Letting the Sunshine In: Welcoming Outdoor Elements to Your Indoor Space
While nature-focused design is deservedly hot right now, I’ll admit that I initially dismissed it as something relevant only to the Googles and Amazons of the world. Whether “biophilic” office design would be adopted by smaller companies seemed to me more questionable. Too much expense, I thought. Too much upkeep.
I was wrong.
A few months ago, I walked into my new hair salon and was immediately struck (metaphorically, of course—or this blog post might have gone in an entirely different direction) by their gorgeous green wall.
For those of you who—like me, pre-salon visit—are not quite up on the biophilic office design trend, a “green wall” refers not so much to the color green, but the use of greenery growing directly on the face of a wall. Think less the imposing green-painted left field wall at Fenway Park and more the ivy-covered outfield walls at Wrigley.
Warm. Friendly. Relaxing.
Combined with the natural light from my salon’s huge storefront windows, the green wall—lush and lovely, a focal point right behind the reception desk—helped make the interior feel cozy and welcoming. After a stressful morning fighting traffic in a (failed) attempt to get to my hair appointment on time, I finally felt my breathing slow.
As I discovered that day, bringing the outdoors in is for more than just big companies, and doing so offers benefits well beyond the obvious aesthetic ones. Research shows that introducing natural elements to the workplace can lead to:
an improvement in mood, creativity, and ability to focus,
an increase in memory and attention skills,
air quality improvement (at least when plants are introduced—and they may also serve as a noise buffer),
& finally, a decrease in boredom and absenteeism—with an accompanying increase in productivity.
A commitment to biophilic office design also demonstrates the kind of attention to detail and concern for employee wellbeing that can help employers attract top talent.
For all its many attractions, Pittsburgh is a relatively gray place to live, logging 203 cloudy days in 2016. And all those clouds means it rains a lot, too. It’s not always easy to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Being able to enjoy greenery and other natural elements within the workplace can help to stave off the disconnect that comes from being cooped up inside on a regular basis. To qualify as a truly biophilic design, the elements of nature should be integrated into the overall environment, working together rather than in isolation. But any effort to add direct experiences of nature to the workplace can bring benefits.
Earlier in this article, I referred to biophilic office design as a trend, but—ask any travel agent—the notion that people long to be in a sunny, outdoor environment is anything but new. Architects have worked to connect humans with nature as far back as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Even in the case of Wrigley Field, the decision to plant ivy along the walls was a conscious appeal to fans’ connectivity to the natural world: a reminder that at the end of the long, cold Chicago winter would come sunshine and baseball. And those hallowed outfield walls have been adorned with ivy since the 1930s.
Of course, in the Wrigley example, the ivy-covered facade is outdoors, not something for a business owner to worry about maintaining in a lobby or conference room. But a green wall is only one of a multitude of ways to introduce elements of nature to a building—making it easy for businesses of any size or location to embrace particular aspects of biophilic design.
Some companies incorporate garage doors that can be opened when the weather permits, letting in light and fresh air. Others provide all employees with multiple potted plants, and maintain them. Still others use water features—fountains, or aquariums—for the sound and appearance. To let in natural light, many businesses add skylights and atriums, or mimic the effect by installing circadian lighting systems. Adding fireplaces for warmth, color, and movement has also proven popular in recent years.
Notably, representations of the natural world can also help, particularly when used in conjunction with other elements. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible to add natural ventilation, vistas, or light to a building. But even incorporating natural building materials and images of nature may assist in keeping those inside better connected with the outdoor world.
Which brings me back to my salon. This article was all but finished when I returned to get my hair cut last week, and decided I might as well ask a few questions about the green wall that had inspired my research.
Sidling over to the office manager, who was sitting behind the welcome desk, I leaned in conspiratorially. “Does it require a lot of maintenance?” I asked in a low voice, my eyes flicking to the wall. I was so close I could almost touch it.
She considered my question a moment, then, in a voice just as quiet as my own, she responded, “Not really. It’s fake, you know.”
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Written By: Kim Pierson