The New Natural Habitat: How Biophilia and WELL are Changing the Way We Work
For hundreds of thousands of years, man roamed the grassy plains, the dense forests, and the rugged mountains of the world as nomadic peoples, steeped in the natural world and beholden to it for their own survival. They followed the great herds as they traversed some of the most breathtaking and serene landscapes of the world, stopping only to set up temporary housing communities as the herds paused to rest and roam the untamed earth.
For this time, nature and the outdoors served as our natural habitat in which we lived and thrived, and this cultivated in us a deep-seeded biological bond in which we as a species are tied to this day.
Fast forward to today and everything has changed. Agrarian society grew into industrial society which grew into a technological society. Villages evolved into cities and cities evolved into metropolises. In roughly 10,000 short years, the environment in which we live changed from entirely natural, to almost exclusively artificial. Despite all this environmental change, one thing remains the same – the bond we forged with nature and the natural world.
“Though our world today hardly resembles our ancestral environment, our biological rules still apply,” said Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. “We are wired to crave the natural world.”
Times have changed. Today we spend an average of 90 percent of our time indoors. This simple statistic indicates a radical shift in our everyday environment over a relatively short evolutionary time span. Naturally, there have been growing pains as we evolve and adapt to these new indoor habitats, including issues such as:
- Sick building syndrome
- Disruptions to circadian rhythm
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Increased risk of depression
There’s no denying that the modern office is a major improvement over the grasslands and the industrial factories of old. The open floor plan created a more collaborative working environment. The growth of technology continues to make workers more connected and productive, and the inclusion of sustainable building techniques and facility innovations have made buildings more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than ever before. Despite all of this progress, the office, and built environments in general, have yet to fully realize the benefits of constructing buildings that improve the occupants who work within them.
“There is overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that the design of an office impacts the health, well-being, and productivity of its occupants,” reads a report by the World Green Building Council. “This evidence has not yet had a major influence on the mainstream real estate sector, and is not yet translating at scale into design, finance, and leasing decisions, certainly not in all parts of the globe.”
It has been a long time coming, but times are changing. There has been a notable trend towards designing offices with occupants in mind that continue to gain momentum. The trend’s trajectory is expected to grow considerably as new research extolling the benefits of Biophilic design are released, and initiatives led by the WELL Building Standard become more commonplace.
The green offices of tomorrow will take several key factors into account that are proven to maximize human potential within the built environment. These factors are not just the core principles of the Biophilic hypothesis, they also run parallel to the features of the WELL Building Standard. These overlapping characteristics between WELL / Biophilia include:
- Light / Circadian Light Design
- Mind / Visual Connection with Nature
- Comfort / Biomorphic Forms & Patterns
- Water / Presence of Water
- Comfort / Sound Masking
- Air / Thermal Comfort & Control
Since it’s inception in October of 2014 the number of buildings that have applied for WELL certification continues to grow exponentially. This is a sign of progress, and although there’s still a long ways to go until businesses have fully embraced the occupant-friendly work environment, the path towards a Biophilic future has finally been realized. Businesses large and small are beginning to see the benefits of a future where the working environment acts as a catalyst for occupant optimization that leads to quantifiable results, and ultimately, higher profits.
But what does this new indoor natural habitat look like when fully actualized? This is a question that is still being studied, however, we have a general idea of what it takes to create the new and optimal natural habitat for humans as we become more entrenched in the built environment.
Bringing the Outdoors Inside
Imagine an office space teeming with plant life and natural elements in every direction. Although it’s not a hike through the woods, your brain perceives it in much the same way. The new natural habitat will incorporate nature, and lots of it, to address one of the primary issues causing under-performance for employees and workers. By bringing nature and natural elements such as plant life, natural stone, and exposed wood inside, our biological desire for nature and the natural are met and provide almost instantaneous results.
In a Norwegian study from 1995-96, researchers studied office workers in plant and non-plant environments. The study ultimately showed that workers who were exposed to plants during the workday experienced significantly reduced mucous membrane symptoms including cough, sore throat, and eye irritation by 24-37 percent, improved skin irritation issues by 23%, and improved overall air quality.
The physiological benefits of plants in the workplace are very positive, but the most impressive results are found in studies looking at psychological benefits of vegetation. Plants and nature in the workplace correlate to:
- Overall Stress Reductions
- Positive Moods
- Increased Attention and Focus
- Mental Restoration & Reduced Mental Fatigue
- Improved Cognitive Performance on Tasks
- Reduced Pain Perceptions in Healthcare Settings
Nature Mimics Nature
Have you ever seen pictures of Chartres Cathedral in France? The stone masons and architects that built this and many other wonders of the world used a simple mantra: “As above, so below.” This means they tried to recreate the mathematical wonders of the stars and skies on earth in the form of architecture. This same idea applies to Biophilic design as it uses nature as an architectural framework to weave the patterns and forms of nature into the built environment to strengthen the human-nature connection.
The best way to understand Biophilic design from an architectural point of view is to view it as a spectrum. There are many different design principles that help guide designers and architects toward Biophilic competency, and the most popular of these design frameworks include:
Visual Connection to Nature – Establishes a psychological and physiological connection between humans and nature through direct exposure or experience.
Non-Visual Connection to Nature – This design principle uses the five senses to establish an indirect experience with nature by integrating natural textures, forms, and patterns.
Biomorphic Forms & Patterns – This design often appears as fractals, repeating patterns, or naturally-occurring shapes in the form of nature-infused wall designs or flooring configurations.
Dynamic & Diffuse Lighting – This refers to the use of natural lighting via windows or skylights to reinforce the connection to natural rhythms of day and night. This design utilizes lighting to regulate natural circadian patterns.
Let it Shine
Another primary tenant of the new natural habitat is access to natural lighting. This means more windows, skylights, and commercial lighting systems that minimize circadian rhythm disruptions. Architects and contractors are well aware of the benefits of proper lighting to improve energy efficiency, but the construction industry has been slow to assimilate natural lighting into designs to improve occupant health and wellness, despite the research suggesting its importance.
According to a report published by Terrapin Bright Green titled “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design,” the objective of natural lighting and proper light distribution is to mimic the natural color changes of the sun. The response to natural lighting practices includes reduced body temperature fluctuations, improved heart rate, and optimized circadian rhythm for improved sleep.
The report goes on to explain the effects of lighting on the body’s natural neurotransmitter stores and reiterates the importance of serotonin and melatonin on the human body. These benefits are significant because they can be severely disrupted if proper lighting is ignored. By implementing dynamic and diffuse lighting, occupants can expect:
- Restored Neurotransmitter Levels
- Improved Mood
- Reduced Mood Fluctuations
- Increased Alertness
- Reduced Depression
- Reduced Risk of Cancer
Movement and Motion
The new natural habitat isn’t exclusively tied to Biophilic design. Yes, many of the core beliefs align perfectly, but in the case of movement, motion, and fitness, the WELL Building Standard set the mark for how to work while working out. The idea of making the workplace more fitness-friendly is more about genetics than it is health care savings, although you can make a case for both. Genetically speaking, man was designed to be in motion, as is evident by our musculature and skeletal composition. Essentially, we weren’t meant to sit for 8 hours a day and stare at a computer screen.
To offset the health risks of this new workplace reality, companies are becoming champions of fitness. To encourage physical activity and exertion, businesses are doing everything from expanding company weight rooms and fitness centers to building physical structures such as stairways, walkways, running trails, and even building offices near retail stores and restaurants to encourage walking.
The importance of these initiatives cannot be underestimated. Inactivity levels in North America continue to rise as these statistics published by the WELL Building Standard suggest:
- Sedentary: 38.6%
- No Regular Exercise: 60%
- Not Exercising Appropriately (for desired outcomes): 80%
Breathe In, Breathe Out
Throughout most of history, buildings were constructed out of simple materials such as stone, wood, brick and mortar, or clay. These harmless materials presented little to no threat to the human body, which is why many of them are still used today. With the advent of plastics, insulation, and other modern building materials came new risks to air quality. There’s a long list of common construction materials that are known carcinogens and are found in buildings new and old, for example:
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
- Lead and Mercury
- Cadmium, Chromium, and Antimony
- Bisphenol A
Building practices, materials, and ventilation systems are becoming more sophisticated each year which positively impacts working environments, however, for those who walk into older buildings with outdated HVAC systems and old building materials, air pollution remains a constant concern. In the new natural habitat, air quality must be of highest quality and will require performance thresholds for indoor air quality. This system is currently in place and must be achieved in order for a company to receive their WELL Building certification.
As we continue to evolve and adapt to our ever-changing environment, we’re constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our situations. Through creativity, ingenuity, and common sense, we move headfirst into a future where the working environment works with its occupants, and where sustainability, nature, architecture, technology, and neuroscience are all interconnected. And where the implementation of Biophilic Design and the WELL Building Standard work together to create a new natural habitat that works with its occupants to create a better business world.
Find out why businesses from all over the world are adopting the WELL Building Standard in ‘WELL Building – The Next Big Thing in Business‘