Biophilic design need not be confined to office buildings and other commercial spaces. The home is the ideal place to create a biophilic space for home working as well as relaxing - and this can be obtained without having to spend a fortune. Here we explore the benefits of domestic biophilic design and give some very simple and cost-effective tips to help you thrive in your home working setting.
What is biophilic design?
Biophilic design is a design process that brings the theory of biophilia into the built environment. Biophilia is a theory rooted in evolutionary biology and genetics, and was first popularized by Edward O Wilson in his classic book, Biophilia, published in 1984. Essentially, the theory reminds us that we are animals that have spent over 99% of our evolutionary history living in environments, such as the open plains of Africa. During that time, our survival as a species depended on our senses being fine-tuned to that environment, and our reliance on various species of plant, animal and fungus for food, shelter and fuel.
In a few short centuries, our species ceased being hunter-gatherers and we actually domesticated ourselves (along with dozens of plant and animal species) to live in artificial environments, such as cities. In less than a thousand generations, Homo sapiens divorced ourselves from our natural environment and the sensory stimuli that we need to thrive.
Biophilic design is a way of creating environments that rebuild some of those sensory and biological connections, which reduce stress and increase wellbeing and happiness.
Consider the domestic chicken. As a wild animal, the jungle fowl is a forest-dwelling bird that thrives by scrabbling around on the ground, picking up a varied diet of seeds, leaves, insects and other invertebrates. When domesticated and placed in conditions of intense population density and cramped conditions, they fail to thrive.
However, the free-range hen, even though far from its jungle home, has an environment much closer to its natural conditions, and can lead a less stressful life, often living longer and requiring fewer veterinary interventions. As an aside, it is worth pointing out that battery hens and lab animals have more legal rights to an enriched environment than human office workers.
The battery human, also once released into a free-range environment will thrive (even though we are still constrained by our physical environment and societal expectations - hunting and gathering in the streets of our cities will be frowned upon). Biophilic design is one way of creating such an environment.
The home office environment
Over the last year, office workers have, in many instances, been let loose from the constraints of the office. For a year, the cathedrals of commerce have been deserted and the shiny factories of data processing and document production are quiet.
As a result, the newly liberated office worker has been forced to create a new working environment in their homes.
For some, this has been easy - there may be a spare room that can be used, or space at a large dining table, or even a garden building that can be used. However, for many, especially younger people living in expensive shared accommodation, creating a usable space has proved a challenge.
Over the last year, many people have been forced to improvise a homeworking set-up. Early on, there was a reasonable assumption that such a set-up need only be temporary.
However, things have changed and, even with the end of the pandemic in sight, it seems unlikely that there will be a wholesale return to 9-5 office working, 5 days a week.
Several large organizations have already stated that they will be introducing permanent changes to working practices that will see regular periods of homeworking become a part of the employment landscape.
With that in mind, we need to consider how to create a homeworking environment that is both practical and good for wellbeing. When we create environments for humans - offices, for example - we tend to make them very space efficient, very energy efficient and completely unlike the environment where our species has spent over 99% of its evolutionary history. If our senses are not stimulated naturally, we become stressed and uncomfortable and that is why a re-connection with nature is so beneficial. So how do we do it?
Simple tips for a biophilic home office
To help reconnect with our natural environment, especially in the spring and summer, we have opportunities to take short breaks outdoors. We might have a garden, or be close to a public park where we can have a coffee break or eat a sandwich. Even a walk around the local streets can be reinvigorating.
Some people find that creating a break between home life and work life, even if it takes place in the same room, can be helpful at either end of the day. An artificial commute - a ten minute walk around the neighbourhood, for instance - can be good for a reset.
Give yourself a view
If possible, arrange your desk so that when you look up from the keyboard or screen you can see out of a window. Even if the view is of another building, it will be something distant to focus on, and that will ease eye strain and give you a sense of what is going on outside. It might help you decide whether to venture out on a break, or hunker down in the warm, but whatever the weather, you will connect to the world outside.
If there is no way of getting a direct window view, a well-placed mirror can be useful to bring an outside view indoors. The change in light during the day, along with movement of trees or clouds can make an otherwise sterile space come to life.
Open a window
An open window will refresh the air and flush out excess carbon dioxide and other pollutants generated from within the home. It will also bring the sounds of the outside world in - you may hear voices or birdsong or the sound of the wind. It might also be traffic noise, but even that can sometimes be a relief from silence.
Get your lighting right
Good light makes a real difference to your comfort, especially for prolonged periods at a desk looking at a screen. Light quantity, quality and direction are important, as is the avoidance of glare, which can be very distracting.
In offices, there are guidelines for the amount of light at the desk, and the avoidance of glare, and that is why a lot of money is invested in the design of interior lighting in offices. That is much more difficult in a domestic environment, although recent advances in LED lighting have made it easier to control light quality and brightness.
It is worth investing in a good task light, though, as they can provide excellent, glare-free illumination of the right quality, that is also easily adjustable.
Buy some houseplants
inspire us. This is the eye-catching, Instagram-friendly intervention that will illustrate the pages of the colour supplements and lifestyle websites. However, it is one of the most effective ways of bringing some life indoors.
Plants not only add green interest to the indoor environment, they can also have an impact on indoor air quality and noise levels (if you have enough of them and place them carefully).
Houseplants also bring out the nurturer in you as they demand some care. Watering your plants
(not too much), cleaning and trimming
and arranging plants can be very therapeutic.
Follow your nose
Our sense of smell is our most primitive - detecting chemicals in the environment (which is what the sense of smell is all about) was the first sense to evolve in the animal kingdom. We often react to scents instinctively and before we are consciously aware of them, so we can use fragrances to create a multi-dimensional sensory environment very easily. The range and quality of home fragrances is more comprehensive than ever before, so there is bound to be something appealing.
I'm not going to go down the road of recommending particular scents for particular settings or tasks - we risk straying into pseudoscience - just choose something that you and your housemates like.
We use our sense of hearing and smell to detect the presence of water, often before we see it - this is a survival mechanism. As wild animals, we needed to be able to find safe water - not just to drink, but to find prey that also needed a drink.
Watery scents create a strong instinctive reaction. The smell of freshly-fallen rain (called petrichor) is actually caused by bacteria on dry surfaces releasing a chemical when they get wet. For humans, being able to detect petrichor has a survival advantage, especially for our ancestors living on the dry plains. Being able to find fresh water was of great importance - not just for hydration, but also a place where food animals might also be found.
The sound of rainfall or babbling streams can be found easily just by asking Alexa (or other smart speaker system). A fish tank or small indoor water feature can also be soothing.
Take care of your skin
The skin is your largest sense organ. As well as stopping your insides from escaping, your skin is home to myriad sensors that detect temperature, pressure, movement and resistance, shape and texture and even changes in humidity and static electricity. Don't starve it of sensation. Use different textures around your workstation and allow your skin to be stimulated. Create a breeze (not a draught), experience some sunlight or even take a shower for pleasure rather than utility.
Making sense of your environment
Biophilic design is, at its core, the creation of an environment that stimulates all of your senses congruently. Where stimuli contradict each other (e.g when your eyes tell you one thing about your environment, but your ears and nose tell you something different), then you put your sensory system under stress. This causes the production of stress hormones which prime the body for escape or conflict. By creating environments that minimize those contradictory signals, you will be physically and psychologically more comfortable.
Comfort is the key
Biophilic design isn’t just about plants. It isn’t about bringing nature indoors. It is about being comfortable - physically and mentally. Comfort brings happiness and happiness is the key to both life satisfaction and also job satisfaction. A little investment in comfort can pay huge dividends for the individual and employers relying on home-based workers.
by: Kenneth Freeman
Main image supplied by Simply-C photography, courtesy of FUSIONspaces