ExclusivesThinkingBiophilic design: Bill Browning explains the dramatic impact it has on wellbeing

In an exclusive with Work In Mind's Sophie Barton, Bill Browning explains how biophilic design can reduce stress, improve wellbeing and enhance creativity.
Sophie Barton5 months ago13 min

World renowned environmental strategist Bill Browning tells Work in Mind that reduced stress, improved wellbeing and enhanced creativity are amongst the many benefits of biophilic design.

“Where do you go on holiday?” Bill Browning asks, during our illuminating interview. “Do you go to the beach, the mountains, or the countryside? Or, do you go to your office?”

The chances are, few people would answer the latter. When it comes to recreation, most of us seek out natural surroundings, from the sun worshippers who flock to sandy coves, to hikers heading into the Highlands.

And therein lies the crux of biophilia which, put simply, is our innate biological connection with nature.

It is this visceral connection that explains why admiring a valley view can enhance our creativity, or the calm that descends as we stroll through verdant pastures.

The benefits of biophilic design

With an estimated two thirds of us predicted to be living in cities by 2050, biophilic design – incorporating experiences of nature into the built environment – has a more important role to play than ever. It’s widely proven to have a hugely beneficial impact on our health and wellbeing, including lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones and improved mental engagement.

“We’re trying to bring the beneficial experiences of nature into the built environment,” explains Bill, who is a world leader on biophilic design, counting Disney, Google and the White House among his clients.

“The space you inhabit has a dramatic impact on you – it elicits strong psychological, physiological and neurological responses. The idea of biophilic design is to create the best possible space for people to inhabit and work in.

“When you’re experiencing nature, your brain is working on a different level – you’re not expending as much energy and the prefrontal cortex quiets down. Then, when you’re ready to be focused again you have more mental and cognitive capacity. Recent research suggests all it takes is 40 seconds of exposure to nature for that mode of brain processing to occur.”

Bill cites reduced stress, improved wellbeing and enhanced creativity amongst the multiple benefits of biophilic design. His thinking is crystallised in 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, the seminal report he co-authored, which explains the different relationships between natural elements and humans within the built environment.

While the most widely recognised form of biophilic design involves incorporating living plants into a space, it also extends to water, daylight, natural materials and even the sounds of nature.

“All of the 14 patterns have specific physiological or psychological responses, which trigger and support different outcomes. This could be elevated mood, enhanced creativity or stress reduction,” explains Bill, adding that each design pattern is fully backed by scientific research, proving the impact it has on people.

Nature in the Space

“Our first category of patterns – called Nature in the Space – are direct experiences of nature in the built environment. This could be working next to a window with a park view, having plants in the office space or a non-visual connection to nature, such as the sound of a water wall or variation in airflow and thermal conditions.”

Natural Analogues

The second category, called Natural Analogues, are indirect experiences of nature in the built environment, such as artwork, furniture with organic shapes and natural materials such as granite surfaces.

“This could include columns encrusted in seashells, or the use of William Morris fabrics featuring bird life,” says Bill. “Humans have a very strong preference for natural materials, like wood, stone and cork. It’s unclear why, but some scientists suggest it’s because when you see a piece of wood your brain thinks… ‘wood, tree, alive…’ In contrast, when you see a piece of plastic, your brain thinks… nothing.”

Nature of the Space

The third category, called Nature of the Space, addresses spatial configurations in nature. One pattern, called Prospect, relates to an unimpeded view, while Refuge relates to a place of withdrawal, in which you are protected from behind and overhead.

A classic example encompassing both these patterns would be arriving at a restaurant and eschewing a table in the middle of the room in favour of a raised booth on the perimeter, which enables you to sit with your back to the wall. The booth gives Refuge, but you also have Prospect thanks to your view across the restaurant.

“We’re also looking at a new pattern, called ‘awe’,” reveals Bill. “When you walk into the nave of a great cathedral, your eyes widen, your mouth drops and you feel overwhelmed. A whole bunch of different centres in the brain have been triggered – it’s essentially an overload.

“The emotional response is one of being humbled, and there’s evidence that after an awe experience, people are more empathetic, charitable and sociable. Empathy would certainly be nice in some businesses!”

Putting patterns into practice

When it comes to designing a work environment, Bill explains that his choice of patterns is dictated by the desired outcome.

“The first question we’d ask is ‘who are the users in that space, and what will they be doing?’” he says.

“You need an understanding of the users first, then you need to understand what outcomes you want to support in that space. For example, is it stress reduction, improved cognitive performance, or enhanced creativity?

“The approach we take will differ from office to office. If you’ve got folks working on graphics and advertising, that would need a different approach to an office where people are coding software. In one space I’d be trying to focus on enhancing creativity, while in the other I’d be looking to enhance cognitive function.”

So, what design measures might Bill take if the driver is to improve cognitive function?

“You might focus on the visual connection to nature, because there’s evidence that it supports engagement and attentiveness,” says Bill. “That could involve having plants around you, and a window looking onto trees moving in the wind.”

If your office doesn’t have natural views, take heart. “There have been a number of experiments involving projecting natural footage onto a wall, like an artificial window,” says Bill. “The evidence is that it does lower blood pressure and the heart rate. It’s not as effective as the real thing, but it’s much better than nothing. Even a photograph of a forest elicits a brain response – it’s not as strong as the real thing, but it’s a good response”

Listening to Bill’s depth of knowledge, it’s impossible not to wonder whether his passion for biophilic design extends into his own home.  Laughing, he says, “I lived in the tropics as a kid, so my home is filled with orchids, hibiscus and palms, and I also have finches in the house. My friends joke that you need a machete to get through the front door.”

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Bill Browning is a founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainability consulting firm committed to creating a healthier world. He is one of the green building industry’s foremost thinkers and strategists, and an advocate for sustainable design solutions at all levels of business, government, and civil society. His expertise has been sought out by organizations as diverse as Fortune 500 companies, leading universities, non-profit organizations, the U.S. military, and foreign governments.

Sophie Barton is a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 17 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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