Working with nature to create better buildings

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For centuries, nature and the built environment have not been on good terms. Enter biophilia, a concept reconnecting nature and city-dwellers.


While the built environment may seem like nature’s enemy, the tide is slowly turning and we’re starting to see more buildings inspired by the wonders of the natural world. This is “biophilic” design and it’s creating green oases in the most barren places.

Real estate is biophilia-bound
According to Franz Jenowein, Director of Sustainability Consulting & Research at JLL, biophilia represents an inevitable market progression.
Many companies are including natural elements in their swankiest developments: whether it is Apple’s tree-filled UFO-donut in Cupertino, California; Google’s translucent eco-dome at nearby Mountain View; or the Second Home workspace and cultural centre in Spitalfields, where innovative companies like Kickstarter and Artsy rub shoulders with blue-chip corporates such as EY. Whatever the individual design, nature is running freely within, around and through each light-filled high-tech structure.

Trees in unlikely places
Strengthening our links with the natural world is especially challenging in the urban high-rise context. A few avant-garde developers have tried incorporating trees into the walls and balconies of multi-story residential blocks, with examples such as the Vertical Forest in Milan, Italy, or the Agora Garden Tower in Taipei. While such attempts are inspiring and can help push projects through planning and even add value to the finished asset, they are unlikely to become the norm anytime soon. Incorporating trees into a building’s design is difficult and expensive from an architectural perspective – for one thing, the structure needs to be designed to support the added weight, and all those reinforcements can have a significant embodied carbon footprint.

Simple solutions – huge benefits
Another – and much easier – approach is to focus on bringing natural elements (greenery, materials, light, patterns and textures etc.) into the interior. This is a really cost-effective way to introduce a natural feel to a home, office, or hotel for example and it can even improve the internal air quality and reduce stress, according to Beth Ambrose, Associate Director of Upstream Sustainability Services at JLL.

Strong business case for biophilia
In fact the business case for designs inspired by nature is very strong and is supported by a large body of research. For instance, a global survey of 7,600 office workers by Interface shows that natural offices boosted employee wellbeing (by 15%), productivity (by 6%) and creativity (by 15%). When you consider that for most businesses, 90% of operating costs go to staff, these numbers start to make financial sense.

While the idea of biophilia has been around for some time, its popularity in design circles is a recent phenomenon. Aligned with mindfulness and wellbeing, the concept is in tune with the values of Millennials, making biophilia a theme which we are likely to see again and again in the future.

This article was compiled by Emilija Emma and edited by Laura Jockers in JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services Team. It draws on several articles first published on JLL Real Views, JLL’s global site providing expert insights on the trends and developments shaping real estate.

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