The Round Table – Biophilic Design

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In Association with

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Kay Bridge, The Fairhursts Design Group / David George, FCH /  / Simon Millington / James Scott, Cube 8 studio / Lee Birchall, DV8 Designs / Jasper Sanders, Jasper Sanders + Partners

On a beautiful chilly afternoon in Manchester we assembled a royal gathering of experienced designers. Our aim was to discuss biophilic design. Definitions include ‘An innovative way of designing the places where we live, work, and learn’ and ‘The inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature’ – or putting lots of plants in your office! Crucially, do clients get it?

Our roundtable was sponsored by Gresham, 40 years young last year, while our guests have worked in a broad range of sectors and have significant depth of experience. They also hold different views – about almost everything! Have a look at their profiles and where they would travel to if they had a ‘golden ticket’.

We started by asking what biophilic design (BD) means for designers and their clients.

SIMON – It is what we are already doing and have been for many years. BD is just a label but it’s what you should be doing as part of best practice. It’s not about putting in a load of plants, it’s about getting the standard things right.

JASPER – If you are providing the right design solutions for people you naturally undertake it without giving a label. If you are purposely trying to do BD then you might end up missing the point and not actually creating the right solution. There is a danger of making it visual and cosmetic, distracted from the need to create a place.

SIMON –You can take the whole idea too far, such as growing your own food. What is important is that you understand the human interaction and each individual person’s needs on an hour-by-hour basis.

JAMES – I think for me BD is about a feeling and emotion. It creates connections and feelings leading to positive emotions. Bark and textured material doesn’t talk back. People create emotions – the environment doesn’t. To change people’s actions it is necessary to make their working environment more pleasant.

LEE – Many of my clients are focused on the cost, therefore being creative with the budget is often our approach. Regarding BD, we try to get that outdoors indoors feel all the time.

How much has the world of architecture moved away from the structure and towards being people centric?

DAVID – It’s always been an inherent part of it. It’s always been driven by the client.

KAY – There shouldn’t be a significant demarcation between architecture and interiors. At the end of the day they want to be in that space. An individual may want to be able to control lighting and heat levels, this is where both disciplines have to work together. What you don’t want is the fluorescent lighting giving the staff migraines.

SIMON – I don’t think many designers understand the term BD, let alone clients. It can be seen as just a bit of a buzz term to justify some consultancy fees. Along with SKA ratings and BREEAM it’s just down to good design. The debate after this is if you want to bring in the living elements such as a wall. I was fortunate to work on the Regatta project here in Manchester. As an outdoor brand they wanted that feel of lots of the ‘outdoors’, and at no point did they ask what was the payback.

LEE – One of our clients is YKK, the zip people, and structurally we knew they needed to plan a very good canteen place that really worked well in this type of environment. It has proved to be very popular and an integral part of the workplace.

Areas to recuperate are one of the key principles of BD. How important is shared space in the modern workplace?

JAMES – It is the main point. Shared ideas for staff to gather are arguably the most important area.

KAY– We work extensively with the R&D sector (academics and researchers) – who have a tendency to happily squirrel themselves in their own spaces. We actively put in soft spaces so they have a defined collaboration and accidental meeting space. We make them walk to get their brew, which happens to be in a linking area so everyone has ‘happy accidents’ which help create new ideas.

DAVID – Our approach is definitely the less formal and more creative the better – often it will become a talking point.

SIMON – The ‘common area’ is the easiest sell to the client. It’s the heart of the workspace and has the flexibility, meaning it will be busy from 8.30 in the morning and all through the day. The sell is that this is a great meeting place therefore you can potentially have less building space. It gets expensive in buildings when you have cellular spaces with air conditioning, fire alarms etc. The trend is less of the formal spaces and meetings behind closed doors.

DAVID – A cultural shift has to happen.


We asked our panel to give us some examples of where these common areas have been created.

KAY – Every building we have done recently. You force people together and suddenly the company creates something amazing.

DAVID – Using experience in the hotel sector to help create common areas, we had a client recently that had two very separate cultures, but cross-fertilisation of ideas was key. This is where the flexible canteen area works so well.

JASPER – If you are designing spaces, you are not just spending money – you are adding value. We believe that ‘if it’s good for people, it’s great for business’. There is an absolute correlation between the two. The danger with BD is that you can get caught up with the biological shapes and nature and trying to reflect nature in the design and you forget the purpose of making people feel better, delivering productivity or function.

LEE – Time has moved on. I’m not sure that if you provide a place to relax most would simply get away from their desks and get on their mobile phones.

KAY – I think it depends on the organisation as to what happens in the breakout areas. The café areas we create usually double up as informal meeting and seminar areas. I agree with Simon’s earlier point that the client is increasingly happy to have breakout areas designed into the plan as it becomes an efficient use of space and often negates having to plan another three meeting rooms that are hardly used.

DAVID – I agree with Kate – ideally you have to design something that is multifunctional.

SIMON – The danger with any plan is assuming that one size fits all. For me it’s a case of; gathering the people in a forum that they can freely express their needs – then your job is to help them sell back up the food chain. Listening to every stakeholder, we would never begin designing a solution that isn’t used. Let the client  ‘treat furniture as Velcro’ and rearrange to suit their needs.

DAVID – I worked with Moneypenny, a brother and sister team where their staff were 90-95% women. I have to say they had a brilliant reputation and very high levels of staff retention. This was partly to do with the fact that they obviously cared about their staff. It’s the happiest level of staff I have ever seen in any organisation. Their café was central to their culture.

SIMON – I think these days you almost start from that point and work out.

LEE – You have to design for everyone and that includes landscaping where you can, café, bar, gym, cycle storage and even heated areas for smokers!

Who are you talking with at your client meetings?

JAMES – At it was the People Director – she looked after the health and wellbeing. We got on the best because she understood people and that was central to the design plan. However, I like to give them a list of the ideal people that should be on the steering group.

KAY – We usually speak to project managers but they may be part of a bigger group. Consultants are often brought in or they are the estates people of universities.

DAVID – On my last job it was the Managing Partner.


SIMON – I would often be speaking to HR people; they are aware the battle is not about squeezing the assets but about the productivity of the staff.

LEE – Very often we will speak on the hospitality side of things to the marketing people. They are interested in the brand and everything in that scheme has to represent the brand.

KAY – You can see that it can vary from scheme to scheme and I think that is diversifying even more. You may be talking to a Workplace Director or Chief Product Officer! However, sometimes the person tasked with the job is someone that either doesn’t want to do it or is not really qualified. They can be terrified that they will get it wrong and everyone will blame them. Our job as designers is to reassure them that we do know what we are doing. Giving them a choice but a guiding hand.

SIMON – My view of that is that the entrepreneur and owner managed business is very close to their finances and realises that the biggest expense is people. If they can avoid staff churn it saves money.

Do you find that clients are referencing other companies and asking for similar? There was an overwhelmingly positive response from all participants.

JAMES – I usually get presented a Pinterest document.

SIMON – There is a danger to be the same. What was right for them is not necessarily right for you.

KAY – I often wonder do they really want a ‘Google’. When pushed they actually liked the picture of the meeting room of Google – not the slide.

JASPER – Everyone is switched on to design and everyone has a view. This has its negative and positive connotations. It’s up to the designer to help the client and use their experience to find the ideal result.

LEE – I had a client who wanted a boardroom like an All Saints shop. It’s good that clients have ideas – we then have to work out if its practical, in budget and will last.

Are clients at the top of the pyramid, driving the market and therefore expecting good things in the coming years as the rest adopt this approach?

SIMON – They think they cannot afford it. We are there to make it affordable. I think there are a lot of people at the bottom spending £150 on a chair that lasts two years when they should spend £200 and it will last 10 years. Perception is something we as a sector need to address and show that small budgets can also work.

LEE – It’s definitely a top down situation and one that most business leaders are completely in the dark about – the link between a great working environment and productivity.


When you are presenting new ideas are you finding that virtual reality works?

KAY – We use Google glasses. We simply set up a scene – an office scene – then upload the image that the client can view through the glasses. It is a less costly method than VR, which still has the wow factor. You can also send an QI code that can be viewed on their iPhone.

JAMES – I personally think that clients can get overwhelmed by it. You can spend too much time creating them and I think often the best method is sketching. Clients like a sketch because they feel they can make changes.

KAY – Sketching is great but it depends on the client.

SIMON – You cannot beat a watercolour render, but you cannot zoom in.

DAVID – We tend to work with designers who help us to project our ideas onto a wall. We used this as part of the journey after proper consultation rather than the first thing we deliver. Fundamentally you have to pick the right method for the client.

JAMES – In the past I have done a SketchUp model then sat down with one of the key project members before going to the MD. Getting them to sit beside me and make subtle changes provides a great experience.

LEE – We are working on something at the moment and its all CGI.

David – For some of our work it is a perquisite for high-end investors to present using CGI.

Is biophilic design just smoke and mirrors?

KAY – We interpret the five principles. The clients I deal with never mention biophilic design and it would possibly confuse them. I talk about wellbeing, light, great spaces…

SIMON – It would scare them. 95% of that is done anyway.

JAMES – Part of my questioning is to ask about biophilic design but I don’t label it as such. If they don’t know, I explain about light, planting etc and then show how it can be brought into the designs.

LEE – BD is the last 5% in the box. The architects and developers have to create something integral to the build, like an atrium or what Ask Developments are doing at First Street in Manchester with the ‘greenhouses’.

KAY – We work with a lot of clients whose staff work alone: researchers, e-learning and online programmers. The use of inclusive/communal spaces and outside terraces – where possible – have gone down a treat. We have had letters of thanks where the client has been overwhelmed with the response from the staff. Therefore, rather than a big planting tub, it was more about the broader environment.

JASPER – Again a lot depends on the workforce and individuals. Some people are more outdoors than others. Some people, even given the chance, would not walk out to get some fresh air at lunchtime. As we have said today, it’s all about understanding the client.

KEY POINTS of the discussion

The central collaborative space is now more commonly the first thing on the drawing board.

Biophilic Design isn’t necessary the most effective start point.

The key decision makers are changing their focus from the ‘structure’ to ‘people’.

Productivity is the key driver for most company leaders.