Zen and the art of biophilic design
A growing body of research shows that incorporating nature into the built environment helps reduce people's stress, increase their productivity and improve their well-being. Biophilic design is the formal moniker and interior designers are increasingly showcasing it in office spaces throughout Portland.
Carissa Mylin, a commercial interior designer and associate with SERA Architects, specializes in high-performance workplace environments and is a design team leader in SERA's workplace studio. She said client commitment to biophilic design varies, but interior designers in general are integrating more natural materials.
"People are intrigued by this trend that has come about which naturally has more textural and flavorful environments and happens to have biophilic elements," she said. "It's great to have a client who has warmed to it already because they are more receptive to some of the more abstract concepts."
Mylin noted that biophilic elements can be added without necessarily labeling them as such. Some of the basics involve allowing more daylight into an office space, including plants in the décor and using natural materials to enhance it.
"These are things that make people feel good in the space," she said. "Those are some of the least expensive and highly visible ways to bring biophilic design into an office."
While previous generations of employees were expected to sit at their desk to get their work done, many now have options for how and where they work within their office. It's important for employees to have quiet spaces where they can take refuge and work in peace, Mylin said.
In talking with clients about larger-scale or longer-term projects, Mylin advises them to take broader view of where their office is located and how it connects people to their local habitat.
"I also like to remind people to take a long view back from their project and if you are a company looking for a new home, look at the whole approach like how people get to work, what they are going to have to walk through to get there and what their views will look like," she said.
SERA Architects has a specific consortium that tests various elements of biophilic design across projects, and it has developed a master resource guide that it uses to educate clients and project partners. The firm considers biophilic design to be part of creating interior spaces that are sustainable and healthy, Mylin said.
"I don't see this as something that will ever go away for our firm," she said. "We see this as the right way to design for people. If you are putting people at the center of your design and creating a space that is healthy for them, then you're probably doing it the right way."
Dina Radzwillowicz, LEED AP ID+C, an interior designer with Mackenzie, said she and her team always try to incorporate biophilic design at some level through a holistic design approach that centers around the employees but also meets the client's budget and gives them what they are hoping to achieve.
One of the most common strategies she uses is to bring in as much natural light as possible and locate offices in internal areas so the window line is accessible to everyone. "It's important for people to not only have access to the daylight but also be able to look outside," she said.
Sit-to-stand desks are another means of incorporating biophilic design, as is providing different spaces for people to meet and collaborate or work alone. Plants can be used to create a living wall inside an office, or they can be integrated in more subtle ways with the furniture, Radzwillowicz said.
"Some people like to use graphics and photography of an outdoor scene like a forest or a waterfall," she said. "Some people feel that's not biophilia but I've heard the other way too, that even when you can't see outside just having photos of nature can still have a positive effect on people."
Large fish tanks, such as the one featured in the lobby at One Main Place, are another way to bring a natural, moving element into a workplace that people can enjoy, Radzwillowicz added.
"There has been talk, and I'm wondering if this will happen more in the future, about the element of bringing smell into a space. There's conversation about whether it actually works or if that is too much for a small space," she said.
The International Living Future Institute has formed an advisory task force to lead its Biophilic Design Initiative in an effort to provide resources for the Living Building Challenge community with the goal of broad adoption of biophilic design among the design community, building owners and cities. Through the initiative, the institute will develop a databank for case studies, connect project teams with biophilic design practitioners and resources, link designers with scientists to solve design challenges and conduct more in-field research, and draft a biophilic design implementation and documentation process for the Living Building Challenge.