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Biophelia brings nature inside office buildings, makes for happier workers

The ArtAqua Offices in Germany; a good example of biophelia at work (Photo by Bill Browning)

“Alright baby, you’re doing great,” said Rhonda Nicholson, talking to a potted plant.

“I’m sorry buddy, we have to take that off because it’s broken,” she whispers to another plant while pulling out her shears. “We’re going to take off a couple of branches. Make you feel better.”

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Nicholson is a plant technician with Ambius, the world’s largest provider of plants to commercial spaces. Every two weeks she comes to KIRO Radio to water and care for our office plants.

“They know when I’m coming,” said Nicholson. “They know when they’re gonna get a little drink. At least I believe that.”

Ambius says plants in the workplace can improve productivity and reduce absenteeism.

“Some people don’t even notice they have plants. And some people are like, ‘Rhonda! What’s wrong with my baby? I love that, too.”

Nicholson has a peaceful job, quietly watering and wiping the dust off of leaves so they can properly filter air for us. She’s been attending to our plants for years, but until recently I’d never seen her before.

“I’ve seen you!”

OK, well now I feel like a jerk. But bringing nature inside really can improve our well being. It’s a concept called biophelia.

“We spend 90 percent of our lives inside buildings,” said Bill Browning, partner at Terrapin Bright Green. “Yet, if you ask someone, ‘Where do you want to go to feel great? Where do you go on vacation?’ they’ll say the beach or the mountains or a national park. What biophilic design is really fundamentally about is taking those experiences of nature that restore us and refresh us and bringing them into the built environment.”

Terrapin Bright Green is a research and consulting firm that educates and guides design firms looking to bring features of the outdoors inside. He’s identified 15 biophilic design features that each have their own psychological and physiological benefits.

“Definitely a reduction in stress,” Browning said. “People are calmer, happier. We also see cognitive performance where short term memory is enhanced. With some biophilic interventions we see increases in creativity. Maybe one of the most dramatic experiences is to experience awe. When you walk up to the rim of the Grand Canyon you just kind of stop and suck in your breath and your eyes go wide and your mouth drops. What’s going on is that a whole bunch of centers in your brain have been firing almost on overload, it all rushes forward to the prefrontal cortex and you have that pause. The psychological response to that is you are somewhat humbled and you exhibit what are called more pro-social behaviors. You’re more charitable, you’re nicer after you’ve had that experience.”

And it’s not just plants. An office bright with natural sunlight helps, as does using biomorphic forms, replicating patterns seen in nature in upholstery and design.

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“Small water features. We are very very strongly drawn to water,” said Browning. “That really comes to an evolutionary background. We can go almost a month without eating but if we go more than 72 hours without water, we’re pretty much dead. When we hear that sound of water, like a little stream or a little waterfall, which tends to be well aerated, clean water, usually the best source of drinking water in an environment, our brain will focus on that and screen out a lot of the conversations around us, screen out most all of the background noise. It’s not because [the rushing water] is blocking those sounds, it’s literally because our brain is choosing that’s what it’s going to focus on and listen to. So when that happens, even in a noisy environment, you will find a significant drop in stress.”

Some of the big tech companies are paying attention to biophelia. In Seattle, Amazon built the Spheres, two 77,000 square feet orbs filled with 40,000 plants and other elements of nature. Browning says Microsoft and Google are also incorporating biophelia into their offices.

But if your office isn’t on board, you can improve your cubicle and well-being just by putting up photographs of beautiful natural scenes and adding a few plants. The photographs can trick our brains into thinking we’re outside.

But Browning says there’s something even more important than bringing nature inside, something that will make you feel less stressed and more happy.

“Get outside!” he laughs.

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