What’s the difference between a space full of pretty plants and biophilic design?

Without a purpose behind a design, and the intent to make an environment better for the people that use it, we cannot describe a space as biophilic.

Over the next few paragraphs (which are based on my presentation to Cultivate ’20 Virtual in July), I am going to discuss what I think it means to build a biophilic design brand for interior landscapers and designers.

It doesn’t mean what logo to use, or what name to give your business. It is more about the philosophy behind your business – your vision and your values.

Why am I banging on about biophilic design – isn’t it what everyone is doing right now anyway?

Biophilic design is the design trend of the moment. It is associated with greater wellbeing. However, many of its proponents think mainly, or only, in terms of the emotional, almost spiritual, need to connect with nature.

This can be an effective approach, is easily understood and has a lot of merit.

Let’s did a little deeper

Research has consistently shown, for almost 50 years (maybe longer) that when we put plants in buildings, things get better.

  • People feel happier
  • Symptoms associated with sick building syndrome disappear
  • Stress can be reduced
  • People become more productive

Various mechanisms for the benefits have been suggested – physical and psychological – but for years, all we had was a catalogue of discrete research projects without a compelling narrative to tie them all together.

This is Ken Brewer. He was with Ambius (my former employer), and its predecessor companies for over 30 years and was the North America Technical Director. As well as being a much missed colleague and friend, he is the man who first told me about biophilia – some time in the early 2000’s.

When he told me about it, the research that I (and many others) were doing suddenly made a lot more sense.

The concept of Biophilia is not new

However, it has been the work of Edward Wilson since 1984 (incidentally, the same year that the WHO first recognized Sick Building Syndrome), and more latterly Stephen Kellert, that has brought the concept of biophilic design to a much wider audience.

Biophilia theory is rooted in evolutionary biology and genetics. It contends that we, as a species, have an inherent need to be in an environment that relates to our basic needs as a species.

We evolved, and spent over 99% of our species’ history, in an environment resembling the savannah, and that is the environment that we instinctively feel most comfortable in: open, undulating landscapes with scattered and clustered vegetation and good access to water and shelter.

Our senses evolved to work at their best in such an environment, and so it makes sense to create our artificial environments to stimulate our senses is much the same way as in our wild setting. This is where biophilic design differs from conventional interior design – it combines multiple design elements in a holistic way to stimulate our senses.

The difference between a space full of pretty plants and biophilic design

At its core, biophilic design is a design philosophy that based on biophilia that incorporates natural elements and natural analogues in such as way as to create an environment that is stimulating, engaging and provides sensory stimuli that work together to minimize stress and discomfort.

The offices of Segment in California (image by Ambius North America) incorporating many elements that might be considered biophilic

It triggers an emotional connection with the space as a result of an appropriate sensory balance and sense of psychological and physical comfort.

There is a huge benefit to putting plants into buildings – the very act of enriching a space can have some profound effects in terms of wellbeing and productivity.

The difference, however, between doing interior landscaping and biophilic design isn’t what you put in a building, but how what you put in a building speaks to the people that use the building. In other words, it isn’t about the products.

It is also about why.

Why has your client asked you to put plants in their building? What is the intent?

Biophilic design has many definitions. Terrapin, for example, propose a number of characteristics that make up biophilic design in three broad categories, as we can see here.

  • Nature in the space
  • Nature of the space
  • Natural analogues

The first and last of these are areas are what interior designers and interior landscapers are really good at. With a bit of imagination, they can be pretty good at the other as well.

When combined well, these elements create a sensory environment that is harmonious. The sensory inputs we experience are congruent. They complement each other and allow us to understand our environment.

When our senses are stimulated discordantly, when we can’t make sense of what we are seeing, feeling, hearing and smelling, then we become stressed. If we hear a threat, but can’t see it, or if we smell the ocean but see the grey walls of an office, it takes mental effort to come to terms with those stimuli.

The importance of good organizational culture

Craig Knight’s research, and that of others, has shown that the biggest impact on performance and wellbeing isn’t plants, art, smells, and everything else that we do, but it is organizational culture.

The more people are empowered to manage their work and their work space, the better things are. Such empowerment can, and should for our industry, extend to engaging as far as possible with the end users of buildings – e.g. office workers – and giving them some agency over the plants and other enrichments.

Get empowerment right, everything else follows

And this doesn’t just mean with the clients. If designers get it right within their own organizations, they too will reap the benefits.

In fact, I think that designers need to live the values that are sold to clients in order to sell those ideas credibly, and for employees to sell and service those ideas with conviction

That’s how you build a biophilic brand identity: human-centric companies providing human-centric services.

It seems to me that it is likely that there is quite a strong interaction between design and organizational culture (although more evidence is needed to determine the strength of the effect), and that there are some synergies to be exploited.  

This can be represented simply as a diagram.  This 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 reasonably be expected to look something like this.

The more you enrich a space, and make it interesting and biophilic, the better.

Likewise, the more the end user is considered, the better – moving from design being done to the user, through being done for them, ultimately to being done with them.

And this is where the principle of intent comes in.

If an organization is willing to invest large sums to enrich a space with wellbeing in mind, then it may be reasonable to assume that the culture behind such a decision looks beyond physical comfort and considers issues such as empowerment, engagement, corporate citizenship behaviours, identity, and monitoring.  

And, unless organizations 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 realise their potential.

For me, the ultimate goal of biophilic design is combining the best in design – all the plants and other elements – with the intent to make life better for the users of the space.

If the intent for creating wellbeing isn’t there, then all you are doing is making spaces pretty.

That’s better than nothing, but it’s not what I think is truly biophilic – genuine, human-centred spaces created with the wellbeing of the user in mind, with our senses stimulated harmoniously and designed by someone who really gets it.

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