Have you ever thought of biophilic design as a cost-saving design approach? Many people think biophilic design has to be costly, but thankfully that’s not the case. That’s because while biophilic design can require an upfront investment, it pays dividends in the long run, both environmentally and financially. Here’s a closer look at how biophilic design makes perfect economic sense.
Biophilia, Employee Retention, and the Cost of Turnover
First, let’s look at biophilic design in the office. Biophilic offices are becoming more commonplace, and the natural aesthetic isn’t the only reason for that. Companies are also saving money thanks to biophilia. The key to understanding how biophilic design can help save money is considering how it benefits workers and, more specifically, solves workers’ problems.
From Peldon Rose: Biophilic offices help workers to feel happier and be healthier
Consider the phenomenon of low employee engagement, which is one of the most troublesome issues in the workplace today. In its State of the American Workplace report, Gallup found that a whopping 70 percent of employees are not engaged at work. That in and of itself is costing companies billions; all told, actively disengaged employees cost the US $450 to $550 billion per year.
What’s more, businesses experience large financial losses as a result of high turnover. When salaried workers leave, replacement requires hefty recruiting and training costs. On average, it costs 6 to 9 months’ salary to replace a salaried employee. This is why 47 percent of HR leaders reported that employee retention and turnover is their top workforce management challenge.
So what’s making employees so unhappy and disengaged? Many experts point to poor worker well-being as a primary reason behind problems like low engagement and absenteeism. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that direct and indirect costs of poor worker health amount to 25 to 35 percent of payroll. As Knoll pointed out in an article, “Poor employee well-being can reduce engagement and morale, increase overtime, require overstaffing, increase turnover and make people more prone to accidents.”
Poor Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) is one of the top reasons why worker well-being is suffering. The CDC defines IEQ as being composed of several factors including lighting, air quality, and damp conditions. Poor IEQ can lead to a host of health conditions, including Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and Building Related Illness (BRI). While these conditions aren’t often talked about, they’re some of the leading causes of poor worker health. According to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, “SBS leads to an increase in self-reported illness absences and reduced productivity in offices.” That can lead to chronic absenteeism and eventually turnover.
As a result of this increase in engagement-related issues, more and more businesses are turning to biophilic design. Biophilia fundamentally solves the problem of building-related illnesses by promoting workplaces that are inherently beneficial to occupant health. The use of natural and nontoxic building materials in biophilic design results in a cleaner built environment that comprehensively supports wellness.
There have been many studies conducted that found a positive correlation between biophilic design elements and improved well-being. Reclaimed wood is especially powerful in this area as it is an organic material direct from nature that introduces a multi-sensorial design component. A report by Planet Ark looked at the positive effects of wood on physical health and concluded that the material excels at reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. This has enormous implications for occupants, as lowered stress can help prevent significant health consequences such as obesity and diabetes.
Ultimately, biophilic design can help employees to be more present, creative and more engaged at their jobs, which in turn reduces absenteeism and turnover (and the accompanying financial consequences). Studies affirm that workers who are closed off from nature take more sick leave than workers in biophilic spaces. In fact, as much as 10% of employee absences can be attributed to non-biophilic offices. Biophilic design can reduce that number, mitigate turnover costs, enhance employee retention, and create a better working environment.
The Cost-Saving Effects of Good Air Quality
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is one of the most critical aspects of overall IEQ. Poor IAQ can have a wide range of consequences from reduced productivity to respiratory illnesses. A leading cause of poor IAQ is inadequate ventilation solutions. The American Lung Association notes that effective ventilation “may also help keep bacteria, viruses and other pollutants out of the indoor air.” Ventilation can also reduce the amount of moisture in the air, reducing dampness and preventing “the growth and transmission of viruses and bacteria.”
One obvious solution is a high quality HVAC system that can increase IAQ. This also seems costly upfront, but it pays for itself quickly. One case study that followed an office in Mumbai, India, found that a good HVAC system can result in exceptional savings. The office building’s retrofit that included a $92,000 HVAC upgrade was projected to pay for itself in just 4.7 years––and that number is based on electricity bill savings alone. Keep in mind that India is considered a developing country, which makes these savings even more remarkable.
Biophilic design also promotes the use of plants and greenery, which naturally purify the air and improve air quality. Plants have been shown to remove toxic compounds from the air, and they can even reduce the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that act as carcinogens. Even placing just one plant in a workspace can promote well-being. Plants are extremely cost-effective and offer both biophilic and aesthetic advantages, so whether you use a few potted plants or a living wall, you can easily and affordably improve IAQ.
From Habitat Horticulture: Plants can drastically improve IAQ and create a healthier indoor environment
In addition to plants, wood also helps improve IAQ by helping to moderate humidity. Wood naturally absorbs and emits moisture as it maintains equilibrium with the air in the built environment. The ability of wood to moderate humidity can have a particularly important impact in workplaces. In conjunction to a high quality HVAC system, incorporating wood as well as plants in a space can ensure air quality that will lead to occupant satisfaction and productivity.
These Case Studies Show the ROI of Biophilia
Biophilic design has already helped businesses around the world save millions of dollars. If your curiosity has been piqued, check out these case studies that detail the ROI that biophilia provides.
One of the first businesses to reduce absenteeism through biophilic design was ING Bank in 1978. The company was building a new headquarters in Amsterdam, and they took a radical design approach, incorporating daylighting and water installations. When the new office was finished, absenteeism decreased by an incredible 15%. What’s more, the bank saved an estimated $2.6 million per year thanks to the daylighting and energy saving systems.
These results can happen faster than you might think. At the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Call Center, employees with seated access to views of nature handled calls 6 to 7 percent faster than those without views of nature. The Center made the decision to reconstruct the office to provide all employees with an accessible view of nature. While the expense of this reconstruction totaled $1,000 per employee, the annual productivity savings averaged to $2,990 per employee, and the redesign paid for itself in just 4 months. These results aren’t mere outliers. Companies around the world are seeing similar savings after incorporating biophilic design.
Here’s one more case study that was instrumental in helping the Architecture & Design industry understand the macroeconomic benefits of biophilic design. In 1984, professor and researcher Roger Ulrich analyzed the effects of natural views on hospital patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. 23 patients were placed in rooms with views of nature, while another 23 patients were placed in rooms that just had a brick wall. Ulrich found that the patients with access to views of nature had shorter hospital stays, amounting to an 8.5% difference. Terrapin Bright Green extrapolated that data and estimated that the U.S. could save $93 million yearly by implementing biophilic design in hospitals rooms.
From Terrapin Bright Green: Biophilic design could save U.S. hospitals $93 million each year
What About WELL Certification?
The WELL Building Standard fully incorporates biophilic design into its program. It was recently updated with the goal of making the standard more universal, and it won’t be long before WELL Certification becomes the norm.
As you’ve seen in this article, investing in biophilic design pays in the long run, and this is similarly true for WELL Certification. Developers are pursuing WELL Certification to deliver occupant well-being but also see the added value in the realm of building occupancy rate and added property values. John Mooz, Senior Managing Director at Hines in Houston, Texas, knows that high-quality buildings have higher resale value. He notes that buildings with healthy features as outlined by WELL can command up to a 20 percent rent premium over market rate, in addition to savings on operational costs.
And since WELL and LEED go hand in hand, there are also many energy-related savings. Some buildings have seen a 12% reduction in overall energy use and 40% reduction in water consumption. These are substantial enough in the short term, but they also add up over time and help you consistently save money.
Why It’s Cheaper To Pay More for Biophilia
Biophilic design may seem like an added expense at first, but it’s important to look beyond the initial price tags. In the long run, biophilia saves money by preventing poor occupant health and optimizing the built environment for human well-being. The upfront costs are small compared to the long term savings, as demonstrated by the above case studies and statistics. Biophilic design is all about making people as healthy and as happy as possible, and that comes with a plethora of benefits that will more than pay for themselves. To wrap-up, if you’re looking to reduce absenteeism, mitigate turnover costs, enhance employee retention, and create a better working environment it is time to explore biophilic design.