Biophilia might be one of the keys to wellbeing and productivity

[2109 Award-winning Article] Biophilic design principles offer new ways to enhance workforce productivity and employee well-being.

By Kelly Taylor
Issue 11 – Spring 2019 pages 45 – 49
Tags: wellbeing • workplace design • productivity


The Work&Place Editorial Advisory Board applauds this article as one of the eight best articles we published in 2019. We recommend it highly for its insights, its thoughtful focus on the impact of living plants on the workplace and work itself, and its identification of the linkages between biophilia and workplace productivity.

A brief history of biophilia and its impact

“The passionate love of life and all that is alive,” wrote German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm when first describing the term biophilia in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.[i]

Fromm believed that humanity instinctively strives to overcome the feeling of being separate from nature, originating in self-awareness and becoming one with it again.[ii] In 1984, American biologist Edward O. Wilson published his book Biophilia, introducing his hypothesis that humans innately seek to connect with nature and “affiliate with other forms of life.”[iii] However, the further humanity progresses, the more this connection seems to be lost.

Like all other living organisms, we thrive in certain environmental conditions and suffer in others. If a zoo placed a tiger in a small windowless box to live out its days, who would hesitate to call it cruelty? Yet how many workers spend most of their days in a cramped and bare office?

In the end, human beings are the result of thousands of years of evolution – evolution that has programmed all living creatures to be at their best in certain natural environments, while responding negatively to others.

Based on habitat selection theory, researcher G.H. Orians concluded that humans’ environmental preferences should correspond to the features of the ancestral savanna environment that helped Homo Sapiens flourish.[iv] These features include semi-open spaces with trees, places that can serve as refuge from rain and excessive solar gain, and a lot of visual access, especially to the horizon.

From a biological perspective, there are two issues to keep in mind when speaking of comfort maintenance. First, humans have different ambient preferences resulting from a combination of influences, such as gender, lifestyle, and genetic and cultural differences.[v] Second, these preferences change over time for individuals due to the changes in their state of health, activities, and other factors.[vi]

For most of history, humans have adjusted their environment to fit their current needs and achieve comfort; however, far too many architects and designers continue to design buildings and interior spaces with a “one size fits all” approach.[vii]

Another factor to consider is that human ancestors needed to pay attention to changes in daylight and sensations associated with direct sun, humidity and wind; and even though the modern person’s perception of sensory variability has evolved, those perceptions still have a high impact on how one responds to any given environment.[viii]

According to a study funded by the U.S. Environmental Agency, the average American now spends 87% of their time indoors.[ix] The trees of the savannahs have long been abandoned in favor of built environments. However, these chosen new habitats of skyscrapers and office buildings often lack the environmental factors important for our well-being. As Dr. Judith Heerwagen put it in her work exploring the links between well-being, productivity and design, “… our ties to nature are deep and enduring; when we sever these ties, we create conditions that are contrary to basic human needs.”[x]

In the past twenty years there has been a rapidly growing body of research on how human relationships with nature and natural patterns have positive effects on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.[xi] Even a simple photograph of a natural landscape has been shown to improve stress recovery – lowering blood pressure and heart rate.[xii]

A landscape image is the most simple and direct example of a connection to nature, but many other nuanced connections to the natural world have been studied and proven to have a beneficial effect on human beings. Dynamic light, natural materials, and variable airflow are all elements that our brains and bodies associate with a natural environment and respond positively to.

With all this information available, and thousands of years of successful adaption behind the human race, the question begs to be asked: why is it that people fail to adjust their habitats now to achieve the highest levels of comfort and performance?

Designers and property managers should use this knowledge of positive and negative environmental factors in design and architecture to create habitats that meet basic human needs and promote positive experiences, improved health, and productivity.

Biophilic design

Fortunately, this issue is not completely ignored. From the hypothesis of biophilia comes the concept of biophilic design – a design practice that aims to reconnect people with the natural environment.

It is with the idea of evolutionary processes and how that shapes one’s well-being and ability to function at one’s highest levels in any given environment that Stephen R. Kellert and Elizabeth F. Calabrese described the main goal of biophilia as “creating good habitat for people as a biological organism in the built environment.”[xiii]

However, simply putting some plants in a room and hanging a picture of a forest doesn’t constitute biophilic design. Biophilic design is a systematic and informed approach to creating a connection with nature in the modern built environment. In Kellert’s words, it “doesn’t involve simply applying any form of nature to the built environment, but rather doing so in ways that effectively satisfy the inherent human inclination to affiliate with the natural world.”[xiv] To be meaningful, contact with the natural world must be re-occurring and engaging.

Architects all too often treat the natural environment as the enemy – something to be overcome in order to realize their particular vision. However, research by Dr. Heerwagen suggests that building environments that contain the essential features of preferred natural settings will be more supportive of human well-being and performance than environments lacking these features.[xv] When a certain kind of design has a positive impact on productivity, doesn’t it make sense to implement it wherever possible, especially in a workplace?

How can biophilic design be specifically impactful in the workplace? There is an increasing number of studies assessing how biophilic design and related design movements and environmental factors affect a person’s well-being in the workplace (“well-being” here meaning high levels of positive functioning – physically, socially, and mentally).

It is widely understood that certain environmental conditions are detrimental to an individual’s well-being as well as to a workplace’s overall productivity. Anyone whose office air conditioning has broken down during a hot summer day knows how unpleasant conditions can quickly bring work to a grinding halt. Accepting that, then we must accept that the inverse is equally true: more ideal environmental conditions will improve a person’s well-being and productivity.

The impact of biophilic design

Let us take a closer look at the negative impacts on health that buildings can have. Ambient conditions such as temperature, noise, lighting, and air quality are particularly important. Excessive temperature conditions and noise levels have been linked to increased irritability and stress.[xvi] Lighting that creates visual discomfort and glare is more likely to cause eye problems and headaches.[xvii] Poor indoor air quality is a potential health hazard, as many buildings use finishings and materials, equipment, and cleaning products associated with noxious chemicals and airborne toxins, as well as hazardous and noxious substances in work processes.

Even a lack of window views has also been associated with higher levels of stress. In a workplace, such negative effects can lead to absenteeism, lower productivity, and even higher employee turnover.

It is simple to point out conditions that make it difficult to concentrate – lighting that creates computer glare, stiflingly warm temperatures, or high-level noises. Beyond simply eliminating the obviously negative aspects, it can be trickier for architects to design with the intention of creating an environment that deliberately impacts its inhabitants in positive ways, rather than one that simply lacks those negative aspects.

As for positive factors, multiple studies have shown that visual and non-visual connection with nature, thermal and airflow variability, and the presence of water all have positive impact, including stress reduction, improved cognitive performance, and mood.[xviii]

Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, such as bird chirping and the scents of leaves and grass, positively impact on heart rate, systolic blood pressure, and sympathetic nervous system activity, as well as improve attention.[xix] Material connection with nature is linked to increased creative performance,[xx] and finally, an ability to see beyond immediate surroundings called “prospect” in biophilic design is linked to reduction of irritability, boredom, and fatigue.[xxi]

Rachel Kaplan reports similar results in a field study of office workers, finding that workers who had window views of nature felt less frustrated and more patient, and reported more overall life satisfaction and better health than workers who did not have visual access to the outdoors or whose view consisted of built elements only.[xxii]

According to analysis in the Human Spaces Report, which surveyed 7600 office employees in sixteen countries, workers in environments featuring natural elements report a 15% higher level of well-being.[xxiii] Nature-resembling colors such as green, brown and blue in work environments also had a positive impact on employee well-being and productivity.[xxiv] Window views of nature were linked to decreased stress levels, and office environments with natural elements such as natural light and greenery increased productivity of employees by 6% and creativity by 15%.[xxv]

On top of that, a third (33%) of office workers say that the design of an office would affect their decision to work at a company.[xxvi] While the link between biophilic design, employee well-being, performance, and retention is becoming more and more clear, architects and designers seem to fail to understand the growing need for incorporating biophilic design in office buildings.

Look at these statistics collected by the Human Spaces Report:

  • Only 42% report having live plants in the office, and an alarming 47% report having no natural light in their office.
  • Almost a fifth (19%) of respondents report that there are no natural elements present in their office.
  • Just under half (47%) of all respondents agree that they have felt stressed in their workplace within the last three months. This finding emphasizes the importance of identifying and enforcing practices that can improve well-being at work – practices such as biophilic design.
  • 24% of respondents say that their workplace does not provide them with a sense of light and space.
  • 28% of respondents report that they do not have a quiet space to work in their office.[xxvii]

Of course, most workplaces are limited either by real estate or resources in how they can implement biophilic design. Most businesses do not have the capabilities to construct their buildings with walkways through native landscaping or with expensive interior water features.

Despite limits on a workspace’s ability to implement these green-scaping measures, there are nevertheless many opportunities to adopt biophilic principles in impactful ways. One does not need to literally surround himself or herself with plant life and have a window view on the ocean to get the same positive effect. Rather, according to senior researcher Beatriz Arantes at Steelcase, “It’s about tricking our brains to feel like we’re in a natural environment by triggering underlying patterns that we’re programmed to recognize and feel good in.”[xxviii]

It appears that even symbolic connections with natural elements can produce nearly as impactful a response in observers as the natural elements themselves.[xxix] Symbolic connections can be as direct as an image of greenery rather than a living green wall, but they can also be implemented in more subtle and nuanced ways, including implementing layers of color, pattern, and texture, as well as organic shapes; using natural light and creating air flow; encouraging movement to create “natural challenges”; or implementing local natural colors and materials.

Widespread adoption of biophilic design does not mean we are limited to filling the office with landscape paintings. Nor does biophilic design need to take away from brand consistency or prevent your business’s distinctive brand identity from being embedded in the space. In fact, a distinct brand identity and effective biophilic design go hand-in-hand.

For example, at the Glumac’s Shanghai office, biophilic elements and deliberate design for human health were prominent considerations when planning their newest workspace.[xxx] One of the repeating elements found throughout the space is a cloud motif, which not only serves as a symbolic connection to the natural world but also holds cultural weight – Chinese lucky clouds being a traditional symbol of happiness and good fortune. This motif repeats though decorative glass film patterns of abstract swirls, organic shapes in the carpeting patterns, and a number of Kvadrat cloud installations – acoustic paneling structured in amorphous three-dimensional shapes.[xxxi]

In “The Practice of Biophilic Design” Kellert and Calabrese identify one of the three primary experiences that biophilic design creates in order to build a more beneficial environment for its inhabitants as “experiences of space and place.”[xxxii] A major value of this approach is creating a unique attachment to a specific place – culturally, ecologically, geographically, historically, or some combination thereof.

For instance, Couer D’Alene Resort and Casino focused its renovation on integrating tribal history and ecology into the guest experience.[xxxiii] The designers created a sense of place by capturing the essence of the territory and the local tribe’s history. A prevalent pattern in their renovation was connection with natural systems, achieved through landscaping that demonstrates species and ecosystems native to the area and design that connects guests to the site as soon as they arrive.

The visual connection is achieved by creating a vegetated parking lot and a transitional covered parkway with full glass windows. For material connection, reclaimed and recycled timber was used in construction, creating an inviting environment with a warm rustic feel. The spa area features local stone by the reception desk that is also made of reclaimed oak.

The importance of a cohesive strategy versus merely – and often thoughtlessly – adding biophilic elements at random cannot be overstated. Designers guided by biophilic principles are creating an environment, not simply adding a few extra potted plants.

All organisms existing within connected environments are bound together as ecosystems. When the habitat functions in the best interests of the organism, the ecosystem performance at a level greater than the sum of its individual parts,” says expert Stephen R. Kellert.

“By contrast, habitats comprised of disconnected and unrelated elements provide few benefits to their constituents and may even harm individual members.”[xxxiv] Therefore, simply inserting a single object of nature into a human built environment and ignoring the rest of the setting will have very little positive impact on people occupying the space.

The importance of creating a comfortable environment in buildings through designing a systematic connection to nature, or biophilic design, is hardly new. With the possibilities of modern technology, architecture and design, and undeniable benefits for well-being and productivity, it would only be logical to implement biophilic design in more spaces.

With the growing trend of employee well-being and office workers all over the world believing that office design impacts their decision to work at a company, it is time for architects, designers, and employers to stop seeing comfort and attractiveness of a workplace as an unnecessary “luxury.”

Biophilic design is an available solution for those looking to improve employees’ health and sense of well-being, while also increasing their productivity for financial gain. However, it is also important to remember that biophilic design is a systematic approach, and it cannot be achieved by simply putting a plant on a desk and hanging an image of nature. It only works when all parts are connected and act as a whole – as any ecosystem does.

About the Author

Kelly Taylor is CEO for two companies and an innovator who is driven by her passion for improving the aesthetic and function of her clients’ spaces – a process she calls “WOWification.” As CEO for Metropolitan West, she leads her team of professionals daily on the front line, providing products and services for design firms, construction businesses, and facility management.

Through additions to her product line over the years, from graffiti abatement to peerhatch, a writable wall design, she has grown MetWest to be one of the largest women-owned companies in Southern California. As an innovator, Kelly applies all she learns to her products and processes – which is what led to the recent creation of peerhatch, a patented product that has already begun to transform collaborative spaces into award-winning projects. Besides creating amazing spaces, Kelly also loves falling into the rabbit hole that is social media, reading, writing, and cooking.


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[i]        Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1973).

[ii]       Fromm, ibid.

[iii]      Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press (1984).

[iv]       Orians, G.H.  “Habitat Selection: General Theory and Applications to Human Behavior” In J.S. Lockard (Ed.) The Evolution of Human Social Behavior. Chicago: Elsevier (1980)

[v]       Heerwagen, Judith H. “Design, Productivity and Well Being: What are the links?” Presented at American Institute of Architects Conference on Highly Effective Facilities. Cincinnati, Ohio (March 12-14, 1998).

[vi]       Heerwagen, ibid.

[vii]      Heerwagen, ibid.

[viii]     Heerwagen, ibid.

[ix]    Klepeis, Neil & C. Nelson, William & Ott, Wayne & P. Robinson, John. “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants.” Journal of exposure analysis and environmental epidemiology (2001).

[x]        Heerwagen, op. cit., p5.

[xi]       Browning, W.D., Ryan, C.O., Clancy, J.O. 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. New York: Terrapin Bright Green, LLC (2014) (  – accessed 30 December 2018).

[xii]    Brown, Daniel K., Jo L. Barton, and Valerie F. Gladwell. “Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress.” Environmental Science & Technology 47.11 (2013): 5562–5569. PMC. Web. 14 Sept. 2018.

[xiii]   Kellert, Stephen R. & Calabrese, Elizabeth. The Practice of Biophilic Design (2015) ( – accessed 30 December 2018).

[xiv]     Kellert, ibid.

[xv]      Heerwagen, op.cit.

[xvi]   Heerwagen, J., J. Heubach, J. Montgomery, and W. Weimer. “Environmental Design, Work and Well-Being.” Journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (1995) 43(9): 458-468.

[xvii]    “National Research Council (US) Panel on Impact of Video Viewing on Vision of Workers.” National Research Council (US) Committee on Vision. Washington DC: National Academies Press (1983) ( – accessed 30 December 2018)

[xviii] Ryan, Catherine, William Browning, and Joseph Clancy. “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design.” Terrapin Home – Terrapin Bright Green. (September 12, 2014)

[xix]   Li, Q. “Effect of Forest Bathing Trips on Human Immune Function.” Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 15 (1), 9-17 (2010).

[xx]    Lichtenfeld, S., A.J. Elliot, M.A. Maier, & R. Pekrun.“Fertile Green: Green Facilitates Creative Performance.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38 (6), 784-797 (2012).

[xxi]   Clearwater, Y.A., & R.G. Coss. “Functional Esthetics to Enhance Wellbeing.” In Harrison, Clearwater & McKay (Eds.). From Antarctica to Outer Space. New York: Springer-Verlag (1991) p410.

[xxii]   Kaplan, Rachel. “Urban forestry and the workplace.” In P.H. Gobster (Ed) Managing Urban and High-Use Recreation Settings. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report NC-163. Chicago, Illinois: North Central Forest Experiment Station (1992) ( – accessed 30 December 2018)

[xxiii] Browning, Bill, and Sir Gary Cooper. “Human Spaces: Biophilic Design in the Workplace.” Green Plants for Green Buildings. 2014. ( – accessed 30 December 2018)

[xxiv]    Browning et al, ibid.

[xxv]     Browning et al, ibid.

[xxvi]    Browning et al, ibid.

[xxvii]   Browning et al, ibid.

[xxviii] “Restoration Office: How Biophilia Reduces Stress and Promotes Renewal at Work.” Steelcase, July 28, 2017. ( – accessed 30 December 2018)

[xxix]    Browning, op. cit.

[xxx]   “Expressing Culture: Glumac Shanghai Office.” International Living Future Institute (March 21, 2018) ( – accessed 30 December 2018).

[xxxi]    See for examples.

[xxxii]   Kellert, op.cit.

[xxxiii] “Coeur d’Alene Resort and Casino.” Terrapin Bright Green (2016) ( – accessed 30 December 2018).

[xxxiv] Kellert, Stephen R. “What Is and Is Not Biophilic Design?” Metropolis (February 24, 2017) ( – accessed 30 December 2018)


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