Biophilic design in the new workplace

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Dr Vanessa Champion, editor of the Journal of Biophilic Design last week. We discussed biophilic design in the new workplace and also biophilic design in the home working environment (which is, for many, going to be the workplace for a significant portion of the working week).

Personalisation of space is a key message in this podcast. There are tips on how Biophilic Design supports and benefits the whole person and how it enhances a whole sensory environment. Some designers might separate off those elements from Biophilic Design, but they are all an integral part, including views, improved acoustics, lighting, ergonomics and when used together provides us with an holistic solution. It’s all about comfort.

As a horticulturalist, I also discuss the benefits of plants, and we also talk about new styles of workplace and ways of working. People are talking about new hybrid ways of working, where some are working from home, some are in the office, and some half and half. Creating collaborative spaces, being able to break up big expanses of open plan offices with planting is an excellent idea. It also will give the feeling of comfort, improved acoustics, privacy.

Biophilic design and animal products

Recently, someone asked me whether I thought leather had a place in biophilic designs. It’s an interesting question, which I answered with a few off the cuff ideas, with the promise to think about it in more detail.

My initial response to the question is “it depends”. As someone that eats animals, and has no religious belief, I have no ethical problem with using animal skins and animal fibres, as long as it is not gratuitous or involves endangered wild species. I wear leather shoes, and have, in the past had leather sofas and leather upholstery in a car.

Everyone’s ethics have their boundaries, though, and there may be no logical reason for those limits. For example, I’m not a fan of fur farming (but what is the real moral difference between eating and wearing an animal?), and I am certainly very interested in seeing how lab-grown meat develops.

As mentioned above, I have no religious beliefs, but many do. The ethics of the religious are guided by the teachings of their religion, and there may be taboos about which animals may, or may not, be exploited for food, fibre or hides.

It could be argued that leather is a good use of a waste product. If we, as a society, are content with farming animals, then surely it is right that we use as much of that animal as possible. That might make leather a useful (and arguably a more sustainable) product, but not necessarily biophilic.

Moving back to the main question: does leather have a place in biophilic designs, assuming no ethical objection? From my own, possibly narrow, perspective, I’m not sure that leather is, per se, a biophilic material, even if it is a natural(ish) product. It is highly processed – rarely resembling an animal skin by the time it is tanned, coloured, stretched and made into a product.

For me, biophilic design is first and foremost about comfort – physical and psychological. We are most comfortable when we are in environments that stimulate our senses in a way that reflects our evolutionary history as plains-dwelling animals, using well-adapted and highly evolved senses to find food, fuel, water and shelter. This is something I have covered in previous posts, so won’t go into great depth here.

This might be a biophilic space, but does the sofa have to be leather to make it so?
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

In artificial environments, like cities, we can recreate concordant sensory stimuli through design, and that might (and often does) mean the use of artificial materials. In fact, in urban environments, it is only possible to create biophilic environments by using a wide range of synthetic materials and manufactured products.

Floor coverings are an excellent example of where synthetic products can be used in a biophilic design (good examples from Interface, who are pioneers in biophilic design and sustainability), and wall coverings too. Consider also lighting and acoustics. Modern biodynamic lighting and AI-generated soundscapes that recreate natural stimuli are only possible with advanced technology.

One final point. Good designers make sure that they are aware of the users of the environments they design. In commercial spaces, it is likely that vegans, or followers of some religions, will find the use of some animal skins or animal fibres offensive or taboo. In that case, why risk unnecessary hurt when there are alternative materials available.

So, in conclusion – I think that it is possible to create fantastic biophilic spaces without using leather or other animal products. On the other hand, if a designer (and all the users of the space that designer is creating) have no ethical issues with using animal products in design, then they can be used as part of a biophilic design.

Post pandemic plantscaping. Part 2

What’s next for the interior landscaper?

The interior landscaping industry is having to adapt very quickly to changing market conditions, and it has been fascinating to watch how that is happening.

After the initial shocks of Lockdown 1, followed by the gradual reopening of offices and hospitality over the summer, many in the industry looked to adapting conventional ways of doing business to adapt to the physical changes in the workplace. A lot of effort was put into using vegetation to enable or encourage physical distancing – screens, barrier planters, plants used to enforce pedestrian traffic flow around a building, etc. These all had some short-term impact and kept many interior landscapers busy (and in business).

Clean Team Florence sanitizer planter from Livingreen Design

Others looked to diversify their offering. Innovative planter manufacturer, Livingreen Design, developed a range of planters that incorporate a hand sanitizer dispenser, which, along with other hygiene and disinfection services has allowed some plant companies to offer additional valuable services to their clients – although keeping plants extra clean is also a challenge.

It’s going to be relatively easy to wipe down desks and screens once or twice a day with a disinfectant wipe, but we don’t know how well, or for how long, viruses can survive on the surfaces of leaves, flowers or moss. We also don’t know the effects of using surface disinfectants or fogging on plants: many plants are not going to thrive with a daily dose of Dettol spray. With those considerations, it may be that companies decide that plants in offices are going to be too much trouble.

Great for desks and hard surfaces, but what about plants?

Lockdowns 2, 3 and beyond: What can plantscapers do?

Hoping that everything is going to return to the way they were, and planning on carrying on as before, is probably not going to work. The landscape of the workplace (as well as hospitality and retail) is going to be very different – for months, if not years to come. How can the interior landscaping industry adapt?

Doing nothing and hoping for a return to the pre-Covid ways of doing things is likely to lead to bankruptcy. Even with the promise of a vaccine being realised, too many businesses have noticed the benefits of home working and other hybrid set ups. Office costs will be lower, and office buildings will be reimagined. Employees will see many benefits from more home working (time and money saved on commuting, being one advantage) and the towns and suburbs might be revitalized as city centre business districts get quieter.

That means conventional interior landscaping will be less appropriate than it was before. Offices that do remain are likely to resemble co-working spaces and have more in common with hospitality venues than conventional open-plan offices.

Indeed, the trend to such design styles was made evident recently when Plants At Work, the UK trade association for the interior landscaping industry, held its annual awards ceremony. Case studies of some award winners, e.g. SLG Cheltenham, Farfetch or Uncommon, Liverpool Street really show how such a design style is becoming more common.

These new ways of designing interior landscapes may present some challenges. Individual spaces in buildings may be used irregularly, which may mean inconsistent lighting and heating, which may affect the choice of plants used, or their maintenance schedules.

Other interior landscapers are looking towards putting their expertise in designing plant displays, using high quality plants and planters, to use to supply the growing number of houseplant enthusiasts as well as homeworkers missing their office greenery (good examples are In-tray Plants from Indoor Garden Design, or Foli8 from Planteria).

Technology and flexibility

Adapting to customers moving away from their traditional locations in city centres brings a number of logistical challenges. With customer density changing, service operations have to become more efficient. This is where technology offers some interesting opportunities.

Nurtio Technologies has developed an innovative system that combines a sensor (that measures soil moisture, temperature, light and nutrient levels) and a clever artificial intelligence algorithm that can help plan service schedules and alert the interior landscaper if there are sudden changes to the environment.

By learning the behaviours of individual plants (and groups of plants at the same location), the algorithm can predict when, and how much, water should be added and enable some flexibility in service schedules. One interesting opportunity that might arise, especially if access to buildings is tricky, or if plant displays are more dispersed as a result of a move to remote working, is that the business of watering plants can be delegated, leaving more time, or capacity, for skilled horticultural technicians to do the more complex parts of the job: pruning, grooming, pest/disease management and carrying out changes and re-designs.

UK interior landscapers needing more information about the benefits of the Nurtio system should get in touch with me.

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.