Using nature-inspired design to improve office health and wellbeing

BRE and partners have begun a long-term project, ‘The Biophilic Office’, to grow and deepen the evidence base for the health, wellbeing and productivity impacts of creating a restorative office environment. Research Director Dr Ed Suttie explains more.  

ed suttie biophilicAs we spend 90% of our lives in buildings our health and wellbeing is influenced significantly by the built environment. Our personal health and wellbeing (physical, mental and social) impacts on our ability to communicate, work, heal and learn. The benefits of focussing on human-centred design to create more restorative environments is being researched more deeply so that our future buildings and interiors can be designed and specified to improve productivity and communication in the office (and increasingly for many of us that includes a ‘home office’), recovery rates in hospital and education outcomes in school.

In a typical office-based business 90% of the costs are associated with staff, yet in the UK up to 60% of office workers do not have sufficient access to daylight. This has negative impacts on health and wellbeing of occupants, and the same is often also true when we are working at home.

Biophilic design offers an inspiring movement under which the health and wellbeing qualities that impact on workplace environments can be captured. Harvard professor Edward O Wilson’s book ‘Biophilia’ concluded that we have a genetic connection to nature, and hold a biological need for physical, mental and social connections with nature. Living and working in more natural environments can alleviate negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression and stress, whilst helping us to feel calmer and be inspired.

Biophilic design acknowledges this genetic connection with numerous benefits to our health, wellbeing and efficiency. The scientific evidence for the positive influence of biophilic design on the health and wellbeing of building occupants is growing. In an office environment this is shown as quantified improvements in productivity, wellness and a reduction in days absent due to illness. More than 130 million days are lost to sickness absence every year in Great Britain and working-age ill health costs the national economy £100 billion a year. A 1% reduction in absenteeism would convert to a saving, in lost days alone, of £1 billion to the economy. In addition better business outcomes that come with happier and healthier staff enabled by the internal fit-out of your office adds further benefit.

Building owners and facilities managers need to know what they can do within limited budgets to create restorative and occupant health driven environments, and the predicted return on investment.

Biophilic OfficeHere evidence is lacking, which was a key motivation for the deeper evidence gathering and scientific basis of our project. Working with Oliver Heath Design, and supported by partners in lighting, flooring, furniture, green walls, paints & finishes and acoustics, we have started a research project to deepen the evidence base for biophilic design and its positive impacts on office occupants. This will help realise the exciting untapped potential in our existing buildings through refurbishment and fit-out, and also provide lessons for new buildings.

A live office refurbishment on the BRE’s Watford campus is gathering indoor environment and occupant data. We are initially creating a baseline for one year of the existing building (acoustic, light, air quality, thermal comfort, materials) and its occupants before a ‘biophilic’ refurbishment takes place. We will then monitor the office space and its occupants again post-refurbishment for another year. The long-term findings are intended to link to the biophilic elements, giving a better understanding of the influence of product and design on occupants.

Each of the project partners is using this refurbishment and its test facilities to understand their products’ role in the health and wellbeing of occupants and in wider biophilic design. Studies and surveys of the existing occupants has already commenced, as has outline design thinking. We expect to commence refurbishment early in 2019, completing 3 months later. We are planning a major international conference showcasing the building in May of next year, details will be released on our website.

For more on the project as it develops throughout 2018 and beyond go to

Dr Ed Suttie will be speaking at Safety & Health Expo 2018 and the Facilities Show on Tuesday 19 June, 13.50, in the Occupational Health & Wellbeing Theatre.


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Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

Establishing a base-line for a “given set of conditions” in which the human organism functions more optimally doesn’t come a moment too soon in terms of Work Exposure Limits to everyday stressors once classified as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) just need to add restorative, performance enhancing elements from managing work & day-lighting to optimising display screen ergonomics to complete the package thereby reducing risk of presenteeism resulting in more serious ill-health and down-time.

Removing barriers to sustainable performance and/or guarding again fatigue

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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.

May 30, 2018

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