ExclusivesThinkingBiophilic design: The benefits for the bottom line

World renowned biophilic design expert Bill Browning talks to Work in Mind about the economic advantages of bringing the outside in.
Sophie Barton5 years ago9 min

From natural light to the inclusion of plants and natural materials, such as wood and stone, much is written about the benefits that biophilic design holds for the people working in a building. But what of the economic advantages to the business itself?

Bill Browning, the leading biophilia expert and founder of consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, firmly believes it has a resoundingly positive impact on both productivity and profit.

“From the employer’s perspective, biophilic design reduces employee stress, lowers blood pressure and improves cognitive performance,” he tells Work in Mind. “Then there’s a preference for the space itself – a number of the companies we work with see it as a strategy to help them attract and retain talent.”

The economics of biophilia

In Terrapin Bright Green’s influential report, The Economics of Biophilia, Bill and his co-authors draw on decades of research to form a compelling financial argument for designing with nature in mind, illustrating that by reducing absenteeism by even a fraction of a percent, it can have vast benefits for the bottom line.

One such piece of research is a 2011 study, which took place at an administrative office building at the University of Oregon.[i] Here, 30% of the offices overlooked trees and landscape, 31% overlooked a street, building and car park and 39% had no outside view.

The employees with the natural view took on average 57 hours of sick leave a year while, in contrast, the staff with no view took on average 68 hours. Interestingly, the workers with an urban view ranked between both groups.

With workplace absence estimated to be costing the UK economy an eyewatering £21bn a year in lost productivity by 2020, research such as this is hard to ignore.

Of course, we can’t all be blessed with meadow views from our office window, but there are multiple ways to introduce nature into the workplace, from water walls, to circadian lighting and the use of natural materials, such as leather, bamboo and rattan.

The argument for nature in healthcare

Bill – who counts Disney, Google and the White House among his clients – believes biophilic design can be of great financial benefit to the healthcare system too. The Economics of Biophilia cites Roger Ulrich’s ground-breaking and often-quoted hospital study[ii], which suggests that natural views could have a positive effect on patient recovery.

Ulrich’s seminal research explored the recovery rates of patients who had undergone gallbladder surgery, comparing those in rooms overlooking natural scenery with those in rooms overlooking brick walls.

On average, the patients recovering in rooms with natural views took less postoperative painkillers than those with views of the brick wall. They were also discharged after 7.69 days, compared to their counterparts, who stayed on average 8.71 days.

With the NHS surgical admissions topping 4.7 million and the average daily cost of a hospital bed estimated at £400 a day by the Department of Health, there’s no doubt that expediting patient recovery could represent staggering benefits to the economy. Perhaps it’s time for a rethink about the way we build and design hospitals, with a renewed focus on natural light, ventilation and bringing the outside in.

A 360-degree approach

Back in the corporate sector, it’s often debated whether wellness or wellbeing measures should take priority when deciding how to invest in the welfare of employees. However, Bill believes the two are increasingly becoming mutually supportive.

“We’re hearing a very intense conversation about wellness and wellbeing from HR managers of major corporations,” he says. “A lot of wellness programmes have focused on diet, exercise, movement, sit stand desks and mindfulness, but you need to tackle it from the built environment perspective too. Biophilic design principles are physical ways of supporting the wellness outcomes.”

He adds, “Increasingly the conversation is now turning to retention and attraction too. Over a third of millennials report that the space helps them decide whether or not they want to work for a company.”

So, with the productivity puzzle increasingly dominating the UK headlines, does Bill think biophilic design could provide one answer?

“It’s one way of supporting it,” he agrees. “It’s not everything, but it’s definitely a helpful tool.”

Enjoyed this article? Find more on Bill Browning here

Bill Browning Biophilic Design

Bill Browning is one of the green building industry’s foremost thinkers and a founding partner of Terrapin Bright Green, a research and consulting firm which crafts environmental strategies for corporations, government agencies and large-scale developments. 

[i] Elzeyadi, I. “Daylighting-Bias and Biophilia: Quantifying the Impacts of Daylight on Occupants Health.” In: Thought and leadership in Green Buildings Research. Greenbuild 2011 Proceedings. Washington, Dc: USGBc Press. 2011.

[ii] Ulrich, R. S. “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” Science, Vol. 224. 1984.

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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