Biophilic flooring: Biophilic materials, colours and shapes

Think of the sensations of walking barefoot on grass, or of warm sand beneath your feet as you stroll along a beach – a host of designers are now introducing biophilic elements into flooring

Words Cathy Hayward
All Images: Martine Hamilton-Knight

Flooring has always been at the vanguard of biophilic design. From wood, natural stone and marble floors to wool, sisal and coir carpets, floors have traditionally been constructed from natural materials. And the latest generation of flooring for the workplace is continuing that trend – but with a new twist.

Many designers are not just using natural materials but also colour and shape to imitate nature.

‘We use shades that match pigments from nature to create colour palettes,’ says Becky Pole, design manager at Tarkett. The recently expanded Desso Desert AirMaster collection, for example, features a nature-inspired theme with a marble-effect design, created through pairing an irregular motif with one of two core background shades.

‘Many of the materials we use in and around buildings are natural mimics and technology is helping us to deliver these in ever more sophisticated ways,’ says Oliver Heath, biophilic design ambassador at Interface. ‘One fascinating example is how Interface uses a biomimetic approach to the design and manufacture of its carpet tiles, taking inspiration from forest floors, natural rock, and moss-strewn surfaces. The randomised patterns, colours and pile heights they create all add to its evocation of nature and its wider appeal.’

The flooring at Lebara Telecoms demarcates the space and creates an outdoor feel to the collaboration zone, which is right by the terrace

Meanwhile, Helen Francis from the Prestige Flooring Co says herringbone, chevron and Versailles parquetry are traditional styles that bring dynamism and movement into wooden floors, while for Anna Dejlova, senior designer at Morgan Lovell, Bolon’s latest product Elements is amazing: ‘They translate nature into a shape and form rather than something literal. It’s much more organic.’

However, cheaper, less environmentally friendly options are also piggy-backing off the biophilia trend, and some workplace designers are choosing to use digitally printed stones, grass or sand on flooring.

‘I prefer to opt for natural materials rather than printed materials,’ says Dejlova. ‘If you want to pull in pebbles, you can get resin products that work really well. Or you can use tiles that have the sound and natural resonance of stone.’

Others agree. Sonia Pash, founder of Temza, an interior design and build company, argues that biophilic design is quite complex because it’s not just about the looks – it’s about toxic levels in the materials used, and general comfort, in terms of acoustics, light and temperature. ‘So I wouldn’t say just using a digitally printed grass vinyl flooring will bring you all those benefits that you are aiming for,’ she says.

Biophilic flooring was used as a part of an overall biophilic design project in the Portland Building at the University of Nottingham

The story behind a product – and its environmental credentials – are as important as the look and feel of it. Desso’s Econyl carpet tile, for example, is made from postconsumer yarn waste, including material from the firm’s own factories, as well as abandoned fishing nets rescued from oceans. Interface is well known for the environmental stories behind its products.

But Pash insists there is also a benefit from feeling connected to nature: ‘So in that sense, having something that reminds us of nature can be part of a biophilic design scheme if used together with the other principles. Everything needs to be done in a balanced way.’

Biophilic design at the Portland Building is characterised  through a combination of materials, fixtures and lighting to create an environment that represents the outdoors, and includes a green wall, brickand cloud-effect wallpapers, and feature lighting

A beneficial effect
The benefits of biophilic design are well researched: bringing nature into the office environment makes us feel calmer and less stressed, reduces absenteeism and poor health, and increases engagement and productivity. But what’s special about biophilic flooring as opposed to other biophilic elements in a workspace?

‘As a continuous flowing surface throughout any space, flooring is one of the obvious opportunities open to designers wishing to make the most of this human-centred approach,’ says Heath. 'A biophilic approach to flooring can create a more naturalised feeling in the space, inspiring the wider design concepts; create zoned spaces through enhanced identity; create textural contrasts that support mindful activity; and add colour texture and pattern that mimics the natural world,' he says.

'Flooring is typically the largest surface area an eye encounters, so it’s important to start biophilic design quite literally from the ground up,' adds Francis.

Herringbone vinyl runs through the corridors in the Portland Building at the University of Nottingham to define zones

Using complementary flooring styles inside and outside of a space creates an excellent sense of organic balance and harmony and it can also serve to create one holistic inside/outside space – an ideal way of bringing the outside in.

‘It’s not always practical to specify biophilic design throughout an entire space,’ says Tarkett’s Becky Pole. ‘But ensuring it is in the flooring is a subtle yet impactful way of securing its many benefits.’

Biophilic flooring is also a talking point for clients and visitors. May Fawzy, interior architecture director at MF Design Studio, recently completed a project for Lebara Telecoms where the flooring concept took its inspiration from the client’s core mission of assisting migrant communities to connect with their home countries. The space draws its inspiration from the journey of a migrating bird, where the reception is the sky zone, and the openplan team-collaboration area is the tree zone, which features moss-inspired tiles. The flooring demarcates the space and creates an outdoor feel to the collaboration zone, which is beside the terrace. The carpet was complemented by graphics on the walls to create a true tree effect.

Similarly, biophilic flooring was used as a part of an overall biophilic design project in the Portland Building at the University of Nottingham. Herringbone vinyl runs through the corridors to define zones, while biophilic design on the floors include Flotex pattern floors in breakout rooms.

‘Biophilic design is characterised through a combination of materials, fixtures and lighting to create an environment that represents the outdoors, including a green wall, brick- and cloud-effect wallpapers, and feature lighting,’ says Cristina Riley, senior interior designer, at CPMG Architects, the company behind the university project.

Flooring is an ideal tool for wayfinding, to improve circulation routes or to define the identity and activity of a space through placemaking and zoning, says Heath: ‘It can lead us from quiet workspace, towards activity zones – which may be a more live, acoustic environment – towards meeting places or cafe spaces. [Each one] might have differing flooring according to its function and desired emotional and physical response.’

Biophilic design on the floors include Flotex patterns in breakout rooms

Future perfect
Biophilic design has now gone beyond aesthetics – it’s about creating a genuine connection between people and nature, while helping to protect it, says Pole, who adds: ‘In the future, I think we’ll continue to see the introduction of more naturally produced products into the workplace.’

Anna Dejlova at Morgan Lovell agrees: ‘We’re going to see fewer copies and prints of nature [and] something actually natural. It’s not about trying to pretend; it’s something else.’ But Sonia Pash is less optimistic. She says that although biophilic design is scientifically proven to have many benefits, it is still just a design trend that will gain in popularity before falling away again – although, she adds, some of its principles will remain.

‘What I’m hoping will stay is the human aspect of the principles, as in using flooring materials that are sustainable and don’t release any VOCs (volatile organic compounds) over time and have suitable acoustic qualities that will support the use of the space,’ she explains. ‘I think there is a lot of space for innovation when it comes to flooring materials, so let’s hope we will see some brand new things in the future.’

Raj.W.Haider, director of Commercial Kitchen and Bar, believes, meanwhile, that wood will remain the most popular flooring choice, but that the new focus will be on sourcing sustainable timber, such as bamboo and teak, and incorporating reclaimed elements.

'To understand where biophilic flooring could go, we need to take a wider approach to recognising the advances in technology, manufacturing and the circular economy, but also deepening awareness of how the spaces we surround ourselves in affect our physical and mental wellbeing,' adds Heath.

‘We are seeing ever more sophisticated interpretations of the natural world and the subtleties it produces, plus understanding the efficiency with which it does so to minimise waste and recycle what is not needed, and reflecting this in our circular approach to making, owning, using and reusing. Learning from nature is essential. After all, it’s had two billion years to work out how to do it best. Combining this with our evolutionary needs for healthy spaces is without a doubt fundamental to the future of biophilic design in flooring.’

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