Plants and Daylighting are Just the Beginning
Bill Browning from Terrapin Bright Green on the economics of biophilic design.
It’s no surprise that where we work has an impact on the work we do. This is something Bill Browning, founder of Terrapin Bright Green, understands - not just as a design concept, but from personal experience.
“The office space we used to have in Lower Manhattan had a view out to the harbor and the Statue of Liberty,” says Browning. “To have just that ability to look up and look out at the water was amazing, you know, particularly for me because I don't like Manhattan. New York City is just too much.”
But not everyone has that kind of view. That’s where the discipline of biophilic design comes in. At its most simple, biophilic design brings elements of nature to the interior built environment. It’s an area of practice that that had its genesis in the ‘90s, but lately it’s come more to the forefront than ever before. Most people have heard of it. Some of us vaguely understand its benefits, and when push comes to shove on construction budgets, biophilic design elements often get value engineered out.
That’s the key reason Browning and his colleagues wrote The Economics of Biophilic Design back in 2012.
Numbers don't lie
“One of the partners in Terrapin said, ‘I think we need to do this because we were having conversations with perspective clients about biophilia and you get sort of head nod up and down. Wow, that's really nice. And that's about as far as the conversation got,’” says Browning. “We needed to put the numbers together and say, hey, and it's not just really nice, but there are really big numbers associated with this.”
Knowing those numbers are more important than ever, Terrapin Bright Green has released an updated edition of The Economics of Biophilic Design. The 2023 version has updated data, insights, and practical tips for incorporating The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design into spaces.
This report looks beyond the feelings and emotions of biophilic design to highlight how the benefits translate on a financial level. Broken down by business sector, the report used data to highlight the direct and indirect financial impacts biophilic design can make.
Return to Office
As the return-to-office conversation continues, Browning notes that biophilic design can play a key part. Living through a pandemic has made people acutely aware of the impact that their surroundings can have on them. “When they could get out in nature, they were much happier,” says Browning. “So how do you translate that into the inside?”
The fact is putting a plant in the corner of the room isn’t enough. Getting people back in the office requires something dynamic. “In a lot of the biophilic offices, you have more spatial variety,” says Browning “This is something that really helps make the deal. It's a different experience than you're typically going to get at home.”
While it may be daunting to consider all the possibilities of a biophilic redesign, Browning notes there are some simple steps that can be made to improve space. “One of the things that we find most missing in office spaces is refuge. Refuge is a condition where your back is protected and there may be some canopy overhead. Think a high back booth, a canopy bed, an egg chair.” he says. “And it's really easy to retrofit that in.
“Having that experience of being able to step away even just briefly, to reset and pause and refocus, or have that quiet time is really, really important. And in particular, so many offices are open plan offices, that's really, really missing.
A Biophilic Education
One of the compelling elements of Browning’s work on the economics of biophilic design is the way the report delves into factors that are harder to quantify. Looking at absenteeism and churn rates offers concrete numbers, but what about the indirect benefits?
Research shows that a year-over-year comparison of the same classroom and teacher combination with biophilic design elements offered reduced stress and improved learning outcomes for students. The test scores improved three times higher. At the same time, the teacher could offer more impactful instruction because they spent more time facilitating learning rather than managing behavior.
And then there’s the long game. “If students do better and more than graduate, their lifetime economics tend to be better dramatically better,” says Browning. This has long-ranging implications for society at large.
Improving outcomes and bottom lines
If there is one area where the impact of biophilic design seems most acute, it’s healthcare. It’s here that the touchy-feely aspects of biophilia most directly translate to dollars and cents. Biophilia has the ability to make us feel better, but when you apply that to patient care, where feeling better is driving force of the industry, the results can be dramatic.
“Most people don't realize that hospitals don't make money with people in beds. Hospitals make money with people undergoing operations… and they're limited in the number of operations they can do by how many beds. And how long people are parked in those beds,” says Browning. “So, if they can increase the number of people healing faster and getting out, then that increases the throughput that they can do, the more patients they can treat.”
Knowing that, Browning extrapolates that a hypothetical hospital that implements biophilic design intervention to improve patient outcomes could increase patient revenues by $3.6 million. And that doesn’t even take into account revenue savings triggered by staff retention.
“It's design where we see our direct outcomes,” says Browning. “It’s design where we see reduction in stress, better cognitive performance, better mood, more pro social behavior. We see big economic benefits as well. So, it's a way of thinking about design that improves people's lives.”
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