One of my happy places

I recently started a contract for a couple of days a week with a UK interior landscaper to help with the launch of a new line of business. Most of my work is carried out from home, at my less than perfect home office set up (OK, it’s the dining table), but last week I needed to visit their premises.

It has been a while since I was last in an interior landscaper’s premises. Despite each company’s differences in set up and size, there is something quite special about walking into the plant storage and preparation area. All the plants stored and being prepared for new installations. Everything labelled and assigned to each plant technician for their weekly routes and racks of containers and sundries ready to be assembled into displays that bring life to commercial spaces.

There is also the atmosphere. There is no doubt that a space with thousands of healthy plants has a special feeling. There is the smell of compost and freshly-watered foliage. It is quiet – even when people are working, there is a sense of calm, and there is a sea of green. I have written before about the human eye’s ability to discern hundreds of different shades of green, and in locations like this, you will certainly many of them.

I spend most of my working life at a desk: writing about workspaces, writing about interior landscaping, joining video calls and meetings (that was my work pattern for years, even before the pandemic), so this trip out was a welcome chance to refocus.

When did you last hear birdsong?

Today is the 22nd of December, 2020. Here, in tier 4 Kent, it is quiet. Schools have broken up for the Christmas holidays and, thanks to a new strain of the Covid-19 virus, we are experiencing a near lockdown. This means the roads, and the skies, are nearly empty.

Oddly, it is also 14 degrees Celsius, the rain has stopped (for a while at any rate), and it is warm enough to sit in the garden with a cup of coffee and contemplate life. As I sat, looking at the garden (and thinking about the jobs that need to be done there, as well as those indoor chores, and for work), I tuned into the sounds. A robin was singing, pigeons and doves were making there less tuneful noises, and sparrows were chirping.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Around here, we also have small flocks of parakeets, which add an exotic touch to the area. Whilst they don’t have a pretty song, they do look stunning as they flash by.

That fifteen minute break cleared the mind in a way that a fifteen minute break on the sofa, or at the desk, couldn’t do. It allowed my eyes to focus on distant object (trying to find the tuneful robin in a holly tree), my sense of smell was treated to fresh coffee (which somehow smells better outside) mingled with the evergreen mossy smells of a damp garden and my ears tuned in to that bird. The sensory stimulation was congruent – there were no clashes.

A recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology (Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review) investigated the research that has been carried out into how much time in nature is needed to positively impact the mental health of college-aged students.

It turns out that it isn’t very much. The authors sifted through over a thousand papers and carried out a detailed review of 14. The key finding of the review was:

These studies show that, when contrasted with equal durations spent in urbanized settings, as little as 10 min of sitting or walking in a diverse array of natural settings significantly and positively impacted defined psychological and physiological markers of mental well-being for college-aged individuals.

Making yourself aware

One of the questions in the WorkFree assessment tool asks “When did you last hear birdsong?” It is not a trick question, it is there to make you think consciously about the last time you were aware of the sounds of nature. It is there to remind you to take as break from your desk once in a while and go outside and just be in the moment. Tune in to your surroundings and let your senses be stimulated from every direction.

This is even more important in the winter. It is too tempting to just stay indoors. For home workers, it could mean that you don’t even get a daily walk from your front door to the car or station (which office-based workers have to do, regardless of the weather), and that means your world shrinks to a few square metres.

Being in nature does not necessarily mean being in the countryside

The study mentioned above refers to how much time in nature is needed to benefit mental health. The studies excluded long excursions into deep wilderness (which is just as well, given the scarcity of real wilderness in Southeast England) and concentrated on easily accessible nature. That means public parks and gardens as well as walks in the countryside, and almost everyone in the UK is within a few minutes walk of a public open green space, whether it is a pocket park, canal towpath or some woodland.

The benefits of being in nature, for even a brief period, are now well understood.

“The future belongs to the nature-smart – those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need”
Richard Louv

Richard Louv, in his book The Nature Principle, explains it really well. The whole book is very readable and I highly recommend it, but the chapters in the section called “Creating Everyday Eden” are especially relevant to the world of work, especially chapter 15, Nature Neurons go to Work. The book was written just as the benefits of biophilic workplace design were becoming understood – references to office design and indoor greenery abound, but the message is just as relevant now in times of home-based and hybrid working.

Making life easier for interior landscapers in 2021 with sensors and data

Pre-production samples of Nurtio Technologies sensors have arrived for testing. Three different soil probe lengths and a sensor for hydro plants – all fit into a common power unit that connects to a gateway, and which also houses the light and air temperature sensors.

Everything fits together really well and is a breeze to install – here into a 12 yr old semi-hydro Schefflera arboricola. Data being fed back to Nurtio and will be displayed on a dashboard and app.

This is a really well designed system and will bring great benefits to interior landscapers for service planning, training, assurance and customer care. These are ideal for high value displays, such as expensive indoor trees or green walls when you need to know quickly when the environment changes. The system is also have great value for standard container plants too – it will learn about the needs of the plants and help plan service schedules.

If you are an interior landscaper and would like to know more about this system, please get in touch – this could make your service operations in 2021 much more efficient, especially if your plants are more spread out than before in the new world of dispersed workplaces.

More information at www.nurtio.com

The biophilic home office

Image by Simply-C-Photography for Fusion Spaces

Biophilic design need not be confined to office buildings and other commercial spaces. The benefits of biophilic design can be obtained in the home office too, and without having to spend a fortune. My recent post for Fusion Spaces explores the benefits of biophilic design and gives some very simple and cost-effective tips to help you thrive in your home working setting – it’s not just about plants (although, of course, they are very important), it is about all of your senses.

Why biophilic design is NOT about bringing nature indoors

It might be a tempting shorthand, but too many interior designers and interior landscapers talk about biophilic design in terms of bringing nature indoors. This is simply not true. The last thing you should be doing is to bring nature indoors – at the moment it is wet, windy, cold, muddy and the trees are shedding leaves by the ton. I don’t want foxes and crows gallivanting on my desk or slugs climbing my walls. If I want to be surrounded by nature – which I often do – I go for a walk in the fields or woods nearby.

Biophilic design is about improving wellbeing by using some of the cues of nature. As animals, we are as prone to being stressed in unnatural environments as any other species, which is why enclosures in zoos are designed to be as close to the animal’s natural surroundings as possible (and safe).

As a species, we have spent less than a 1% of our history as a domesticated animal (Professor Alice Roberts’ book, ‘Tamed, explains rather brilliantly why humans are the ultimate domesticated species – we domesticated ourselves). With that in mind, we need to create our enclosures to be as stimulating and stress free as possible.

We can do that by recreating natural stimuli in buildings – physical and mental – and that does include bringing some natural, or naturalistic elements into our buildings, but it doesn’t mean bringing nature indoors, because that is a bit messy.

For any advice on biophilic design, or if you are working on a project where biophilic design is an important element (and perhaps you are thinking only of plants), please get in touch.

Indoor air quality management for home-based office workers

As we move deeper into autumn and, with the knowledge that for very many people, working from home will be commonplace for the foreseeable future, the issue of air quality becomes more important.

‘Good’ indoor air quality is very hard to define, and very subjective. There are some pollutants that must be considered as potentially damaging to health, such as fine particulates (PM10, PM2.5), various oxides of Nitrogen (often written as NOx), a cocktail of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ozone. These are often generated outside of the home, especially as combustion products or from vehicle emissions, although some are also produced by domestic activities, such as cooking and cleaning.

Local air quality is affected by a whole host of factors, such as proximity to roads or industry, and also the weather. In the autumn and winter we experience storing winds, which are good for dispersing and diluting pollution, but also very still days when pollutants can be trapped in the lower atmosphere where they build up to risky levels. This air also finds its way inside our homes – more so than in offices, which are often quite air tight and fitted with sophisticated air management systems (usually referred to as HVAC systems: heating, ventilation and air conditioning)

Something else to consider is the amount of pollution created in the home, especially in the kitchen. Cooking produces a whole host of volatile organic compounds. Particulates and combustion products are also produced – especially if you are prone to burning food.

Now, of course, we have an additional factor to consider. Airborne infections spread on aerosols (the fine droplets created when coughing or sneezing), whether as a result of Covid-19, or the common cold, will have to be factored into the way that homes are heated and ventilated.

Health advice recommends high levels of ventilation to reduce the risk from aerosol infections, but in a house, that means opening doors and windows (rather than adjusting a complex HVAC system), and that might mean letting expensively heated air out and polluted cold air in.

On the other hand, it also means letting cooking fumes and carbon dioxide out, so it might be possible to maintain a healthy balance. But how would you know?

Air quality data

There is an old saw that says that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. With air quality, that is especially true. Pollution is pretty-much undetectable by the senses (you might smell fumes, but you couldn’t possibly estimate the concentration), so the only way to know for sure is to have access to data.

Local outdoor air quality data can be found on various web sites, and these are pretty accurate within a few miles (but generally not down to street level). A good example is https://www.iqair.com

This screenshot shows the air quality around my location (marked by a red dot), with my closest monitoring station shown in the box. However, local knowledge tells me that the air quality in Belvedere – an urban area – is likely to be a little different from my semi-rural location (although on the occasion of this reading, the whole area looks to have very similar air, and pretty good, air quality.)

Indoor air quality is a different matter, however, and the only way to know what is in the air inside your house is to measure it.

There are very many indoor air quality (IAQ) monitors on the market for domestic use. Some resemble toys and others look a bit like medical devices. Others are a little more subtle.

With IAQ monitors, the quality of the data depends very much on the quality of the sensors, and that can vary. There is some truth that you get what you pay for and if you can afford it, spending a little more will get you a better monitor.

Some IAQ monitors connect via WiFi and will send data to an app on your phone, and some can even be connected to smart home devices, so if a certain threshold is breached, it can switch on a fan, or an air purifier or dehumidifier, for example.

This is an example of a domestic IAQ monitor (the Awair Element) that displays IAQ data on the front of the monitor and on an app.

What should be measured

As a minimum, a domestic IAQ monitor should be able to measure total VOCs, fine particulates, temperature and humidity. Carbon dioxide measurement is also useful. The monitors should also be able to display an overall air quality score as well as the individual parameters, and that can help the user to decide what to do (e.g. open or close a window).

VOCs and fine particulates (PM2.5) can be quite dangerous. Carbon dioxide less so, unless at extreme concentrations. However, carbon dioxide is worth keeping an eye on, as at concentrations well below harmful levels, it can make you feel drowsy, have an effect on the ability to concentrate and can impair cognitive functions. The source of carbon dioxide is mainly people, and it doesn’t take long for levels to increase in a well sealed building with a few people in it.

Using data to help you make decisions

There may be times when you see the various IAQ parameters on your monitor telling you different things about the overall IAQ. For example, you may notice that particulates and VOCs are quite low, but carbon dioxide is increasing. Opening a window will certainly reduce the concentrations of carbon dioxide, but may result in the other pollutants increasing as outside air is let in. However, unless outdoor air quality is really bad, it is unlikely that in the short time a window is opened to flush out the carbon dioxide that concentrations of the other pollutants will rise to concerning levels.

Knowing about IAQ will help you make informed decisions about how to manage your indoor environment, such as heating, ventilation, use of plants or avoidance of certain chemicals or activities – will you work in the kitchen while someone else is frying bacon or burning toast, for example?
Without the data, you wouldn’t know.

IAQ monitoring as part of the home-workers office kit

If you are used to working in an office, there is a good chance that IAQ is already monitored – it will be used to help manage HVAC systems. If your office has a wellbeing certification, such as WELL or RESET, you should find that IAQ data is shared with all the users of the building.

Knowing about IAQ in an office can be empowering and be useful to help building managers understand local issues (i.e. your immediate surroundings), as well as what is going on in the whole building.

As a home worker, this information is also very useful, as it will help you manage your working environment and keep it as healthy as possible.

Working with my colleagues at Fusion Spaces, we are developing the WorkFreeTM home workspace assessment method to look further into managing home office space to be as healthy, safe, comfortable and empowering as it can be.

For further information about WorkFree ™, please contact us by email or take a look at the web site.

From equinox to equinox: thoughts about the changing seasons

As a child, growing up in the 1970s in a village in the Lincolnshire fens, I was always very aware of the changes in the seasons – not just as the landscape went from black to green to gold and back again, but also because our village community, in common with thousands of others, maintained seasonal rituals that were rooted in farming practices, especially those in summer and autumn.

There was ploughing (with lapwings and gulls following the plough), and ploughing matches – yes, farmers competed (and still do) against each other to see who can plough the straightest furrow and they have special competition ploughs to do it.

The sugar beet harvest marked winter, with the rivers of mud on the roads and the stench of the local sugar factories (even from ten miles away, if the wind was bad, you could smell them).

Spring brought emerging crops and, a few miles to the East, the bulb fields and the annual Tulip festival in Spalding. At that time, coach tours from all over the country would visit the Lincolnshire bulb fields, which rivalled those in the Netherlands.

Midsummer was the time of village fetes, always held in a farm yard. Late summer brought the cereal harvest (followed, in those days, by stubble fires) and then, in the autumn came my favourite – the harvest festival.

Even as someone who has never been remotely religious, there was always something special about seeing the mountains of fresh produce and specially-baked loaves (made to look like wheat sheaves) adorning the village church. Harvest festivals with their optimistic hymns and harvest suppers were a very obvious reminder that the food we ate came, almost miraculously, from the land around us, grown with real expertise.

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

I studied Agricultural Botany at university, and worked in agricultural research for several years – that certainly kept me in touch with natural cycles. Then, I changed track and entered the world of workplace design and interior landscaping. After a quarter of a century embedded in offices, the seasons were almost obliterated from day-to-day thought (apart from the odd day of snow disruption).

In fact, as an interior landscaper, putting plants into buildings makes one acutely aware that the insides of buildings don’t have seasons – it is the lack of seasonal variation that determines the types of plants that can thrive indoors – those that are adapted to near constant light and heat (and that will be the subject of another post).

However, things have changed.

This year, with all the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been working from home. I don’t think that I was alone in spending more time noticing and appreciating the world around. Many of us were treated to an especially long spell of good weather, starting almost as soon as lockdown began – it was if it was a small compensation for the chaos going on around.

Regular walks around the fields near where I live have been a bit of a revelation. From equinox to equinox I’ve noticed the growth and ripening of crops, the blossoming of wild flowers, more butterflies than I can remember seeing in years and the changes in birdsong as the summer progressed. As we enter autumn, the hedgerows are heavy with berries and the fields have already been seeded with next year’s crops.

The pulse of nature is not only noticeable from the countryside. In the UK, we are very lucky that our urban areas are generally well provided with public parks and gardens, and these provide very necessary spaces for people to gain the benefits of fresh air and sunshine, as well as to appreciate nature. Indeed, many of our parks are richer in wildlife than the countryside.

Public park. Photograph by George Freeman

The forced pauses in our routines give us time to reflect and gather our thoughts. Noticing the changes in seasons – the result of the inevitable progress of the Earth orbiting around the sun as it has done for over four billion years – has provided me with a very necessary reconnection with nature and the passage of time.

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.

Where we work now

Here in the UK, it is the last day of National Plants at Work Week, organized by the interior landscaping trade association, Plants at Work. Usually, this is a celebration of the benefits of greenery in the office.

This year, however, our workplaces are very different, and may continue to be for a while yet, and Plants at Work have been discussing the ways by which we can all use plants wherever we work – the home office, kitchen table, spare room or even in the garden.

Where we work is not just a room, with a desk and computer. For many, the place where we really work often isn’t physical at all, but inside our heads. The office and the laptop are just tools to communicate the outputs of work. For many, work can’t be measured by keystrokes or attentiveness to a camera or attendance at virtual meetings. At best, that is just a measure of activity.

Certainly, for some jobs, activity measures are the only practical proxy of work outputs, but those for whom the office is primarily the place to transfer ideas to a document or communicate them to a colleague, then the place where those ideas are formed is the real workplace. That means being in environments that forge creativity.

That could be a warm bath, or a walk in the woods. It could be the laptop on the dining table, but it may also be somewhere else entirely. Inspiration can happen anywhere and at any time – not just between 9 and 5 in an office block.

As good a place to be creative as anywhere. Photo by Tanner Vote on Pexels.com

For many years, those that have worked from home as a matter of course were often viewed with suspicion by employers and colleagues alike. Were they really working, or were they slacking off? (Were those employers incapable of actually measuring outputs?)

Some employers did insist on monitoring remote staff using technology, but now that even those managers are forced to working at home, maybe there is a little more understanding that people can be trusted to do good work without the need for a desk in the corporate office.

Evolution

It may be that as we contemplate the future of work, there will be a more rapid evolution of the home working environment. Already, employers, faced with a future when more and more people will be working away from the corporate office for extended periods, are examining their responsibilities for creating safe and healthy working environments.

This certainly includes getting technology right, and ergonomics. Good chairs and lighting are going to be vital, along with legal obligations such as complying with display screen regulations.

As well as the bare minimum, enlightened employers might be considering providing some of the things that make office life more bearable – perhaps some professionally prepared plant displays (e.g. this service from a London firm, Indoor Garden Design through their new venture https://www.intrayplants.com/ ).

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Some are even offering the delivery of home office buildings, although that raises many questions.

I wonder about how insecure a company must feel that it needs to remind its employees who they work for with a branded pod placed, presumably rent-free, in the back garden with the desk facing away from the window – recreating the environment of the office battery cage. If company culture has to be reinforced by having a massive logo, rather than by decent management, then I would be very worried. And what might be the consequence of hanging a poster over the logo?

The pod itself looks really well designed – good acoustics, modern lighting and all pre-cabled, but is this where you will be expected to be creative and imaginative? Maybe a few pot plants would help.

The nature of work is changing, and it is changing in ways not even imagined at the beginning of the year. Many office workers have had nightmares of trying to juggle space, homes schooling and caring along with work, but many have also experienced the benefits of being able to manage their work with more freedom, and have found themselves more productive, more creative and more engaged.

By being forced to loosen the leash on staff, employers should be seeing the benefits of empowerment and trust. The benefits to employers and employees of being liberated from the constraints of the workplace battery farm need to be preserved.