Reconnecting the workplace to nature

Article5 min12 May 2017By Mark Story

Biophilic design boosts productivity by providing a haven for the human spirit. 

There’s no shortage of medical evidence to suggest a connection to nature makes for healthier, happier and more productive staff, so it’s hardly surprising that a growing number of Australian companies are incorporating elements of biophilic design into their workplace. To those unfamiliar with the term, biophilia is about satisfying the innate human need for access to the natural world.

In a workplace, much of what biophilic design is all about is bringing the outdoors into the often cold, stark office environments that can make employees feel imprisoned within four walls. It exposes employees to warm, natural light, flowing lines, and to plants and greenery within the built form.

The benefits of doing so are well documented the world over, with international research suggesting indoor plants significantly reduce sick-leave (20 per cent), coughing and wheezing (35 per cent), dry eyes, nose and throat (20 per cent) and perceptions of pain by between 20 and 60 per cent.

In Australia, a University of Technology Sydney study reveals that the benefits derived from indoor plants increase employee productivity by up to 10 percent by improving attention capacity, boosting creative task performance and reducing the time taken to complete computer tasks

The natural touch

Having picked up on the beneficial effect of natural forms, plants, open spaces, and improved air quality on the human condition, developers have been incorporating biophilic experiences into new office buildings.

Modern designs go well beyond a few potted plants. One focus is natural light, and as a result, glass and transparency are taking on even greater significance.

Nowhere are biophilic design footprints more evident than within Dexus’ award-winning and ground breaking office tower at 1 Bligh Street in Sydney (completed in 2011), and the landmark 480 Queen Street building in Brisbane (completed in 2016), which both boast floor-to-ceiling glass.

Biophilic design elements have also been incorporated into 5 Martin Place in Sydney, known as the Money Box building. With a re-engineered core, the new atrium lets occupiers draw natural light from inside the building. There’s research to suggest this contributes to improved levels of serotonin, the chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance.

In addition to using floor-to-ceiling glass, new developments are also experimenting with lighting that replicates the benefits of natural circadian lighting, which complements natural biological cycles and enhances overall wellness.

Environmentally responsible use of glass

In addition to providing excellent Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), 1 Bligh Street’s fully shaded double skin facade, together with 4.5-metre floor-to-ceiling low-iron glass and full height atrium, maximises the amount the natural light coming in during the day.

What it also does, adds Paul Wall, Head of group sustainability and energy at Dexus, is allow close to full transparency with no requirement for tinting, enhancing the clarity of the views out to Sydney Harbour.

“The double skin protects the building from heat ingress, allowing the building to run a highly efficient passive chilled beam air conditioning system, optimising the efficiency and comfort within the building,” he says.

While good biophilic design keeps heat out, it also recognises the importance of letting the outside air in. To maximise the benefits of improved air quality on mind and mental health, buildings with a focus on biophilia are allowing for large volumes of outside air to come through dedicated external air louvres.

Good biophilic design within the built form credits indoor environments where live plants can enhance the air quality. “We can create an atmosphere that provides sufficient light where plants can thrive, and when configured as green walls, can photosynthesise, which effectively acts as live filtration,” says Wall.

480 Queen Street, Brisbane - first park within a building

Australia's first park within a building

Meantime, the essence of how workplace design is evolving is captured inside the recently completed 480 Queen Street in Brisbane, which features Australia’s first elevated park within an office building.

With its green walls and raked gardens, the 31-storey six-star premium grade office tower’s striking subtropical 1400sqm open air park, on the fourth floor, mimics a vegetated cliff face environment. The story of the building's art and design is told by a 350-sqm glass-tiled rainforest mural along the escalator running up to the park.

While new developments are able to innovate when it comes to biophilic design, it is also possible for companies to incorporate key elements of biophilia – aka the living office – within existing tenancies. In Australia, a University of Technology Sydney study reveals that indoor plants increase employee productivity by 10 percent, creating an environment that improves attention capacity, enhances creative task performance and reduces time taken to complete computer tasks.

In addition to energy efficiencies, the incorporation of biophilic initiatives into a building provides for a smarter and healthier utilisation of space.

The beneficiaries are the occupants. It’s a simple equation: better air quality, more natural light and indoor greenery equals a happier and more productive workforce

Read on for more insights

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