Stephanie Cornwall talks to a number of experts to find out why wellbeing and biophilic design have become such important considerations within fit-out.

WELLBEING is an essential consideration when planning the interior of a building, to ensure the building’s future occupants can operate at their best and enable them to leave the building as stress-free as possible.

When considering the costs of buildings, energy consumption is freely talked about, but in fact the biggest cost is the people within them. Staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for around 90% of a business’s operating costs, while poor mental health specifically costs UK employers £30 billion a year according to a report by the World Green Building Council.

With up to 90% of our time spent indoors and in an office environment, there is now a national focus on the need to create more efficient, better-quality buildings which also
make the occupants feel better, and in turn, happier and more productive.

So, in layman’s terms, what exactly is wellbeing in buildings?
Andrew Parkin, Global Head of Acoustics at Cundall, said it is an all-encompassing term that describes how people respond to the situation or environment around them.
“In recent times, the term has become increasingly associated with discussions about the workplace, and since we spend as much as 90% of our lives indoors, a great deal of that at work, it is evident that health and wellbeing will have a major impact on the future of workplace design,” he said.

“We know that people perform at their best when they are not distracted, when they are not too hot or too cold, and when they can see without glare. These are obvious links
between wellbeing and productivity but while most people know what makes them happy and productive, they may not be aware of the link between workplace wellbeing and design.”

Wellbeing Expert at Design for Wellbeing, Elina Grigoriou, provides details and evidence of how work space impacts on people in a book commissioned and published by RIBA last year entitled ‘Wellbeing in Interiors – Philosophy, Design and Value in Practice’.

“The opportunities to improve how spaces we live, work and enjoy leisure time in are ready to be snapped up. This is because we now know how all the interior features and user impact happens and how we can intentionally support wellbeing and performance,” she said.

“We have come a long way since we have been able to cover our basic needs of having a roof over our heads, the ability to have central heating and running water in buildings. We now know much more about how the physical environment affects people and it is time we started becoming intelligent about it and step up to our efforts to grab the opportunities all around us – literally.”

Proof is in the research
Until recently, much of the evidence in favour of designing for workplace wellbeing was anecdotal, however academic studies now back this up, including work published by
Harvard and Oxford Brooks universities that indicates that a range of environmental factors, such as CO2 concentrations, thermal, visual and acoustic comfort, can have an
impact of up to 20% on people’s productivity.

Andrew Parkin said: “At Cundall, we’ve used the findings of this research to support our own experience of the obvious links between workplace design, wellbeing and productivity and developed a science-based methodology for optimising workplace design to enhance the wellbeing of occupants. This means that whether we are assessing a floor plate for future occupancy or advising on fit-out, we can ensure we are creating a bespoke solution for our clients.”

Elina added that building for wellbeing affected the whole supply chain – including clients, designers, consultants, engineers, facility managers, suppliers, subcontractors
and contractors – and all had a responsibility to ensure it was properly delivered.

“The overall building’s architecture as a whole will drive certain issues such as spatial volumes, geometry and proportions, daylight, ventilation and room flows. The interior though is where most of the impacts actually occur and where occupants’ senses are constantly impacted,” she said. “When you are sitting in a room, any room, you are looking at the interior walls, ceilings and floors, you are using the furniture and breathing in the interior mix of air. So, if we are looking to create an immediate effect on people and how well they can live their life, we need to start here, on the inside of buildings.”

Elina said she had been asked over the years by designers and other professionals in the industry where they could learn how to design for wellbeing and this had prompted
her to launch a training course, Designing Wellbeing in Interiors, that covers all the issues and can help the industry learn how to deliver for wellbeing in practice.

“The ambition is that the industry is enabled to realign its purpose on why we all do what we do, and that we can use all this amazing talent and effort for the betterment
of humanity, as a whole and for each of us individually,” she said.

Oliver Heath, who runs a research-led sustainable architecture and interior design practice focused on improving health and wellbeing in the built environment, said we are
now reaching a deeper understanding when it comes to improving our surroundings and how this can benefit our health and wellbeing.

“Self-care was a hot topic for 2019 and in 2020 we predict that this trend will continue to grow, with a strong focus on using biophilic design to improve and structure our environment to shape our lives,” he said.

Biophilic design
A report by the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) points out that environmentally-friendly buildings are not only characterised by energy, water and resource efficiency, but should incorporate interiors which provide plenty of daylight, good air quality and thermal comfort – all of which are closely related to improved occupant health. These parameters are particularly important in education and healthcare environments but can also contribute to increased productivity in offices and other working environments.

“Absenteeism is reduced, people are happier and more productive, producing work of higher quality,” the report states, adding that even small improvements in productivity can deliver considerable financial benefits.

As a result, biophilic designs are slowly becoming aesthetic hallmarks of modern interior commercial spaces.

So what exactly are biophilic designs and how do they impact?
Sales Director at Planet Partitioning, Genghis Akay, explained. “Biophilic designs connect the natural and man-made worlds to create beautiful interiors for optimum occupant comfort,” he said. “Comprising living walls, moss walls and green roofs, biophilic designs are on the rise undoubtedly as a result of their visual impact and wellbeing credentials.”

But which office environments do they work best in?
“Incorporating biophilic designs into a commercial office space will have a positive effect on employees’ health and wellbeing.

Studies have suggested the presence of plants in office spaces increases cognition by 26% and reduces sick-related absences by 30% (owing to plants’ ability to fight toxins in the atmosphere). Clearly, creating a mini oasis in the most high-pressured office environment not only preserves physical health, it has a huge impact on productivity levels; motivating employees in, let’s say, the most natural way possible,” said Genghis.

“It goes without saying that biophilic design makes people at work happier. Even the smallest cactus on an employee’s desk is the defining aspect of whether today is a good or bad day. But for companies wanting to make more of a design statement – whilst also cultivating an ‘open’ space which improves wellbeing – a solution such as moss walls might just be the answer.

“Not only do they make people happier, moss walls are easy to maintain post-installation. Moss is self-sufficient so no hydroponic or watering system is required and they don’t need much space to make an impact. If a company is looking to substitute the feature fabric wall lining in the phone room which has seen better days, a moss wall is a great alternative which won’t spoil from lack of attention.

Easily adhered to timber wall panels, once the moss is embedded into the wall it will act as a cushion to harsh acoustics, preventing sound ricochet.” He said biophilic designs are already making a positive change within workplaces in the UK and he believes it won’t be long before this design trend becomes a crucial staple of the way modern offices are created.

Andrew Parkin said biophilic design was a key factor in the design of Cundall’s London and Birmingham offices.

“Humans have an innate emotional affiliation with nature. In terms of design, this means bringing elements of nature into the workplace to make occupants feel more at home, increase feelings of wellbeing and ultimately improve productivity,” he said.

This had included plants strategically featured throughout the open-plan office and meeting rooms, while the company is trialling the impact of biophilic sound on workplace productivity, with birdsong being piped strategically throughout the office via speakers in the ceiling.

“Birdsong, a water wall and a natural palette of materials combine with planting to give a multisensory experience that is relaxing and enhances wellbeing,” Andrew said.