Steelcase Roundtable: The Biophilia Equation in Design

One thing’s for sure: Steelcase Roundtable discussions are events to look forward to. For those not aware, workspace solutions manufacturer Steelcase hosts roundtable discussions a few times a year. These are informal events attended by leaders from various industries with a different agenda each time. Their last roundtable was focused on biophilia and biophilic design with attendees primarily from the A+D industry.

Those involved in the discussion this time around included John Hamilton from Coalesse; Rick Bomer from Steelcase; Abeer Sajjad from Steelcase; Hania Arafat from Steelcase; Farah Addada from Allen Architecture Interior Design; Adil Amin from Bluehaus Group; Matt Hall from Interface; and Valentina Cereda from Perkins+Will.

We managed to chat with Abeer Sajjad, Brand Communications Manager at Steelcase Middle East, post-event for a brief on what was discussed. Among the key points discussed is the industry’s perception of biophilia and what it really means, its relevance and influence in today’s workspaces, and some case studies to learn from.

Smart Dubai Office by DWP

Plants are just one part of the Biophilic Design Equation

Attendees were able to agree on one thing and that’s how the region perceives biophilic design. According to these thought leaders, it is really just clients envisioning a space with plants found in and around a space. And it’s up to design firms and manufacturers to change this notion.

According to Adil, there are two scales to this. There’s the global, more recognizable scale that includes leafy green plants, which symbolizes the most common and visible connection to nature. Then there’s the local scale; examples include using patterns that are symbolic of the sand dunes we commonly see in the deserts of the UAE. This is also considered biophilia or biophilic design, and people can relate to their outdoor environment.

“A researcher at Steelcase made an interesting observation about biophilic design. When done well, design elements can trick the brain and influence mood with small cues to nature. Not the shallow kind like plant murals, but the more subtle kinds of textures, patterns or even lighting. It’s not just about nature – it’s about reminding you where you are. It can vary with location and culture,” says Hania. Matt further adds that, from his experience, a huge challenge to designers in the UAE is the lack of natural views. So it’s important to be able to bring outdoors natural elements inside. The design has to be approached holistically.” He further points out that, “it’s about getting the whole concept right. Yes, I represent a carpet brand, but for me, it’s about circadian rhythms, lighting, and about how the mood effects people throughout the course of the day.”

However, Valentina made an interesting point: does any form of biophilic design work, or does it have to be relevant to the people or region? For example, not everyone may be comfortable in an office space inspired by a desert just because it reflects the local terrain. In response, John noted that local approaches should take precedence.

Dubai-Properties Head Office by Kahler Design

The Challenge With Biophilic Design: What You Can Feel But Can’t Always See

A problem with biophilic design can be its perceived intangibility. As mentioned earlier, it’s not as easy as throwing a few plants in a room and immediately feeling like you’re breathing has improved. As John mentioned, it’s more about the experience – something we can’t quantify yet.

“We have situations where we as the designers have done things where people will say ‘wow, there’s something about this space and I don’t know why but I really like it’, and they’ll keep returning to it. After you take certain things away, then all of a sudden it’s not used as much. People will then say to you ‘it’s just lost something.’ And they can’t tell you what it is and they can’t articulate why. But there was this cognitive thing that we had done in this space, whether it’s with the light or something else that they are responding to. It was a biophilic response but they didn’t know it. I think that’s what we are all talking about,” says John.

Another interesting observation is how clients are usually split into the extremes as some want the project to revolve around biophilia, and others see biophilia as an unnecessary add-on to costs, which is often an incorrect assumption.

As Farah pointed out, “it has to do with air, and the environment as well. The things that you don’t see, but how you feel in that space. How the stuff above you is making you feel. You could play music or play the sounds of water and the cycle should be every 20 minutes. Or air… if you just have the wind blowing so you feel like you’re outdoors and invoke this sensory change. I think these are the things you don’t necessarily see but you feel them. And then of course with the subtle touches of design, it also helps in making someone feel the way they feel.”

Dubai-Properties Head Office by Kahler Design

Is Biophilic Design Important? Absolutely

“A connection to nature in some way is important. It’s important in the way people feel engaged to the space, and spaces need to trigger an emotion. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from nature or whether they recognize themselves within their organization. That’s when they feel they belong and are therefore engaged,” affirms Valentina. Of late, Perkins+Will has been seeing a rise in the number of clients asking for a space that includes biophilic elements, but don’t want anything too expensive. Clients need to understand biophilic design as an important tool to connect people to nature.

Absenteeism is a huge problem that organizations have to tackle now. Matt highlighted that, “Clients need to be convinced of the costs that can be offset by the use of biophilic design. Not only will they get a more productive workforce that’s actually happier to get to work, they achieve a massive cost saving through the decline in absenteeism in the workforce.” 

John further mentions that if an organization gets the right space, you can get people to come back to work. There was a time in Silicon Valley where they were allowing people to go out. When phones and laptops became mainstream in the corporate world, employees were given permission to work wherever they wanted – at home, café, and hotels. People soon realized they weren’t having face to face conversations anymore, communication was occurring via email, and the trust that had been built, the community and culture, it was all gone. So if biophilic design can keep people indoors and help them stay engaged naturally, then why not use biophilic design?

During the discussion, Valentina mentioned a very a successful project by Perkins+Will. In fact, it’s one of the firm’s most successful ones in the region in terms of design, employee happiness, and the shift in how the project went by and the success that followed. The brief was simple: “I want employees to be happy to come to the office in the morning – that’s my aim.” The project did, in fact, include biophilic design, but at the root of it was the client’s belief in the concept.

Desert Routes by BIA Design Studio

Related Articles

Flooring for Good