Focus: Biophilia


After establishing itself in the office and hospitality, biophilia looks set to putting down roots in retail environments


Words by Kay Hill

Evidence has been mounting for years that biophilic design – including natural light, living plants, water features and organic material – can make office staff more productive, hospital patients get better more quickly and school children concentrate harder on their studies. But can the same principles also encourage shoppers to stay longer and spend more?

Brendan O’Grady, vice-president at international design consultancy CallisonRTKL believes that biophilia can certainly help with the bottom line. “Retail environments are an everyday part of our lives, but the look and feel of a retail space can either stimulate or agitate shoppers,” he explains. “Incorporating plants or other natural elements into these environments can create a more inviting, relaxing and positive shopping experience for customers. Adding natural vegetation to a space can certainly increase dwell time, and as retail designers, we know that there is a direct correlation between dwell time and increased sales. If you can extend your customer’s visit by 1%, you can expect a 1.3% increase in sales.”

Sweaty Betty makes customers feel right at home in an experience-led store that combines shopping, leisure and food. The plants tap into the trend of wellbeing that is important to younger shoppersSweaty Betty makes customers feel right at home in an experience-led store that combines shopping, leisure and food. The plants tap into the trend of wellbeing that is important to younger shoppers

Not only are customers tempted to linger for longer in spaces that they feel are more natural and comfortable, but evidence suggests they are also happy to pay more for the goods there. A study by Kathleen L Wolf found that on average American shoppers valued goods as worth 9.2% higher when they were being sold in more biophilic environments. “Adding plants and greenery causes an immediate change to a retail environment,” notes sustainable architecture expert Oliver Heath of Oliver Heath Design. “There are proven benefits to better spaces.

Biophilia is a new frontier in sustainable design - it’s not just carbon-centred, it’s human-centred. It’s proven that improvements in light increase revenue per square metre, and other studies suggest that when you have an increase in exposure to nature there is an increased dwell time and a higher perception of the value of the goods that are present.”

The 360 Mall in Kuwait, designed by CallisonRTKL, has water features, palm trees and a green wall with more than 100 plant species to naturally purify the air, creating the feel of an oasis in the desertThe 360 Mall in Kuwait, designed by CallisonRTKL, has water features, palm trees and a green wall with more than 100 plant species to naturally purify the air, creating the feel of an oasis in the desert

Natural plants not only give retail space a feel-good factor, they provide real and measurable physical benefits as well. The latest project from CallisonRTKL is the expansion of the 360 Mall shopping centre in Kuwait, which will feature large skylights, water features, indoor palm trees and an amazing indoor green wall with more than 100 different plant species to naturally purify the air, absorb noise, and minimize the building’s temperature fluctuations. “It goes beyond just enhancing the aesthetic experience,” explains O’Grady. “Adding live plants and trees to a space can lead to improved indoor air quality, reduce noise, and in some instances even help save energy.”

The use of plants in retail environments appeal particularly to wellbeing conscious younger shoppers. Here they are used in Sweaty BettyThe use of plants in retail environments appeal particularly to wellbeing-conscious younger shoppers. Here they are used in Sweaty Betty

Creating an improved physical environment has a direct impact on customers and staff alike according to the Terrapin Bright Green Report: The Economics of Biophilia. The report states: “Incorporating plants and greenery into a retail space can help to filter pollutants and balance moisture within the air. Ensuring good air quality can improve staff and customer’s physical wellbeing; minimising health problems including asthma and throat irritation, so reducing staff absenteeism while raising customer satisfaction levels.”

Introducing more greenery into retail is also a way of connecting with younger customers. According to Sian Novakovic, experience strategy director at brand agency Household: “Millennials are buying more plants, as part of the behavioural trend known as betterment. Brands can tap into this sense of health and wellbeing by bringing a bit of the outside into the space.’ While at retail design consultancy Sherlock Studio, director of new business Rich Ford notes that it is companies popular with younger customers, particularly Apple, that have been at the forefront of the trend, with most of Apple’s stores featuring huge indoor trees.

Itsu uses planters full of living orchids around its stores to entice customers in with the promise of Oriental freshness. Photography: Jeff RussellItsu uses planters full of living orchids around its stores to entice customers in with the promise of Oriental freshness. Photography: Jeff Russell

Another advantage of biophilic design is its universal appeal. While fashions in retail design might be completely different in the Middle East than they are in Scandinavia, humankind’s love of plants is the same across the planet.

‘There’s a universal connection to nature,’ says Heath. With everything in retail being so centred on the bottom line, retailers might be cautious in spending money on plants that need to be maintained and cared for, or they will soon shrivel and die. ‘As with any amenity provided in a shopping environment, there will be associated maintenance costs, depending on the complexity and scope of the design,’ warns O’Grady. ‘Some plant species are hardier than others and require less maintenance; some would not be suitable for an indoor environment at all. This is why it’s critical to work with an experienced landscape consultant when integrating plants into a retail environment. Most of our clients also choose to utilise a separate maintenance company to care for the vegetation.’

The White Company, with stores designed by Household, include living plants that give a feeling of natural wellness to displays. Photography: Jeff RussellThe White Company, with stores designed by Household, include living plants that give a feeling of natural wellness to displays. Photography: Jeff Russell

However, according to Freddie Blackett, founder of online plant supplier Patch: ‘Most people think that plants require more care than they really do. If you pick the right ones, from a quality retailer, the effort required to look after them is much less than our first-time customers sometimes expect – in fact, a great deal of them come to find the experience of caring for their plants a major highlight of their workday.’

Some retailers might be tempted by maintenance-free artificial plants, but here the experts are more divided. At Caulder Moore, design director Charlotte Corbett has strong feelings: ‘Consumers want something that is honest and authentic, so the plants have to be real or there’s no point in doing it.’ Freddie Blackett agrees: ‘Of course they won’t need watering, but artificial plants don’t offer the same health benefits as the real thing and rarely look authentic.

Production of an artificial plant also has a much more significant effect on depletion of natural resources and they’re often made of toxic, non-biodegradable materials.’ Oliver Heath, however, points to research that shows that even the appearance of nature can have benefits: ‘The most powerful benefits are from improving actual contact with nature, such as real plants.

Architects from Red Deer went to town with the live plants in this Bourne & Hollingsworth brasserie in Clerkenwell. Photography: Jeff Russell
Interior planting designer Rob Kerr, from Rob and the Plants, went to town with the live plants in this Bourne & Hollingsworth brasserie in Clerkenwell. Photography: Jeff Russell

But indirect reference to nature through colours and textures and patterns also has some benefit.’ Brendan O’Grady agrees: ‘We always strive for authenticity in our designs. When we use biophilia as a design strategy, living plants are not the only element to consider. With this design approach we seek to integrate a connection with nature into interior spaces so that people can advance their health and wellbeing. This can be achieved in both literal and more abstract ways including the use of natural materials, integration of patterns that are inspired by nature, and the use of preserved trees or plants.’

‘Artificial plants can be incredibly convincing, you can only tell they are not real when you touch them,’ adds Heath. ‘So you could use real plants in the areas you can touch them and have contact with them, but in other areas that you can’t touch, like hanging plants or green walls, there could still be a benefit in introducing some artificial plants, although of course they don’t have the physical benefits like detoxification or purification of the air. If people can touch them and know they are fake plants, however, then they feel cheated and the response can be negative.’ ‘Plastic planting works in terms of aesthetic impression,’ notes Sian Novakovic, ‘but you really need natural, real planting to create that atmosphere of betterment and wellness that’s at the heart of biophilia.’





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