The green green grass of home? Not any more. MPL Interiors looks at how the commercial office refurbishment industry has embraced biophilic office design. Creators are using foliage, plants, botanically-inspired elements and natural-light orientation to soften harsh edges, improve the wellbeing of employees and purify the air.

In this article we discuss how modern biophilic office design can improve our ‘green health’, reveal how you can transform your workplace with plants and we tackle the faux versus real debate.

What is biophilic design?

Biophilic office design is a practice that connects people to the natural world to combat urban environments, exposing people to the healing properties of plants in the process. It’s a movement that’s not confined to offices, either. Plants and water features can both be incorporated into retail interior designs and in healthcare settings.

Biophilic office design is much more than a lone pot plant, however. Office design solutions can be completely centred around flora and fauna, with plants and flowers used to add colour, replace accessories and even divide working areas. A perfect example of this is MPL’s completed project for Yooserve in Reading, where a mix of bespoke floor-standing and eye-level planters, hanging baskets, wall panels and ceiling-suspended plant platforms are major design elements.

As well as living aspects, a modern biophilic office design will strive to increase the amount of natural light in a workplace, maximise views of natural landscapes and seek to specify as many natural materials as possible.

Benefits of biophilic design in the workplace

There is no denying that plants are attractive to look at but they serve more than an aesthetic purpose. The benefits of a biophilic office design are numerous and scientifically proven, as listed here by the Future of Work Hub. Plants are proven to:-

  • boost productivity and decrease mental fatigue
  • inspire employees
  • reduce absenteeism 
  • increase a sense of physical and mental wellbeing
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • improve cognitive function and productivity
  • enhance creativity and innovation
  • heighten employee satisfaction

MPL recently completed a project at No.5 The Heights in Weybridge, where the brief was to create a modern biophilic office design. Our plans saw flora and fauna disguise structural features, create feature walls, atop storage units, add interest to space dividers and softens stark spaces. In keeping with the client’s sustainable brief, all low-level plants were living and required watering, while those out of reach take the form of real plants that have been preserved, avoiding the use of anything synthetic.

Biophilic design ideas for modern office spaces

There are two main aspects of biophilic office design that can be addressed when refurbishing your office - a direct connection with nature (tangible green elements that are physically installed within a workplace – such as plants and living walls) and an indirect connection with nature (representations of nature that bring a sense of the outside in – such as the use of natural materials and taking advantage of views). Ideas for when planning a biophilic office design include:-

Selecting & arranging plants for maximum benefit

You’ll need to take into account your workplace’s amount of natural light and where you’ll place plants in relation to direct sunlight. All plants will help to purify the air but there are some that perform better than others, helping to remove ammonia left from cleaning products, and reducing formaldehyde and benzene, which are sometimes found in varnishes, floor finishes and detergents.

5 air purifying houseplants

  • English ivy
  • Snake plant (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue)
  • Spider plant
  • Aloe vera
  • Broad lady palm

5 houseplants for shady areas

  • Cast iron plant (aspidistra)
  • Boston fern
  • Begonia
  • Slipper orchid
  • Rhipsalis cacti

5 houseplants that need little or no water

  • Ponytail palm
  • Burro’s tail
  • Sago palm
  • Pothos
  • Zebra plant (haworthia)

Using natural materials in furniture & decor

Office owners can echo living plants by specifying natural materials when it comes to fixtures, fittings and furniture. Wood is the most common choice but bamboo, flax, hemp and wheat straw are increasingly being used as sustainable alternatives. If you’re opting for soft floorcoverings, consider coir, jute, sisal or seagrass – all hardwearing materials derived from plants.

Creating outdoor workspaces

Despite the most intense biophilic office design, nothing beats actually stepping outside. A good workplace refurbishment should encourage employees outdoors whenever possible. Courtyards, roof terraces and balconies can all be utilised as places to hold meetings or even work with a laptop. Ensure there is shelter from the elements, shade, somewhere to sit, a table and an abundance of plants – in the ground or in pots.

Incorporating water features

The ‘Blue Health’ initiative - a European research group led by scientists at the University of Exeter - found evidence that spending time in or around water may be just as beneficial to human health as spending time in green spaces. Benefits of looking at or being near to water include reducing stress and anxiety, increasing happiness and lowering our heart rate. It’s all down to neurochemicals, which are released when we hear or see the soothing sounds of moving water. Indoor water features and fountains are ideal for small spaces, while statement ‘reflection and meditation’ pools can be added to communal areas and receptions.

Increasing natural light

Natural light is essential for the production of Vitamin D. It also improves our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, helps us to focus, improves productivity and lifts our mood. A modern biophilic office design will maximise the amount of natural light in a workplace and a smart space plan will position workstations so they take advantage of the best conditions. Options to increase natural light include installing new windows, making current openings larger, removing any opaque finishes or bars, and installing skylights, sun pipes and roof lanterns.

Using mood lighting to enhance the workplace environment

Where it is not possible to dramatically increase the amount of natural light, MPL will switch all bulbs to those that most closely mimic natural daylight. We can also install a smart artificial daylight solution for dark areas that lack natural light.

Designing a biophilic office space

Crisp, brown foliage, dusty leaves and rotting roots are not part of the biophilic plan so careful consideration needs to be given to the upkeep of plants. When creating a biophilic office design, MPL often confines living plants that need watering to below head height. In the past we have used high-grade faux plants above head height as a compromise but we are increasingly specifying preserved plants when sustainable, low-maintenance options are preferred.

A fantastic middle ground is a living moss wall, like we included for Arden Estate Agents. This lush green foliage draws all its moisture from the environment and therefore doesn’t need a sophisticated irrigation system or even light watering.

If you like the idea of an internal water feature, MPL can advise on any plumbing and electrical supply needed, and will also consider health, safety and maintenance aspects if asked to plan an expanse of still water, such as a reflection pool or pond.

Biophilic office design works hand-in-hand with a sustainable office refurbishment, as it shares many of the same values. The ethos of working at one with the natural environment is a common thread and together, plants and natural materials can improve a workplace’s air quality and enrich the wellbeing of employees.

5 ways to incorporate biophilic office design into a refurbishment

Plan break-out zones with windows in mind

Break-out zones where the chairs are focused around a view out of the window, rather than clustered around a desk or table, will help employees feel inspired by the natural environment and benefit from daylight.

Think culinary uses

Even the smallest communal kitchen can provide a place for people to grow herbs like mint, basil and coriander, as well as microgreens and cress. And if you have an outside sun trap, there are many varieties of fruit and veg that can be grown in pots.

Go green with artwork

Nature-inspired artworks can enhance a biophilic office design. This could be enlarged photographs of landscapes applied to back-lit canvases, digitally-printed wallpaper featuring forest scenes or close-ups of fern fronds or paintings that depict local landscapes.

Incorporate botanical prints & colours

Biophilic office design can be backed up with the use of bold botanic prints and even nature-led colours. Examples include a feature wall covered in a jungle-print wallpaper, upholstery in hues of olive, forest and sage, and sticking to a nature-inspired colour palette, such as Dulux’s Lush collection, which includes the shades silver lichen, sea holly and fresh foliage.

Gift each employee with a houseplant

A quick way to start a biophilic office design is to gift each employee with a houseplant for their desk. It’s quick and inexpensive, and if you choose your species wisely, the plants will flourish even with those who are not green fingered.

Biophilic office design considerations

If you’re worried about engaging employees in a bigger biophilic office design, you may need to devise a plant watering rota or contract out the watering to a third-party company.

Your choice of plants – and their care programme – should be based on the nature of your office schedule. If you’re operating an agile, hybrid workplace, factor in times when the office may be empty for prolonged periods.

Plants can be used to screen, divide and provide privacy. Tall palms are especially good but MPL can also design half-height partitions that are topped with planters overflowing with foliage.

Terrariums are very in-vogue and make great accessories. You could even attend a terrarium workshop as a team outing.

Succulents and cacti are good entry-level office plants as they are low maintenance. Try gasteria ‘Little Warty’, aloe aristata ‘Lace Aloe’, sempervivum ‘Mona Lisa’, kalanchoe, living rock cactus, sea urchin cactus, schlumbergera and bishop's cap.

Plants stimulate the senses, enrich the environment, lift spirits and connect us with nature without leaving our desks. As commercial refurbishment specialists and shop fitters, we are increasing the biophilic elements in our designs after discovering the immense benefits of biophilic office design.

From living walls and dramatic suspended plant platforms, to bespoke planters and structural columns smothered in foliage, ask MPL Interiors how we can implement a biophilic office design where you work.