The new WWF offices in Sydney are abundant in natural plant life and references, such as organic materials in nearly all furniture and surfaces

29 April 2014 – Conventional office design is simply not working to produce the kind of creative collaborative thinking workplace demanded in today’s competitive environment. But what’s gone wrong? Last year biophilic design expert Stephen Kellert visited Australia and explained the importance of nature to the human brain, in a conversation with one of Australia’s leading architects Glenn Murcutt.

In our green leasing ebook series, The Tenants and Landlords Guide to Happiness, the importance of including nature or references to nature in design emerges strongly, especially in a case study of the WWF offices in Sydney. Now a new book by Nikil Saval released this week, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, tries to identify where office design went wrong.

A compelling article in Atlantic Cities on the ideas of biophylic design shows how Kellert is currently working to retrofit a 102,190 square metre office tower in Midtown, Manhattan with “plant life and gardens, natural ventilation, materials, shapes, and lighting.”

The article references important works in the field such as Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, which shows that people who looked at nature scenes demonstrated faster reaction times and made fewer mistakes in doing cognitively demanding tasks.

Viewing nature is a kind of  “visual Valium”, the authors say, and cite some of the earliest examples of studies on nature’s chemical effect on us.

“By measuring cortisol levels of people who had walked in forests and comparing them with people who walked in urban environments, the Shinrin Yoku studies in Japan found that walking in forest environments reduced stress, hostility, and depression while improving sleep and vigor,” the article says.

And a California study found that “those who worked with desirable views of nature showed more activity in the opioid receptors, an area that when active, is known for causing people to be less likely to perceive themselves as stressed and more likely to form emotional bonds and focus less on negative memories”.

2 replies on “What went wrong with offices? Our brains, apparently”

  1. Eighteen years ago I designed the first workplace in Australia to use living permanent plants and water in a sealed office building to enhance the indoor air quality and health quality of the workplace, with positive benefits for the inhabitants and on their productivity.
    The project is the Powerlink Queensland head office at Virginia Queensland. It was featured on Channel 9’s ‘A Current Affair’ at the time because of its innovation, using NASA technology developed for the International Space Station, and was the subject of an academic paper presented at SBO8 in Melbourne.
    It amuses me somewhat to read how people are still only just discovering the benefits of plants and people in a closed environment in 2014. I would be happy to elaborate for the new ‘experts’.

  2. Plants may look nice and make people feel happy, but we need to also consider their impact on the indoor ‘ecosystem’ and their contribution to indoor air quality.

    The science surrounding their ability to eliminate volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde continues to generate debate amongst the international building and air science community, with a number of studies that are continuously referred to being the subject of plenty of criticism.

    Furthermore, we are learning more about the impact of indoor airborne microbials to indoor environment quality and its impacts on health, well being, performance and productivity. Much more focus is required in this area.

    In buildings where indoor plants are present, we need to better educate building occupants regarding how they should take care of their plants so that their condition is maintained.

    A final thought – Just because our brains like the look of plants and nature doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a good fit for our offices and for our people.

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