greenery in’, it's also about ‘adaptability, and how we can create [multi-sensory] spaces that can be affected and adapted by people's specific needs, whether it’s through furniture or walls, to interact with plants, and greenery, or changing spaces.’

It’s in the workplace that we can most accurately measure the real benefit of biophilic design

Biophilic design as a tool

‘Health and wellbeing is clearly rising up the agenda across the built environment,’ explained Heath. ‘In 2017, wellness real estate was worth $134 billion. It is a global industry and growing at 6.4% each year, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe and Asia Pacific).’ Of course, COVID-19 has since put an even greater emphasis on wellbeing. Heath believes that biophilic design is one of the greatest tools we have to truly reshape the workplace.

‘[It’s] really about how we put humans, people, occupants of buildings into better physical and mental states,’ Heath said, ‘to enable them to undertake and perform the intended function of the space in a better way, by reducing stress, aiding recuperation and [enabling them] to connect with others.’ ‘Stress in buildings is costing organizations a lot of money,’ he explained. ‘The built environment isn't the sole contributing factor to this, but if we can do anything to mitigate that, I think we should be investigating it.’

Fostering creativity and community

Heath and his team produce white papers which assist companies in doing so. In fact, findings from myriad organizations support that natural features indeed help workers work better and consequently, companies reduce costs. He quoted a study by Interface. ‘In offices with natural elements like trees, plants and natural light, people self-reported a 15% higher level of wellbeing, [in addition to being] 6% more productive and 15% more creative.’ What’s more, ‘nature can bring us together’. ‘[And] communities benefit business. Organizations with stronger communities see lower employee turnover rates, high economic returns, a greater sense of passion, common goals and increased collaboration. This evidence base is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the real value that we can create as designers for our clients.’

'90% of typical business operating costs are on staff salaries and benefits,’ he pointed out. ‘Whereas, when we traditionally talk about sustainability, we're talking about energy use, the use of materials and the circular economy. But actually energy, [for example], is only 1% of business operating costs.’ It’s one of the reasons why thinking about human-centric design is so important from the get go, thinks Heath.

The designer recounted an experience that he and his team had when working on a dining hall for a company in Japan. The goal was to transform the vast, underutilized space into an inviting communal area for employees. ‘What we did was look at the local area, [studying] those kind of positive moments that people might pick up on,’ Heath said. ‘What we found were beautiful little parks and cafes in the park that people gravitated towards. And we wanted to recreate that sense in this dining space, creating meandering pathways and different places for people to set connections to nature, using natural materials, colours and textures.’

Considering how to translate a similar sense of wonder and excitement that one gets venturing through nature into a building is an integral part of Heath’s process. ‘There are many, simple ways we can do it. Why can't we enjoy spaces that we should be spending time in?’

Nature plays a fundamental role in helping us to manage stress

Moving beyond CSR

Beyond looking at corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals and carbon footprints, Heath believes that the pandemic will force companies to address that the stress level of employees has gone up. A result will need to acknowledge that ‘nature plays a fundamental role in helping us to manage stress' into practice. ‘Inevitably we're seeing a far greater desire to connect with the natural environment. And with the recognition that humans’ impact on the environment is changing the climate – creating climate crisis – more and more companies are getting engaged with it. There’s the realization that this isn't just about a carbon-centred conversation: it’s also about how we engage people with nature.’

Miss out on the Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working virtual event? Find the recordings on IBA's platform.