In August 2019, I visited The Spheres, Amazon’s botanic sanctuary nestled within Seattle’s urban landscape. The mission: to shift my perspective by exploring the concept of Biophilia, humans deep-rooted desire to seek connection with nature.
Over 90% of our lives are spent indoors. This staggering statistic means our interior environments have a tremendous impact on our overall well-being, affecting our general mood, energy, sleep quality and productivity levels. The demands of life today have a cumulative and negative impact on our wellness, setting in motion a corrosive cycle of sedentary behavior, bad diets, poor air quality and lack of time spent outdoors. If left to its own devices, this cycle can lead to health problems such as stress through elevated levels of cortisol, disruption to the circadian rhythm, even emotional toll from social isolation. If we do venture outside, many times our tablets and smartphones still dominate our attention.
Simultaneously, evidence shows that interaction with nature generates happiness. (Abstract: nbcnews) Studies correlate positive psychological effects and immune recovery with time spent in the forest, aka “forest bathing.” After returning to urban confines, the mere smell, feel and sound of the forest while indoors decreased the blood pressure and pulse rate of study subjects, inducing a relaxed state. (Abstract: Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences, Chiba University, Japan).
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” – The World Health Organization
Edward O. Wilson coined the Biophilia Hypothesis as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” suggesting an instinctive bond existing between human beings and other living systems. Rooted in our evolutionary dependence for survival and personal fulfillment, this hypothesis supports our desire to travel, explains why over 100 million Americans own a cat or dog and is responsible for the increase of value in houses with a view, advanced landscaping (+7% selling price), or waterfront property (+127% selling price).
Despite biophilia’s recent momentum, this concept has been a way of connecting since ancient times, evident as far back as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Current movements such as the aim to reduce carbon footprints, a focus on sustainability and a heightened awareness of responsibility within the social agenda have ushered in an architectural age of “living buildings” and an increased demand for plants in retail. The method? Biophilic Design; the concept inspiring enthusiasts of all ages to flock to plants and greenery, cultivating social groups and connecting humans to the natural environment.(theguardian.com)
“What could we learn from what makes us love being outside, and incorporate it into the design of our buildings?” – Amanda Sturgeon, International Living Future Institute
According to acclaimed English architect Lord Norman Foster, “Future generations will be much more demanding and questioning in terms of what a potential employer will be doing to tackle climate change.” He predicts young professionals will not only choose office buildings based on facilities and lifestyle but also their sustainability credentials. The force behind movements such as the “green office revolution”? Millennials. (greenroofs.com)
The biophilic design movement increases occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the intersection of nature, space and place conditions. The practice is centered on creating a habitat for humans as biological organisms within modern buildings that are constructed to advance health, fitness and well-being. The wealth of benefits for occupants and employees are astounding. While the inclusion of plants in interior environments reduce stress and increases pain tolerance, the addition of water elements and nature views are mentally restorative.
“I am generally a laid-back Zen kind of person, but I’ve never been more relaxed than since I’ve been working (in this environment). My skin has never looked better. I get to hang out with all the people that come here and talk about the plants with everyone. What could be better?” – Amazon HQ Employee
Evolved building efforts and heightened priority of employee well-being constructs a perfect avenue for biophilic design within the walls of big tech companies. Tech giants Google and Amazon take this concept to the next level.
A leader in conducting biophilic design experiments is none other than Google. With the aim to use science-based metrics across buildings and campuses globally, Google has tested the use of plants, terraces, water features and organic patterns in carpeting to better employee productivity and satisfaction. Googlers at the Chicago campus are provided full-spectrum light by way of task lights, complete with adjustable color temperature. At other locations, workstations are positioned by gardens, orchards and living walls, abounding with ferns, ivy and other greenery. Anthony Ravitz, Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services Green Team Lead says, “We’ve found that Googlers with desks closer to windows are more likely to feel that their work environment lets them be more productive and sparks creativity. This feedback reinforces our belief that building design helps reduce stress levels, increase creativity and improve performance, and we’ll continue finding ways to measure and support this.”
“There are never any angry people in the Spheres.” – Amazon HQ Employee
Opened to the public by appointment in 2018, The Spheres at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters are nothing short of an architectural masterpiece. The Spheres consist of three conjoined spherical conservatories, dwarfed by the Amazon HQ campus. Inspired by the notion that “there are no corners to nature”, The Spheres are constructed of 2,636 panes of glass. The steel frame is based on the modular geometry of a Catalan solid, with the intention to have a continuous, organic look as it reflects patterns found in nature. Meeting spaces, restaurants and seating areas are concealed within a wonderland of botanic gardens, brimming with over 40,000 plants native to mid-elevation cloud forest ecosystems. Standing 60 feet tall, the Living Wall towers over floating walkways and wooden nests. According to Amazon’s horticulturist, Ben Eiben, “The Spheres were created in part to help employees innovate, create or simply recharge while being immersed in space that’s more like a forest in the clouds than an office.”
“When I started working here I thought it would be fine enough, being in this building, but working here since October, I find I’m much more creative. I have many new ideas for my creative projects in my free time. I didn’t anticipate that at all when I started working here. I also feel I have a lot more energy.” – Amazon HQ Employee
During my tour of The Spheres, the guide pointed to Biophilic Design, informing, “The more greenery in your environment directly relates to the amount of creativity you have in your work. People have enhanced creativity from being nearer plants. The Spheres are a place where Amazon employees can think and work differently. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos wanted to create an environment for people to enjoy that embodies this idea. The intention was for the company to provide an alternative working space for employees that want to use it.”
“Even after 10 minutes of forest bathing, the benefits can be noticed: People walk at a much slower pace (1.2 – 1.8 MPG is the best speed to walk for thinking). So that goes to support the theory of Biophilia – if you just THINK better by being around plants, you are probably also able to be more creative!” – Amazon HQ Employee
Biophilic design doesn’t come cheap. Costs associated with biophilic projects may be higher than otherwise, due to the inclusion of natural elements requiring maintenance. However, perceived health and environmental benefits offset the cost.
“The challenge will be to make sure biophilic design isn’t just something for elite technologists living in green bubbles.” – Richard Louv
These strategies for boosting quality of life and work for human beings using the power of nature are just a few of the inspiring examples of Biophilic Design. As the movement continues to gain momentum, the hope is that we return as much life as we have absorbed from the planet to better our own lives, slow down the changes we are seeing in our climate and improve at preserving the resources we have.
POV by Cynthia Valenti, Business Affairs Specialist at INDUSTRY