Biophilic building for human resilience and pandemic prevention

The Spine is a new 160,000 sq ft Grade A office building located at Paddington Village in Liverpool. As the flagship building on the site, it will be the new Northern home to the Royal College of Physicians and several other NHS occupiers. Named ‘The Spine’ due to its highly visible, vertebrae-like staircase, the building has been designed to be one of the world’s healthiest buildings and will open its doors in April 2021.

Derived in 1964 by the social psychologist Erich Fromm, ‘biophilia’ means to love life. In this article, architect Robert Hopkins, explains how the application of biophilic design and sensor-led monitoring systems can aid human resilience in an indoor work environment, like The Spine.

When we’re indoors we crave the outdoors, and so this can manifest itself in stress, in the performance of our brains and in our emotions and our mood. Biophilic design aims to address this by increasing resilience and creativity, reducing stress, and improving cognitive performance, mood and emotions by seeking to provoke humankind’s innate biological connections with nature within building and space design.

As architects, we were inspired by a paper authored about five years ago by Terrapin Bright Green, who merged over a decade of research in this area into what is described as ‘14 patterns of biophilic design’ []. Essentially these different patterns relate to visual and non-visual connections with nature, sensory stimuli, thermal and airflow variability, water, dynamic and diffuse line patterns, forms and natural systems. When applied in a workplace setting, each of these can have significant and measurable impact on human response mechanisms, reducing stress and improving overall resilience to long indoor work hours.

The power of natural patterns

Visual connections with nature, for example, lower our blood pressure and heart rate. Temperature and thermal airflow within a workspace can affect task performance. The presence of water in an environment improves mood and self-esteem. Light affects attitude, happiness and – significantly – circadian rhythms. Being exposed to natural sunlight and the natural rhythm of daylight, can improve sleep by around 45 minutes per night. A complex space can reach inside your brain and improve cognitive function that may otherwise lay dormant in a simple environment.

Biophilic buildings aim to bring you in tune with your surroundings. To do this requires all aspects of the building; lighting, air, water, and the space itself, to evoke nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean they must be all natural, but they should have a biological reference and sensor-based monitors are used extensively to control such features. Air and water must be temperature controlled, well-filtered and pollution free. Atmospheric CO2 levels should be balanced carefully to encourage optimum brain function. Water must be appropriately potable to encourage hydration or the correct temperature to encourage regular handwashing. Light sources can be tuned to account for natural dips and troughs in performance throughout the day.

In addition to controlling the natural ‘ecosystem’ of a biophilic building, sensor-based technologies also support pandemic-driven cleanliness, the efficient use of space and transparency of data.

The Spine – sense and purpose

Our latest project is The Spine in Liverpool, which uses the human body as its inspiration using biophilic principles, transparency of information and sensor-led monitoring and control technologies to best effect. It also follows the WELL building standard for water quality.

Every individual computer has access to a dashboard with real-time environmental data relevant to the building and their own workspace. Sensors fitted into light fittings detect how spaces are used, how often and by how many. Is every desk being used? Which meeting rooms are occupied?

The human body doesn’t appreciate uniform temperatures. Workspace environments are sub-divided instead to allow the optimum three-degree variance across the floor, delivering pockets of warm and cool air. People respond well to temperature change and work better in these conditions. Individuals can move to areas they feel most comfortable and, psychologically, they feel their personal needs are being catered for.

There is potential to create internal weather effects such as the occasional breeze to brush against occupants’ skin using the ventilation system, or the sound of wind. We have incorporated running water on the ground floor as this has highly positive acoustic feedback and light dappling effects as well as adding healthy ions into the atmosphere. The more we can ‘bring the outdoors in’ the better.

Future proof means pandemic proof

In our current circumstances, still caught up in the global fight against COVID-19, there is an obvious need for all new buildings to be as pandemic proof as possible. Inherently, being in an outdoor environment is safer than being indoors, so biophilic is actually highly compatible with the reduction of pathogen transmission.

The WELL standard is very clear about hand wash facilities, defining the height and width of the optimum water column for taps, for example, and sensors enable automation to minimise surface contact. Selection of surface materials and finishes must include the need to clean them easily with soap and water to avoid the need for specialist cleaning. Increased ventilation and microbe and mould control, moisture and humidity management and, of course, regular water testing. Most importantly, any futureproof buildings like The Spine will all require clear emergency information and protocols.

For hints and tips of how to use biophilic principles to improve your home-based workspace, please see our companion article: Love life, Love remote working

Author: Robert Hopkins is Regional Director at architecture and building consultancy AHR,

This article was first published in the Jan/Feb edition of Laboratory News.