In part 2 of our “Is Biophilia Enough?” series, Kenneth Freeman continues the discussion of whether Biophilic Design is sufficient on its own. We know that Biophilic Design is successful in improving well-being in the workplace, generating higher employee engagement, and increasing productivity, amongst other things. But when it is integrated into organizations with corporate cultures that promote empowerment, can it become an even more powerful tool for architects and designers?
What do we mean by biophilic design?
At its core, biophilic design is a design philosophy that incorporates natural elements and natural analogs to create an environment that is stimulating, engaging, and triggers a deep psychological connection with the space. The theory of Biophilia is rooted in evolutionary biology and genetics. It contends that we have an inherent need to be in an environment that relates to our basic needs.
We evolved, and spent over 95% of our species history, in an environment resembling the savannah. This is the environment in which we instinctively feel most comfortable: open, undulating landscapes with scattered vegetation and good access to water and shelter.
Our senses evolved to work at their best in such an environment, so it makes sense to create our artificial environments in a way that stimulates our senses much the same way our wild settings did. This is where biophilic design differs from conventional interior design. It combines multiple design elements in a holistic way to stimulate our senses.
However, at this base level, it is still a form of enrichment. Circadian lighting is just better lighting. Dynamic acoustics are just tools to manage the acoustic environment. Biophilic floor coverings are attractive carpet tiles. Plants are just plants but displayed in a different way. But when combined and balanced, these features work together to form natural synergies. These synergies resonate with us and make more effective differences than when elements are deployed on their own.
But more is possible. How do we go beyond biophilic design to supercharge its benefits?
There is another element to consider: evidence. How does the designer know whether their designs are going to be effective drivers of organizational effectiveness? The discipline of Evidence-Based Design comes into play here. First developed in the healthcare industry, its principles are now being applied across the built environment. It’s becoming an important part of the design process and should be considered an integral factor in determining what the client is trying to achieve. The logical next step in Evidence-Based Design will be to develop key performance metrics and indicators that determine whether the initial design objectives have been achieved.
For example, is the client concerned about health and wellbeing, colleague engagement, or productivity? These all interact to create the character of a workplace, but they are measured in different ways. Some measurements may be physical or observational, e.g. how space is used. Other measurements might be associated with HR indicators such as absenteeism or complaints about the indoor air quality. However, without defining terms at the beginning of a project, the designer cannot justify claims for its success. Without good evidence, it’s impossible to know what tweaks might be needed to keep a new workplace design working effectively.
Bringing it all together – creating great physical environments that are also psychologically comfortable
Evidence abounds that biophilic design brings many benefits. Likewise, good organizational culture can also lead to improvements in psychological comfort, well-being, and productivity. By gathering evidence and setting objectives, we can make continuous adjustments to keep the workplace operating optimally.
It might reasonably be argued that biophilic design is a physical manifestation of a positive organizational culture. Why make an investment in interior design if promoting worker comfort and well-being wasn’t the reason for doing it? This is, admittedly, a circular argument, but one worth making explicit.
It seems likely that there is quite a strong interaction between design and culture. Although more evidence is needed to determine the strength of the effect, there are some synergies to be exploited. This can be represented simply as a diagram but is merely an untested hypothesis at present. But based on current evidence, an interaction between the extent of biophilic design and end-user empowerment might be expected to look something like this.
If an organization is willing to invest large sums to enrich a space with well-being in mind, then it may be reasonable to assume that the culture behind such a decision looks beyond physical comfort. Instead, it considers issues such as empowerment, engagement, corporate citizenship behaviors, identity, and monitoring.
Standards like WELL and the Living Building Challenge don’t make explicit references to how organizational culture can affect well-being. There may be an assumption in standards that organizational culture must be good simply because the organizations are pursuing a certification. This is the case even if those certifications don’t explicitly measure aspects of organizational culture.
The trend of “workplace domestication” could be seen as a cynical attempt by employers to make staying in, or near, the office at the end of the day as an attractive alternative to going home. Bars, restaurants, comfortable lounge furniture, and even sleep pods might be a good place to be if you are a hard-up millennial living in less-than-ideal accommodation. You can always pop back into the office to finish the work you were doing.
The imperative to promote a strong corporate message might mean that the purpose of the design has less to do with worker well-being than with public corporate image. Indeed, the same could be said of some of the so-called Biophilic Cities, often lauded at conferences as the future of sustainable urban living, but all too often to be found in authoritarian countries where personal freedom takes second place to interests of the regime.
Throughout history, workplaces have been designed solely with the interests of the organization in mind. Sometimes these design practices intersect with best ideas about human wellbeing, and that is to be welcomed. But let’s not be deluded into thinking that as soon as a company finds a more effective way of sweating its assets, then it won’t change in an instant. It is easy to be taken in by great design and, as interior landscape designers, it is flattering (and lucrative) to be in great demand. Interior plants have never been more popular, or easier to incorporate into workplace designs. However, unless our clients make efforts to address the mental space in their organizations as well as the physical space, then they, and their workers are unlikely to fully realize their potential.