The next big thing in building design is the great outdoors

Biophilia brings the outside into workspaces—and imagines how it would look if the workspace wasn't there

Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.

In 2017, Interface Carpet was relocating from Georgia’s horse country to a four-story cement building in central Atlanta. The world’s biggest producer of carpet tile had conceived its new headquarters with the intention of energizing young designers, wowing international buyers, and proclaiming its mission to grow without harming nature. To bring those goals to life, corporate VP Chip DeGrace knew just who to call: his old pal Bill Browning.

Browning, a design strategist and sustainability consultant, has been thinking about reviving buildings since 1973, when he published a key paper that helped define the “green building” industry. DeGrace knew him in those days for his work with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and engineering shop that pioneered hydrogen cars and other innovations.

In the decades since, Browning has advised the architects and owners who created the Bank of America Tower in New York, Google’s East Coast headquarters, and other global landmarks. His consulting firm, Terrapin Bright Green, which is a member at WeWork 25 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, guides real estate owners to implement an overarching idea that Browning, DeGrace, and hundreds of property specialists call biophilia.

By way of explaining the movement, Browning poses this fundamental question: “Can we build and operate a building that delivers the ecosystem that would have been here without the building?”  

Biophilic design takes strong guidance from nature. Lights mimic the arc of the sun, growing brighter and dimmer over the day. Central artwork and corridors look like forests or valleys, at the very least using those ecosystems’ materials and colors.  Sounds echo those that calm or orient people in a park or on a trail.

Clients call Terrapin when forming a strategy to reduce sick days, improve efficiency in limited space, or breathe life into a new headquarters. “Browning isn’t here to tell us what it should look like,” DeGrace explains. “He’s here to tell us how nature would do it.”

Interface moved into its new space in August 2018. A digital print wraps around the exterior of the building so that the view across West Peachtree Street evokes a Georgia Piedmont forest. Because it receives strong sunlight to the north and east, those sides of the building use less artificial light. The main workspace features green semicircular couches for meetings. Product samples and color swatches sit upstairs near a terrace. In the rear, workers can retreat to yoga rooms without windows or illumination where they can reset or stretch.

Biophilia honors the fact that workers use different settings to accomplish different goals.  Interface no longer asks professionals to manage all of their workflow in a cube under bright lights. Just as you don’t try to drink from a rock or catch a fish from a field, you shouldn’t have to try to recharge your creative energies in a monotonous setting or drum up ideas in a cluttered one.  

To Browning, sustainable living begins with paying attention to how human needs map to nature. His firm advises clients like Interface and Google throughout design projects. Most of its recommendations flow from three main strategies (which are outlined in the handbook Terrapin recently published). One places “nature in the space” by bringing in natural light or big windows. Another suggests “natural analogs,” like regional wood or bamboo for walls and floors. A third emphasizes “nature of the space,” in which designers lay out a floor plan so people see far-off beacons (such as) and find visually pleasing places where they can rest.

These patterns play out differently in different regions. In Twin Falls, Idaho, for instance, the Clif Bar bakery evokes nearby mountains with a jagged wooden exterior and fake snow painted on top. The hotel lobbies around midtown Manhattan that Terrapin has helped design showcase Hudson Valley wood and stone, and orient guests toward big windows.   

Terrapin’s team also researches how seeing nature correlates with feelings of calm, focus and alertness in hospitals, schools, hotels, and offices. Browning is finalizing a hotel-based study that shows guests spend more time in biophilia-designed lobbies than in traditional ones.  

Ink48, in far west Midtown Manhattan, is one such space. It’s in the same vicinity as  a Holiday Inn Express and a Comfort Inn, both with lobbies filled with glaring light, competing televisions, and heated trays of uneaten food on a side table.  

But Ink48 feels like a national park by comparison. The lobby lights are low. Cowhide chairs with deep, back-supporting curves face the broad avenue. Guests drink coffee behind a glass partition, set apart from the flow of people checking in and out.  Behind the check-in desk, natural wood frames a wall of iris blue, yellow, and pea-green slats, recalling a horizon line. People linger.

Plant-lined staircase at WeWork Gas Tower in Los Angeles, CA.

The idea that natural cues foster effective work has spread to many companies, including WeWork. Devin Vermulen, WeWork’s senior creative director, says he and his team experimented with plants in workspaces a couple of years ago. Members enjoyed them so much, Vermulen recalls, that the plants “became ubiquitous” in more locations.  

Next, “we want to start testing circadian lighting,” continues Vermulen, a longtime design leader in the company.  “These lighting systems use LED bulbs to change their color temperature and mimic what’s happening outdoors, and that can improve your cognition.”

Terrapin’s next big project is an overhaul of the core the international airport in Portland, Oregon. The team of engineers, architects, and landscape architects is analyzing who’s likely to be in certain sections of the airport at a given time.  

A business traveler has probably already checked in on their phone and doesn’t typically get stressed until the gate,” Browning says. “A family with young kids is probably stressed all the way to the kids’ play area. Someone traveling for a funeral or to see a sick person is never stress-free.” Terrapin will recommend a mix of views, materials, lighting, and pathways to limit stress for every type of flier.

Going forward, Browning wants to go beyond making buildings that reflect the ecology around them—he wants to make them a measurable part of the ecosystem. “We’re assigning numbers to a building’s carbon balance, to how it uses water,” Browning says.  “That’s a major area of focus for us.”

But for current clients like Interface, the main focus is helping creative professionals focus.

DeGrace says Interface staff flocked to the new zones created by Terrapin—though some employees needed a few days to acclimate to the freedoms.

“People feel guilty doing something other than sitting at a desk,” he says. “But if you’re open to being more effective and healthier rather than just sitting and drinking more coffee and more coffee, then try … and see what it does.”

Beginning the biophilic breakthrough

You don’t need a master’s degree to bring natural coherence into your workplace. Try these three simple steps:

Place a photo from nature on your desk or your phone wallpaper. Looking at natural settings sparks feelings of calm, alertness, and focus—even if those natural settings are just copies.

Bring a plant to work. Many studies support the link between the volume of flora in an office and the quality of air there. Higher air quality correlates with higher cognitive function and fewer sick days.

Come into the light. At peak work hours—roughly when the sun climbs highest in the sky—work in the brightest part of your office, even if it means toting your laptop to the kitchen or a common area. Cycling your tasks in tune with the course of the day can help limit procrastination (and later on, improve sleep).

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