“When nature inspires our architecture – not just how it looks but how buildings and communities actually function – we will have made great strides as a society.” Rick Fedrizzi, US Green Building Council
There’s a growing recognition, within our industry, that nature is important for our wellbeing. Here at Hilson Moran, we’re working with several forward-thinking clients and architects to integrate natural stimuli within workplace designs. For what we see and feel – lighting, temperature, ventilation, humidity, and materiality – this practice already has great momentum. But how about what we hear? We believe an untapped opportunity may exist: the application of acoustic design to strengthen this natural, ‘biophilic’ ethos.
Feel free to play through these natural sounds while you read. What works for you? To explore any of the design ideas that we’re discussing here, contact our acoustic team below.
Modern buildings are generally designed to keep us all protected from the outside world. But in the new age of health-centred wellbeing, a new way of thinking is becoming commonplace. We are increasingly integrating nature within our human-made environment, and this is leading to positive outcomes that are well-documented and often profound (and could perhaps even offer a wholesome encouragement for our return to the company office, post-pandemic).
A natural connection
The core concept here is ‘biophilia’, which describes humanity’s instinctive (and scientifically proven) desire for connection with the natural world. Since the concept’s introduction by the famous scientists Edward Osborne Wilson and Stephen Kellert in the 1980s, there’s been a large amount of research globally that evidences the far-reaching benefits of our physical and sensory immersion into nature. This is the core principle of ‘biophilic design’, and of its growing application throughout our built environment.
If you’re reading this, you may well be designing, operating or using a workplace that would benefit from this biophilic approach. And the evidence is clear: companies that invest in nature-integrative environments can reap performance gains in the longer term. Biophilic connection is proven to improve our relaxation (stress), creativity, thinking, memory, and general psychological development, and helps us to create positive emotional bonds with people and places. For a typical organisation this means greater wellness, cohesion and engagement, which are all proven to translate into greater productivity and – if managed well – commercial reward. When you invest in biophilic design, your team will gain a greater positive connection with both their working environment and with one another, because they’re forming these connections in a space that promotes their health and happiness.
At Hilson Moran, we’ve helped to shape a lot of interesting workplaces – including our own office in Manchester, which is WELL Gold accredited – and through four decades of practice we’ve been fortunate to grow our input, from its building-services roots, to include acoustic consultancy. We contribute an interdisciplinary voice to the design table, and we take on a broad responsibility for the delivered building’s performance, which is often best measured by the experience of the people who use it. Lately, we’ve witnessed acoustics becoming a clear area of opportunity; seemingly yet to bloom within this growing biophilic interest and practice.
Since the introduction of biophilia as a scientific concept, our non-auditory experience of new workplaces has evolved significantly. As designers, we’ve witnessed first-hand the clear uptake in natural materials, natural ventilation, and exterior spaces that are covered in greenery. But many acoustic opportunities are still overlooked. City-centre spas and guided-meditation apps all sound like wild birdsong and ocean waves for the same reason: the sounds of nature soothe us.
And the more senses we involve here, the better. Therapeutic retreats are often located in countryside settings to capitalise on this multi-sensory effect, offering nature’s healing spectrum of touch, sight and sound. Conversely, and despite the modern office-designer’s increasing attention to what we see and feel, in our workplaces there’s still a disconnection with what we hear. No matter how many plants we’re surrounded by, or how finely the daylighting and air quality have been tuned, any biophilic benefit is suffocated when we suddenly become aware of the contrasted screeching of cars, trains and buses just outside. And any poor acoustic performance just muddies this further. In many cases, we only have to look away from the potted plants or green walls before any sense of natural immersion becomes totally lost.