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  • Having plants in the workplace boosts creativity by 15%
  • Having plants in the workplace boosts creativity by 15%
    Patch Plants | Facebook (2018) ©

How can biophilic design improve modern life?

Britons are having a love affair with plants. From terrariums and cacti to Living Walls and hanging baskets, they want to tap into their affinity with nature. With urbanisation making the natural world more difficult to access, biophilic design is reconnecting people to nature in built environments.

Location United Kingdom

There’s always been an understanding that being outside is ‘good for us’, but in February 2019, a landmark study proved that growing up in green spaces can reduce the risk of mental health issues. Scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark studied data on almost one million Danes born between 1985 and 2013, finding that being raised near green space can decrease the risk of developing mental health problems by 55%. [1] The hunches began in the 1980s, when American biologist Edward. O. Wilson noticed that people moving from rural areas to city centres were experiencing physiological and psychological problems. [2]Fast forward to 2019 and people are realising it’s not just childhood that is positively affected by nature. Businesses are wising up to the benefits of biophilic design which – as Oliver Heath, an expert in sustainable architecture and interior design, outlines – is a “framework of ideas that have been put together to allow us to improve the human connection to nature in buildings.” [2]

Airspaces – described as diffused workspaces to coincide with elements of a home – has blazed the trail in liberating offices from their dull constraints. But today, it’s biophilic design elements that are everywhere. From bedrooms and boardrooms to airports and restaurants, people and brands are bringing Mother Nature into their interior spaces. By adding cacti (sales of which grew 34% through 2018), potted plants, natural light, or weathered wood, Britons – who spend 92% of their time inside throughout the week – are looking to reconnect with nature. [3][4]

Sustainability is essential for many. The UK has declared a ‘climate emergency’ amid rising eco-conscious sentiments – 92% of Britons have even said that minimising their impact on the environment is important. [5] But with only a third of people thinking they are likely to make future lifestyle changes to protect the environment, acting sustainably comes with its own set of challenges. That being said, people are looking to reconnect in personal ways when possible. According to YouGov, the number of adults who visit nature at least once a week increased from 54% in 2010 to 62% in 2018. [6] With two thirds of British adults experiencing a mental health problem in their lifetime, could biophilic design help reunite people with nature and, ultimately, improve the quality of their lives? [7]


Plants aren’t just pretty
As well as the Aarhus University study, there’s a growing body of research that illustrates how environmental design positively impacts health, productivity, and creativity. Adding flowers is a simple place to start. A 2018 study by the University of North Florida revealed that women who received and lived among flowers were significantly less stressed than those who didn’t. [8] The Parsley Clinic in New York is revamping the stuffy doctor's office, designing it with more holistic, natural, biophilic elements in mind to create an atmosphere of comfort, healing, and intimacy. [9] In what feels like the most radical shift, “enlightened healthcare services are prescribing biophilia to patients, since it reduces the need for pain medication,” explains Heath. [2]

Companies are recognising that the architecture of workspaces can help boost relationships, community, and cooperation. Take Amazon’s Seattle HQ as an example, which opened in 2018. The ‘Sphere Complex’ hosts winding walkways – leading to hidden nooks and open space – with the glass domes housing some 40,000 plants, including a 55-foot tree. [10] Amazon’s hope was that the rainforest can promote chance encounters and foster creativity, which are behaviours that biophilic design promotes. The University of Texas found that having plants in the workplace can boost people's creativity by 15%. [11]

Given the philosophy of chance encounters imbued in its ethos, it’s unsurprising that co-working spaces like Second Home have been early adopters of biophilic design – its Portugal outpost is home to 2,000 plants. “There are no straight lines in the designs because there are no straight lines in nature. It’s also why every chair and desk lamp is different – this reflects the fractal complexity you find in nature, where every leaf and snowflake is shaped differently,” says Second Home co-founder Rohan Silva. [12] Physicist Richard Taylor has studied the effects of fractal design on people’s cognition, finding that recovery from stress is improved by 60% when looking at nature-inspired fractal imagery. [13] So, people’s relationship with biophilic interior design is equally as important as the way they feel about architectural counterparts.

Could biophilic design help bring us back to nature?
Could biophilic design help bring us back to nature?
Seattle Spheres (2019) ©

From sick spaces to ‘well’ ones
“We need to take into account sick buildings,” says Alexander Bond, founder and consultant at Biophilic Designs. “These are buildings with a monotone colour scheme, little access to natural light, and the squeezing of as many bodies into one space as possible.” [14] Officially recognised by the NHS since the 1970s, Sick Building Syndrome is very real. [15] Elizabeth Calabrese, author of The Practice of Biophilic Design, points out that it can cause aggression, obesity, and stress. [16] Thus, the link between unhealthy environments has been established, leading to attempts to stop designing ‘unhealthy’ buildings. For instance, the International Well Building Institute is running 3,438 projects across 55 countries and 413 million square feet, including a certification that verifies ten key standards of a ‘well’ building: air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. [17][18]

Although biophilic design isn’t cheap – “by far the biggest challenge is the return on investment,'' says Bond – reconnecting people with nature doesn’t need to mean a total overhaul. [14] For companies with conservative funds, mimicking the sensation of being in nature can evoke similar results. Whether that’s through opening windows more regularly, or using mirrors to reflect a window view of nature, simple measures can be taken to increase a building’s wellness. “We are seeing some incredible progress in the design processes and production of materials that indirectly reference nature,” says Heath. [2] Take Interface as an example, which creates carpet designs that mimic wood, stone, or other natural elements.

Second Home’s Portuguese office houses 2,000 plants
Second Home’s Portuguese office houses 2,000 plants
Second Home | Facebook (2018) ©

Nurturing nature
With 37% of Gen Yers growing plants and herbs indoors – compared to 28% of boomers – a new generation is growing up green-fingered, with urbanisation as the likely cause. [19] Given that over 54% of the world now live in cities, bringing a sense of calm to these spaces can offer restoration from noise and air pollution. [20] The number of internet searches for ‘best air purifier’ and ‘air quality index’ has risen by more than 750% in the last decade. [21] Since less living space has meant that Generation Rent is more likely to live in urban flats than houses, growing plants and herbs has offered a sense of ownership.

Rather than landscaping a garden, curating a collection of potted plants can bring a sense of homeliness to a rented property, and the plants' impermanence offers mobility when it’s time to move. “People create a bond with plants. They like watering them and often name them, which is an amazing experience,” says Bond. [14] Tech can even play a role in being a dedicated plant parent – the Miracle-Gro Twelve Indoor Growing System, for instance, is an indoor unit that features space for four plants. A water reservoir circulates the feed to prevent users from constantly watering, and a built-in sensor notifies them via a Bluetooth connection if they need to add water or food. And, finally, its Insta-friendly minimalist design blends easily into domestic environments. [22]

“Wealthier clients innately know and can afford what they want without actually understanding why they crave it”, says Calabrese, signalling a need for greater education around what constitutes a healthy living and working space. [16] New Internet-based companies are helping make biophilic behaviours as easy as possible to adopt. Patch is one of these services – its motto is “urban jungles, delivered” and the brand describes its products as virtually “unkillable plants”, easing the minds of even the least green-fingered consumers. It also offers customers a free PDF guide that explains to beginners how to look after their plants. Subscription plant boxes like Sprout and Bloombox are also building a loyal following by tapping into the desire to nurture nature.

Urbanisation has led us to become more green-fingered
Urbanisation has led us to become more green-fingered
Bloombox Club | Facebook (2018) ©

Insights and opportunities
Whether it’s a willowherb in a windowsill or a bird’s nest boardroom, biophilic design draws people in – and a company’s biggest investment is its people. “Google has embraced biophilic design to attract the best talent in the world,” says Calabrese. “When businesses design their offices, facilities, or factories with biophilic principles in mind, they often have happier, healthier, and more productive employees with lower mental and physical stress and fewer sick days,” she notes. ”This design approach proves to be profitable because employees are typically the largest cost to a company as compared to the building's overhead and utilities.” [16] Given that work-related stress, depression or anxiety, and poor mental health among employees is thought to cost businesses up to £42 billion per year, using biophilic design can retain talent, improve wellbeing, and cut costs for companies in the long run. [23]

As 81% of Gen Zers believe that the private sector should lead the way in greener energy – meaning the onus of responsibility could fall on businesses –  a younger cohort brings new expectations and challenges. [24] Considering 45% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from the built environment, sustainable design should indeed be a priority. [25] While the handful of green buildings in the UK – from One Angel Square in Manchester to London’s Bloomberg Building – show some progress, the key is ensuring that biophilic design is approached holistically. “Sustainable buildings are often merely a low impact on the environment, whereas biophilic design [has] a positive impact on both humans and the built and natural environments that they inhabit,” says Calabrese. [16]

People’s active interaction with plants helps improve wellbeing, too. "It boosts your mood by releasing cytokines, which then leads your brain to produce more serotonin. So, just by being around soil, these outdoorphins flood your body and boost your mood," writes Joey Doherty, a certified wellness counsellor. [26] For Calabrese, it’s important that plants aren’t just there to fill a space, and that employers fully maximise the great things this greenery can do for businesses. “Rather than just placing plants into a space, help to create a relationship between the occupants and the plants. Let people bring plants they love, or have employees learn to build terrariums and hang them around their spaces,” she suggests. [16] A desire to reconnect with nature transcends sectors, too. Fractal design – mimicking nature's complexity –  can help people to recover from stress, but it can also be used in packaging. Given that 60% of purchase decisions are made in-store, using packaging that promotes a sense of calm can be beneficial. [27]

Related behaviours
Rewilding: People are looking to restore the lost values of nature

1. 'Being Surrounded By Green Space In Childhood May Improve Mental Health of Adults', EurekAlert (February 2019)
2. Interview with Oliver Heath conducted by the author
3. 'Houseplants back in fashion as health-conscious millennials buying them for wellness reasons, RHS says', The Telegraph (January 2019) 
4. ‘Britons spend 92% of ALL their time indoors’, Road.cc (February 2017)
5. ‘New study reveals threat to the environment: we say we care, but leave it to others to take responsibility’, Legal & General (July 2018)
6. 'People are spending more time outside in the natural environment than ever before’, YouGov (September 2018)
7. 'Two-thirds of Britons have had mental health problems – survey', The Guardian (May 2017)
8. ‘Health by Design: New University Research Reveals Surprising Solution For Relieving Stress’, PRNewswire (August 2018) 
9. ‘Parsley Biophilic Clinic Helps Patients Rewild’, Canvas8, (January 2019)
10. ‘Take A Look Inside Amazon’s New Rainforest Office’, Fortune (January 2018)
11. ‘Global Study Connects Levels Of Employee Productivity And Well Being To Office Design’, PRNewswire (March 2015) 
12. ‘What is biophilic design, and can it really make you happier?’, Fast Company (April 2019)
13. ‘Fractal patterns in nature and art are aesthetically pleasing and stress-reducing’, The Conversation (2017) 
14. Interview with Alexander Bond conducted by the author
15. ‘The mysterious illness affecting 1970s female office workers became “sick building syndrome"', Timeline (May 2017) 
16. Interview with Elizabeth Calabrese conducted by the author
17. ‘Buildings and communities that help people thrive’, Well Certified 
18. ‘The next version of the WELL Building Standard’, Well Certified 
19. ‘Grow 365’, Garden Media Trends Report
20. ‘Urbanization and the mass movement of people to cities’, Grayline 
21. ‘Internet Searches On Air Pollution Up 750% In Last Decade As Consumers Show More Concern For Air Quality, Nissan Reveals’, Pressat (August 2016)
22. 'Miracle Gro Twelve: App-aided care for plant-babies', Canvas8 (May 2019)
23. ’Mental Health and Wellbeing in Employment’, Deloitte (October 2017)
24. ‘Will Gen Z be the one to save the environment?’, Thrive Global (April 2018) 
25. ‘Sustainability in building design and construction’, Design Buildings Wiki (May 2019)
26. ‘12 psychological benefits of houseplants’, 100thseed (January 2016) 
27. ‘Why packaging is turning into an art’, Canvas8 (September 2017)

Featured Experts

Oliver Heath

Oliver Heath is an expert in sustainable architectural and interior design. He has presented television programmes on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Discovery Channel, and Norway's TV2, and most recently for the BBC's DIY SOS where his show was nominated for a BAFTA.

Alexander Bond

Alexander Bond has over five years' experience working with and supplying specialist products to international architectural firms and multinational corporations. He now specialises in advising on the benefits of applying key principles of biophilic design to the built environment.

Elizabeth Freeman Calabrese

Elizabeth Freeman Calabrese is a licensed architect, and has been in the international design industry for over 30 years. She is a leading educator of biophilic design and believes that ecology and biophilia belong at the foundation and core of professional design programmes.


Sophie Robinson is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. With a background in social anthropology she’s experienced in understanding the cultural mechanisms that shape the world, and how people symbolically construct and communicate meaning. When not mining for insights she’s wild swimming, listening to techno or thinking about documentary films she’d like to make.



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