BRE’s Biophilic Office

A set of existing offices occupying a floor of an office building in North Watford is currently the subject of an intense scientific investigation – and a unique refurbishment project. Built in the 1980s, the building is typical of office buildings around the world and represents the reality of working conditions for most workers.

The offices and their 40 occupants, located at BRE’s Watford campus, are the focus of a two-and-a-half-year research study – the Biophilic Office Project – which is generating hard scientific evidence for the impact on office workers of biophilic design.

Traditional office space

Being carried out by BRE in partnership with Oliver Heath Design and a range of industry partners, the project is centered around the refurbishment of the offices using biophilic design principles. Prior to the refurbishment, the working conditions are being extensively monitored – from Autumn 2017 – and the occupants’ well-being investigated. This will be continued for a year after refurbishment – due Summer 2019 – giving comparable before-and-after data.

Monitoring – Early Results

Investigations of the quality of the building’s indoor environment before refurbishment – including factors such as lighting, temperature, CO2, VOC levels, relative humidity and acoustics – have found that while lighting was poor in some areas of the building, in general these issues were within prescribed levels.

But when asked about office conditions, most the occupants rated the look and feel of their office as ‘poor’, with 67% reporting they would not want to show clients or colleagues around. This feedback was part of a questionnaire survey being conducted quarterly through the project, on how the occupants feel about their offices and issues such as lighting, glare, noise and other comfort factors.

Speaking about this process, BRE researchers noted that they have found it to be quite uncommon for organisations to ask their staff about the buildings they work in, although doing so can generate valuable information on improving staff comfort and wellbeing.

Other aspects of wellbeing being monitored before and after refurbishment include the participants’ fitness, ability to concentrate and stress levels. They have been given wearable technology to monitor their heart rate and activities levels, and also their individual experience of light levels. Stress levels are being monitored by testing saliva samples, and the project is gather business and HR data such as number of days’ sick leave.

Cutting out the Background Noise

Running parallel with the investigation of the Biophilic Office is the equivalent monitoring of a similar but separate office building on the BRE Watford site. The building and its occupants are being monitored in the same way, but these offices will not be refurbishment during the project.

This will allow factors that may influence occupants’ sense of wellbeing, other than those involved in the refurbishment project, to be identified and eliminated from the study analysis. This ‘background noise’ could range from issues affecting the organisation or the wider industry, to the state of the weather on the day that questionnaires are completed.

The Refurbishment

In the ‘before refurbishment’ building layout, cellular offices have been occupied by three teams performing varying tasks with different requirements. The new layout will have three zones, one for each team, presenting three different biophilic design refurbishment approaches and allowing a wide range of strategies to be tested.

The projects design partner – Oliver Heath Design – has consulted with the occupants on their existing working conditions, comfort needs, and task and business requirements. Based on this, and findings reported on the building’s working conditions, they are designing areas with different biophilic design approaches so a wide range of design features can be investigated.

To bring the design to reality, Oliver Heath Design is working with the projects industry partners who are supplying the necessary products, technologies and expertise to deliver the refurbishment. The core partners for the project are Ahrend, Akzo Nobel, Ambius, Biotecture, Coelux, Ecophon, Interface, Plantronics and Waldmann Lighting.

In addition, the project is being supported by two contributing partners – refurbishment contractor Styles and Wood, providing cost estimate for the refurbishment project, and Wave Illumination, supporting the WaveGo handheld lighting measurement device. Work on the refurbishment will start in summer 2019.

Promoting Biophilic Design

The evidence from the before-and-after monitoring of the offices and occupants will be widely publicised to help ensure that health and wellbeing, through biophilic design, becomes a routine element of office refurbishment.

The aim is that future workplaces will enhance the mental, social and physical health and wellbeing of their occupants, and in turn enable better business outcomes for office-based companies.

Central to this are the project’s dissemination partners who include the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), Constructing Excellence, the International Biodiversity Property Council (IBOC), the Lighting Industry Association (LIA),the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (CIAT), the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Innovation Gateway, the British Blind and Shutters Association (BBSA), the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and the BRE Trust.

Phase 1 summary report – one year of monitoring

A report published in August 2020 gives an overview of the pre-refurbishment phase of the project. This phase of the project focused on monitoring occupant behaviour within the space to establish the indoor environmental quality, the occupant’s perceptions and responses and their typical behaviours. It also explores the initial design concepts by Oliver Heath Design using biophilic principles in different zones.

View the Phase 1 Report here