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It's a Jungle in There

Jan. 29, 2016

Three award-winning interiors bring the outside in.

As the way we live, work, and play becomes engrossed by technology, connecting with nature is more crucial. Designing commercial interiors with nature in mind benefits the environment and employee wellness and performance.

According to The Economics of Biophilia, a 2012 report from environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, biophilic design (design inspired by the innate human attraction to nature) is no longer a luxury, but “a sound economic investment.” This may come as a surprise.

“As designers, we have always known that the whole environment of the space makes a huge difference to people,” said Pam Light, senior vice president at HOK in Los Angeles. “What’s changed is that we’re actually now able to track it. With design, we’re seeing quantifiable results, and those can be shared with clients.”

Those results translate into tangible gains in employee productivity, patient outcomes, talent acquisition, and retention rates.

“Biophilia is one piece of focused effort to put health and wellness front and center in how we design a building,” added Zorana Bosnic, vice president and sustainable design director at HOK in San Francisco. “There is a unique and different workforce now where health and wellness are very important. Clients and owners, as well as developers, are recognizing that there is a battle for talent, and this is an important element.”

There are three pillars of biophilic design: sharing occupancy with nature in the space, using organic materials and artwork that evoke nature, and providing nature-saturated views and expansive spaces. Leading design firms are integrating them now more than ever. In 2015, design projects incorporating these elements were represented throughout IIDA competitions. Here are three firms that illustrate this shift and offer a breath of fresh air, literally.

the university of queensland oral health centre
By Cox Rayner Architects and Hames Sharley
2015 Global Excellence Awards, Education Category Winner

As both an educational institution and the largest “public dentist” in the southern hemisphere, the University of Queensland Oral Health Centre had two goals: to have the highest attrition rate of all schools in the university and attract both technically oriented and creative students, and to offer an enhanced patient experience.

“They wanted going to the dentist to be as trepidation-free as possible,” said Michael Rayner, director of Cox Rayner Architects. “We discussed creating an ‘organic’ envelope around the laboratory and clinics as a way of humanizing the experience.”


Focused on the client’s goals, the designers included both organic materials and forms. Natural ventilation, winding pathways, visual and auditory engagement with the park that flanks the building, and a timber-cocooned auditorium all contribute to the biophilic elements at play.

“We’ve had excellent feedback in the year since opening. The school had a record number of applicants from a wide range of student types,” added Rayner. “The 200 public dentist suites are booked out several months in advance.”

dentsu aegis network
By PDM International
2015 Best of Asia Pacific Design Awards, Corporate Space Large Category Winner

Dentsu Aegis Network is a global media group whose projects range from branding to digital communications. PDM International’s design of the Shanghai office mirrors the Dentsu’s approach to its work—holistic and integrated, while honoring the individual brands that fall beneath the company’s umbrella of varied service offerings. A unifying element? Nature in the space creates a theme and promotes employee health and wellness.

“We always look to incorporate natural elements in our projects first and foremost to ensure the employees have a safe and well-considered ecosystem as their workplace,” said Simon Park, design director at PDM International. In the workplace, these elements have demonstrated a decrease in absenteeism and increase in focus and mental stamina.

Green living walls populated with fresh plants enhance the building’s air quality and offer employees access to a refreshing space in areas that do not get natural light. Bamboo flooring, wool for upholstery, and timber walls bolster the biophilic design.

palo alto medical foundation, san carlos center
2015 Healthcare Interior Design Competition, Ambulatory Care Centers—Medical Office Building Public Spaces Category Winner

Natural light abounds at this state-of-the-art campus that includes an urgent care center, ambulatory and acute care programs, an outpatient surgery center, and a full clinical laboratory. Design firm NBBJ took full advantage of the center’s meadows, gardens, and courtyards, harnessing living elements and incorporating local building materials and artwork to create a healing environment for patients.

“Incorporating nature into the design was a priority enthusiastically pursued at the outset,” said Josie Briggs, senior associate interior designer at NBBJ.

Prior to development of San Carlos Center, the site was a brownfield, which gave NBBJ the opportunity to revitalize the landscape and restore its indigenous vegetation. Using the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge and Petal Recognition standards as a guide, the team integrated reclaimed, locally sourced wood into the lobby. Glass-enclosed walkways give views outdoors, while over 50 photographs depicting local plants known for their medicinal properties are displayed throughout the center.

“Connecting to nature is proven to catalyze healing by reducing stress, minimizing the need for medication, and improving mental and physical well-being,” said Briggs. “There’s a special synergy between nature and healing.”

Louisa Fitzgerald is the senior writer and editor at IIDA, which can be reached at 888-799-4432, [email protected], or www.iida.org.

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