Design Seminar: Biophilic design in the Public Sector

Experts in education and hospitality sit alongside architects and designers to discuss the benefits that biophilic design can bring to public-sector interior environments

By Toby Maxwell
All Photography: Warren King

Taking part were

Theresa Dowling, (chair), editorial director, FX magazine; John Avery, Director, LOM Architecture & Design; Simon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, Interface; Oliver Heath, Director and Journalist, Heath Design; Juliet Hook, Associate, KSS; Tom Hupe, Director of Hospitality, Perkins & Will; Tina Norden, Director, Conran.

Nature has played an increasing role throughout architecture and interior design in the past few years. Natural materials – rough textures and visual imperfections included – have figured prominently on spec lists in both the commercial and residential environment for a while, but is there more that designers could be doing to exploit all that nature has to offer?

Advocates of biophilic design see a very different design future, and it's one that embraces and harnesses some of the natural world’s most important assets, and these often go beyond simple aesthetics – less about ‘look’ and more about ‘feeling’ for those using a space. Biophilia is defined as a ‘love of life or living systems’ or an urge (conscious or otherwise) to affiliate and integrate with nature. The exploration of how biophilic design can be included within architecture and design projects is about achieving aims that are far more complex than the ‘save the planet’ theme associated with sustainability. FX invited a group of experts to discuss the potential of this relatively new stream of thought and how it might be able to help designers come up with interior environments that are simply better places for humans to be in.

Chairing the discussion, FX Editor Theresa Dowling suggested that while there is lots of talk of biophilic design in the office environment, it is perhaps less widely thought of in other spaces such as schools and hotels.

Oliver Heath, director and journalist, Heath DesignOliver Heath, Director and Journalist, Heath Design

Tina Norden, director at Conran, said: ‘While we don’t do much school design, we are heavily involved in the hospitality sector.

Very often for those projects it’s literally about aesthetics – not just from the clients’ perspective, but how designers think too. So, it can be tricky when biophilic design is seen in terms of placing some plants in the space and that’s that. To me, the discussion about making a location work for people and using nature to enable that is a completely different one to pure aesthetics.

‘A lot of projects now are BREEAM-rated, which is a step in the right direction, but the frustration that comes with that sometimes is that it’s a box-ticking exercise and people would perhaps be engaging with it more if it wasn’t that way.’

Juliet Hook, associate, KSSJuliet Hook, Associate, KSS

Do clients ever specifically ask for biophillic design as an element of a project? ‘In my experience, no!’ said Norden, ‘But that could be because clients who are minded towards biophilia might go to a specialist in that field and would consider it a niche area. But they do often want spaces that are good for human beings and good for the environment, and you don’t have to be a specialist in biophilia to be able to work towards that aim.’

Tom Hupe, director of hospitality at Perkins & Will, said: ‘It’s very much about which angle people are coming from. Like Tina, I’m coming at this from the hospitality sector, but I guess in education you can link biophilia to performance metrics to understand the benefits and I’m sure there has been research along those lines. In hotels, the research is only really just beginning and it’s a lot more subjective – areas such as how you can improve guest experience, encourage people to stay longer or return in the future.

Simon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, InterfaceSimon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, Interface

If you can really obtain the parametrics then the client might be more likely to be pushing for it in the future. Otherwise, it’s really just down to the designers to inform the clients.’

Integrated thinking

One business that has integrated some biophilic principles into its customer offering is the Scarlet Hotel, near Newquay, Cornwall. The high-end hotel has no gym. Instead, it encourages guests to interact with the surrounding environment by taking the hotel dog for a walk and exploring the Cornish coastline, before returning to the hotel’s natural hot tub and natural outdoor swimming pool. A stay there is intended to be very much about the sensory experience as much as the aesthetics.

Tom Hupe, director of hospitality, Perkins & WillTom Hupe, Director of Hospitality, Perkins & Will

Oliver Heath, an author on the topic of biophilic design and director of Heath Design, said: ‘Lots of the thinking behind the hotel are ideas and techniques that designers and architects already know about. They are ways of increasing the quality of the space, such as maximising natural light, or including plants – and views of plants or nature – into the design.

‘However, the emerging element is the term “biophilic design” and the research behind it, which in itself brings real benefits to the architects who incorporate it into their services. It also brings major benefits to building owners and to owner-occupiers.’ Heath adds: ‘We do have BREEAM, which is important in helping to deliver sustainable buildings, but it is a carbon-centric approach that measures the use of our basic resources such as gas, water and electricity. Ultimately, the most efficient building is probably a solid box with no windows, covered with PV panels.

Theresa Dowling, Editorial director, FXTheresa Dowling, Editorial Director, FX

‘Of course, that’s an extreme example, but if we were to take that approach, we would have a truly sustainable building – but who would really want to live there? If we’re talking about a building typology that requires people to have a beneficial experience from architecture, then connecting to nature is really a universal way of keying into things that people like, whereas trends can be very polarising. Levels of decoration can vary according to taste, but nature appeals to lots of people.’

Norden added: ‘I guess the tricky thing is that while it’s relatively easy to do this in a beautiful location in Cornwall with views of cliffs and the sea, if your project is on a landlocked site in a city then it becomes much more difficult. How do you do that besides just sticking pot plants everywhere? Is it about natural materials perhaps?’

Tina Norden, director, ConranTina Norden, Director, Conran

Hupe agreed: ‘That’s the bit that really interests me – how do you bring biophilia into urban hotels? That’s the big challenge, but it also has the biggest potential benefit because it is an environment in which the stress levels could be higher and wellness becomes really important. The hotel industry is probably quite behind in this at the moment. Until the benefits are fully understood – rather than biophilic design being seen purely as an optional add on – then it will struggle to gain traction.’

Juliet Hook, associate, KSSJuliet Hook, Associate, KSS

Heath pointed out: ‘That’s where we as designers have an opportunity though. There is a vast body of biophilic design research out there which has been undertaken during the past 30 years and which has not yet been interpreted in terms of the impact it can have on the built environment.’

Simon Hamilton, customer service manager at Interface, said: ‘Funnily enough, I was looking to book a hotel yesterday for a business trip and I noticed on the website that it had an ‘eco option’ and I wondered what that really meant. Turns out, it was just to opt-out of some of the hotel services, so you would have the towels changed less regularly for example.’

Tom Hupe, Director of Hospitality, Perkins & WillTom Hupe, Director of Hospitality, Perkins & Will

Hupe said: ‘In that context, it suggests that a sustainable hotel means a reduced level of service. I think it underlines the difference between this eco/sustainable idea and biophilia. The former is more about simply saving resources, whereas the latter also incorporates the wellness side of things. I read somewhere of biophilia being described as a “secret source of sustainability”.’

‘The human-centred aspect is the main difference,’ said Heath, ‘but it’s quite difficult to say that biophilic design is an “eco thing”. It’s probably more accurate to say that it focuses on our health and wellbeing. The connection to sustainability comes when you understand that our own health and wellbeing is intrinsically liked with that of the environment around us.

Juliet Hook, associate, KSSJuliet Hook, Associate, KSS

Norden says that conversations with clients – including both big brands as well as individual operators – often centres on how to enhance the customer experience: ‘That ultimately comes down to wellbeing and how people enjoy themselves while they are staying there. There seems to be much more willingness to spend on facilities outside the room, so there is an emergence of high-end hotels with relatively small rooms, but with really big public areas that are made really inviting and attractive as places to hang out.

Oliver Heath, director and journalist, Heath DesignOliver Heath, Director and Journalist, Heath Design

While this is not so much to do with nature, it is about social interaction and engaging with other people rather than sitting in a hotel room by yourself.’

The illusion of nature

The panel discussed the issue of maintenance and how even the most beautiful of office environments bedecked with a host of plants will only retain the desired effect if the plants are watered and looked after – dead plants are, after all, worse than no plants at all.

Oliver Heath recalled an example of a project in which, because of a timescale too limited to grow a wall of plants, a designer specified an artificial green wall instead. Does that miss the whole point of bringing nature into a scheme though? ‘Where budgets don’t allow for anything else, maybe it is one way around it, to introduce artificial elements of nature where possible, adding a few lighter touches that are easier to maintain or are otherwise more cost effective,’ he said.

Simon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, InterfaceSimon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, Interface

Juliet Hook, associate at KSS, said: ‘That would certainly be one way of introducing biophilic design into schools. A huge problem within state schools in particular is the lack of funding. The education planning authority has to pare everything back to the absolute minimum, so even if there is scope to introduce some of these design ideas, there is unlikely to be the budget for ongoing maintenance. So, this approach is a potential way of bringing it into schools.’

Heath added: ‘The cost issue is always at the forefront. But do we first and foremost need to be looking at the issue of delivering buildings that are fit for purpose? Is the school simply a box, or is there a benefit to the national economy such that children have a more positive experience of education from primary level right through secondary and university levels to make it the most inspirational of spaces?’

Tina Norden, Director, ConranTina Norden, Director, Conran

‘Without a doubt,’ said Hook. ‘Unfortunately, schools have suffered massively from [lack of] funding. The previous programme of funding had huge aspirations and did start to make progress into creating the kinds of spaces that we’re talking about, but now it’s gone completely the other way. Admittedly, to an extent it needed to, but now it is too pared back and we’re talking about a very formulaic set of spaces in schools now. It means you are so limited in what you can do and how you can enhance or embellish a space.’

Hook points out that even on a more limited budget, rural schools can still make the most of their surroundings, ensuring that ventilation and natural daylight are maximised to bring the internal spaces as close as possible to the outside, but that in urban school projects, the task is a much bigger challenge.

John Avery, Director, LOM Architecture & DesignJohn Avery, Director, LOM Architecture & Design

‘Of course it’s not only about nature,’ she added. ‘There is also lots that can be done with aspects such as colour, which hospitals have been doing really well with for a number of years, integrating the building with people’s natural connection with colour. Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool is a fantastic example of what can be achieved. With schools we try and do the same kind of thing, but more often than not you’re dealing with existing furniture, for example, so you can do the base build, introduce subtle colours and the rest. But if all they’ve got is bright blue chairs, then the effect is limited.’

John Avery, director at LOM Architecture, which hosted the design seminar at its offices in Shoreditch, East London, said: ‘One of the real positives is that every school has to have some outdoor space. That’s quite unique compared with a lot of other building types. Habitat space is one of the types of outdoor area that is recognised, and in rural areas that can make for some interesting projects.

Tom Hupe, director of hospitality, Perkins & WillTom Hupe, Director of Hospitality, Perkins & Will

‘A lot of the work we do on schools is in outer London so the space tends to be quite confined, and the problem there is that even when you have a decent amount of outdoor space – a hard play area, a multi-use space, a car park – the amount of genuinely natural space gets whittled away. Being more creative about how schools use outdoor play areas could be one way of addressing it.’

Hook said: ‘One encouraging development is the emergence of forest schools in the primary-school sector. Often it is schools in more-deprived areas that are benefitting the most from being able to offer one day a week for pupils to be outside, building fires and learning in different ways outside of the classroom.'

Making the case for biophilia

So, in the context of restricted budgets and ever-tightening controls on public spending, can a convincing argument be made for greater investment in these aspects of school design? Research suggests that biophilic design has been found to improve productivity in offices, but what about schools? Do some of the same principles apply?

Simon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, InterfaceSimon Hamilton, Customer Service Manager, Interface

Avery said: ‘A claim was made in New York that improving daylight in schools could save $200m a year in lost parental wages: they’ve worked out that you could potentially save three or four days a year of a child being out of school through sickness and measure the knock-on cost of that on their parents having to miss work accordingly. The problem with that is while it’s a fantastic figure to quote, it is also incredible hard to find on anyone’s balance sheet.’

Heath added: ‘We also know that children can learn 20-25 per cent faster in natural light, they take less time off and also test results and cognitive functioning have been proven to improve by between five and 14 per cent, so it’s quite a significant potential impact.'

It raised the suggestion however that perhaps it is within private investment that a change in approach can be fostered. Hupe said: ‘In hotels, there should be the opportunity to include biophilia in the project as part of the solution right from the start and exploit it throughout the interior design, not just in the pool or spa. There should be the kinds of opportunities to invest in this in the way that perhaps schools are not yet able to.’

Theresa Dowling, editorial director, FX MagazineTheresa Dowling, Editorial director, FX Magazine

Norden said that the key could be in getting the right message across: ‘I think in hospitality there’s a need to create stories that people can engage with. We try to create a story that engages the client and then ultimately the guest. There is a new project that we’re working on at the moment that is full of biophilic features. The owner doesn’t call them that or necessarily see them in that way, but instead he is purely interested in creating a hotel that offers the very best guest experience. Yes, all of the biophilic components are there in the building – from a whole floor devoted to wellness and the use of sustainably sourced materials right through to the ingredients used in the restaurant – but it’s being done as a means to delivering the best experience.'

He says he isn’t interested in telling guests not to have their towels changed every day. 'They will wash them, but it will be done in a way that is more sustainable. That way it doesn’t detract from the experience and gets away from that notion that being natural or "eco" is in some way a compromise on quality. Enhancing the quality of time spent in the hotel through all of the little detail leads to greater wellbeing.'

Heath said: ‘When you have a fresh experience, you’re totally in the moment. Time slows down.’ He points to the example of the Pasona HQ building in Tokyo, effectively an urban farm where the process of harvesting some of the food being grown there – including rice, broccoli and tomatoes – is used as a teambuilding exercise for those working there.

LEEDing by example

While there are examples of buildings that integrate some of the thinking behind biophilic design, what practical, day-to-day steps need to be taken to develop it on a wider scale? Avery said: ‘We discussed LEED earlier; I looked at how many of the available credits within LEED could be linked to biophilia, and could only find seven out of 110 credits that seemed relevant. I think that reinforces this dilemma where sustainability has become so much about system and process that it is really an engineering-driven discipline.

‘To me, the real potential benefits of biophilia are about bridging that gap – by focusing on the human experience and the commercial benefits that this better experience brings. You can encourage more sustainable practice. Is that happening enough?’

Oliver Heath, Director and Journalist, Heath DesignOliver Heath, Director and Journalist, Heath Design

Heath responded: ‘It’s relatively early times. Biophilia was popularised in the Eighties by the American scientist Edward O Wilson, so it is still relatively fresh in people’s consciousness. One of the problems or limitations is that it hasn’t been regulated in any way so is not a part of BREEAM, although it is now part of the WELL Building Standard so it is starting to find its way in.

‘The architect and design community can offer a wider range of services. I think we’ve lost control of sustainability within our remit and it’s become an engineering subject. When we start to look at the more human aspects – particularly the qualitative aspects of that – it becomes an opportunity for architects to regain a part of sustainability, where they can instil imagination and creativity within conceptual design. It brings benefits that you don’t necessarily get with the more carbon-centric approach to sustainability.’

Avery added: ‘There is potential in biophilia for turning a target-driven, engineering-based subject into a positive. ‘Being at one with nature’, to me, sounds a lot more exciting than a ground source heat pump!’

‘We’ve all had that conversation of trying to convince somebody of the merit of creating more sustainable space,’ said Heath. ‘But perhaps it’s all about how you describe it. If you put it another way, and ask them if they would like to be happier and healthier – who’s going to say no?’

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