AHR applies innovative biophilic design principles at The Spine building
For the northern home of The Royal College of Physicians, AHR Architects was tasked with creating a building that leaves its occupants healthier.
In one sense of the word, biophilia is here for good – for the good of all of us. But is it simply another workplace element that is bang on trend today, only to be relegated down those wish lists tomorrow?
We’re in Birmingham – well, to be more exact, high above the ‘Second City’ in Interface’s breathtaking new showroom in the Colmore Building – to take an in-depth look at biophilic design and ask a panel of industry experts what the future holds when it comes to making our green workplaces (literally) greener!
Possibly considered an expensive trend just a few years back, biophilic design is very much here to stay, in our humble opinion – either as a stand-alone element or as an important part of wellbeing and the wider workplace strategy. Indeed, we’re now starting to see an increasing number of projects where the implementation of biophilia is at the very heart of the scheme – not merely a box-ticking exercise or ‘the right thing to do’.
We begin by looking at a slightly wider picture and asking our esteemed guests to reveal what, in an ideal world, they would add to their perfect workplace?
Charlotte: In my perfect workspace I would think about it from the perspective of what contributes to my happiness outside of the workplace and whether there could be certain things that I could bring into the space to make it more of a seamless experience. We spend so much time at work and there should be more of a crossover between the two, so it is a less corporate space and is somewhere more enjoyable to be. I would want somewhere that allowed me to feel healthy and feel well, somewhere with social connection and somewhere with intrigue and interest. I do think that a healthy workplace should merely be the default. You should have a workplace that promotes healthy living, so that it then becomes a habit. I enjoy being around people so I would need those connections – together with a variety of spaces that help facilitate different types of work, depending on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.
Joe: Great shower facilities and secure bike storage are incredibly important to me – I do a lot of cycling, as you may well have guessed from my response! I don’t like it when those facilities are tucked away in dark areas, almost put in as an afterthought. Also, I think the nutritional offering is important – I do like good food and drink and my ideal workplace would offer those amenities.
Alison: My perfect environment would have quite a specific element; I would require a warm sea breeze and air that isn’t processed within an inch of its life or isn’t full of Birmingham smog!
Matt: To start with, I would say that I’m extremely proud of this space here – I truly believe it is one of the best offices I have seen for a long time. One thing I always look for in an office is how it connects me emotionally. When I walk into this space I do always get that emotional response. I think it makes a huge difference to the people who work here and the people who visit the space.
Guy: I’m from Dorset originally and now work in Birmingham – so I’ve moved away from the sea breeze to just about the furthest possible point in the UK from the coast! When I think about what I’d actually like at work, the first thing is quiet, which is hopefully a reflection on my colleagues and not me! The second thing is somewhere with height and a view. Having come from somewhere that doesn’t really get above three storeys, I love a high building and a great view.
Rachel Withey: My ideal office, being a bit of an introvert/extrovert, depending on how I’m feeling, would again need to have a certain amount of quiet and I also like to be high up – I want a view, I want natural light and clean air. One thing I really would like – and obviously this would have to be an office where I was on my own – is a bath! I’m envisaging that amazing 1920s hotel in Morecambe.
Oliver: I’m going to turn this around – and think about not what is in the office but what I’d like my office to be in! Just yesterday we had our summer day out and spent the day in a forest clearing, making fires with flints and foraging and weaving materials. It was so wonderful to be in the woods – it was really mindful. There was no signal – and it meant that everyone was so engaged in where they were and what they were doing. It felt so different to come back home from a day like that, spent in the woods. I think there is so much that we can take from these experiences and then bring into our workplaces. I’d really encourage people to get out and spend the day in the woods with a particular focus.
Raj: My ideal office would probably not be that dissimilar to what we’ve already heard. It would definitely have to be light and airy – natural light is a key thing. I work in a smart office in the West End, but where I sit doesn’t get a great deal of natural light, and so I would really like to have a terrace ’or an alternative space that offered great natural light.
Rachel Wootliff: My perfect office would definitely have great cycling and shower facilities. I also think that the entrance to a building is important – how you get into a building. I quite like to be hidden from people when I come into the building, having cycled in, looking a bit hot and messy. I would also like to have music in the bathrooms!
Raj: I’d agree with that. I don’t think biophilia is about just putting a load of plants in an area without any real thought. It’s about integrating natural elements within a space – but carefully thought through. It’s about not just the actual plant itself – it’s about look, feel, texture, colour, smell…
Joe: It’s also about variety within a space. It’s about natural features – but they don’t just manifest in the plants, they manifest in the materials in the space, having a more tactile environment, having different levels of lighting, so it’s a more granular and more considered design – where you’re referencing nature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be just planting.
Alison: It is about variety. It’s about breaking those straight lines, using curves, textures and multiplicity of materials. It’s not about just sticking in some plants. For me, it’s also really important that it’s not plastic planting – that just destroys the whole thing. If you’re going to put plants in, they have to be natural – it is all about the use of natural materials.
Guy: I’ve always felt that biophilic design should be approached by purpose-designing the elements in from the inception – rather than almost retrofitting a space with some plants. I think the design has to have the right intent from the start – and then has to be implemented correctly.
Rachel Wo: I think it’s about how you interact with the space. Some people really like having their own plant, and then maturing that plant – that can be a really effective form of biophilia. I don’t think just throwing in some plants around a space works.
Rachel Wi: I think it does – although I certainly don’t think it should be! It should be integral from pre-construction rather than that historical afterthought, with someone walking around the space after completion, putting in a few plants. It should be right from the start, when you’re space planning. It’s not about just greenery – it’s about the look, the feel, the colours, the flooring etc. Our clients do talk about biophilia – but they often don’t know what it really means or entails. There is certainly an economic concern – you mention biophilia and people think it’s going to cost them a lot of money. I’m sure everyone here agrees that if you can increase productivity by introducing a better working environment, then the cost becomes almost irrelevant – you still have to explain that though.
Guy: What we have seen is that, where we have implemented biophilic principles in spaces at a really early stage, we’ve been able to let them out really quickly, because they are so impactful. It is quite different if you’re not doing that and then having to persuade someone to spend their money on this at a later stage.
Charlotte: Our clients rarely talk about ‘biophilia’. I think their understanding of it would be very tokenistic – tick the box and put a few plants in. What we do talk about, however, is natural light and connecting to outside spaces and being able to see green spaces. They do talk about those things and know that these are things that they want – I just don’t think they’d ever refer to it as biophilic design. If you did talk about biophilic design, they’re likely to think about green walls and potted plants. We worked on a project last year for a charity – and it was so key to them to have the right space. They knew about all the principles and exactly what they needed, but they never would have associated it with biophilia or the WELL Standard or anything like that.
Oliver: I think the WELL Standard is useful because it is so comprehensive – it ensures the implementation of aspects such as air quality, water quality, light, and nourishment – aspects that could be encased under an umbrella of biophilic design thinking. Whilst some concepts are more engineering based, biophilic design is the living aesthetic of wellbeing, making it an important part of the design process that we can help deliver. biophilic design is of course encapsulated in the ‘mind’ section – and it is essential, as we know, that spending time with and around nature is good for our physical health as well as our mental wellbeing. After all, we’ve spent 99.5% of entire evolution with very close connection to nature. We need spaces that help us sit and focus – but also to recuperate physical and mental energy and biophilic design tools allow us to do this.
Rachel Wi: I actually think they’re going to start building much of this into regulations – just like they did with sustainability. And why shouldn’t we have regulations that cover happiness and wellbeing?
Well, going back to our original point of whether biophilia is here to stay, Rachel’s point that, along with other major elements of happiness and wellbeing, biophilic design could well go way beyond the certifications and actually become something regulatory certainly answers that question. Judging by our incredibly knowledgeable panel of designers, developers and occupiers, the way in which biophilic design will continue to be delivered in both a carefully considered and impactful manner can and will only add to its appeal. Here to stay? Absolutely.
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