The occasional pot-plant is common in modern offices, but how about large trees, potted palms as tall as people, and banks of greenery?
It’s what’s included in biophilic design – a concept that’s likely to become increasingly popular as more organisations see the wellbeing benefits in surrounding their people with plants as they work. And it’s entirely fitting that biophilic design is at the heart of Scion’s staged campus redevelopment in Rotorua.
The forestry Crown Research Institute sits on Rotorua’s Te Papa Tipu Innovation Park, a 112 hectare area shared with other forestry-associated organisations, on the edge of the city’s Whakarewarewa redwoods forest.
“This is a really special place to be,” says Aoife Mac Sharry, Scion’s campus redevelopment project manager. The extensive campus upgrade includes the total renovation of one office block (almost completed, barring a basement refit to include showers and a wellness room) and the construction of a totally new timber building opening to the public in July 2020.
“An overhaul of our labs and workshops will follow to provide fit-for-purpose facilities that reflect the world-class science happening here on campus. Given that our people are dedicated to researching and sustaining our forests, it seems entirely fitting to bring trees and plants indoors, and connect workspaces to the outdoors. Our staff are loving it,” she says.
“Biophilic design is design that connects people to nature,” says Neil de Wet, a Medical Officer of Health at Toi Te Ora Public Health, which works with Scion on building workplace wellbeing. “This could be by simply using natural light and ventilation, bringing plants indoors and increasing the visual connection to the outdoors, through to using natural materials and natural patterns and forms.”
Certainly, Scion’s design is all that. In its first nearly completed building makeover, plants proliferate among various timber features, with soft furnishings chosen in shades of green and brown, reflecting the colours of the surrounding forest.
“We are creating a unique sense of place for our campus,” says Aoife. “We want Scion to be known as the ‘place to be’ for innovation in the forestry, bio-materials and manufacturing industries. We also want to create a welcoming space to better engage with our community, as well as the 600,000 visitors to the neighbouring redwoods each year.”
Scion’s office upgrade and move to a new way of working started in 2017. An existing two-storey building was completely gutted, removing a “rabbit warren” of small offices and corridors.
Before the design phase, Aoife says they undertook a utilisation study to understand how workspaces were used. “Then we did a mass engagement with staff about what they wanted to see in their future workspaces. Our people are scientists, so they did a lot of research and gave us lots of feedback. Many of the suggestions involved biophilic design because they really wanted to embrace the environment, to bring the outdoors in, both because it’s good for people and because it fits the work done here.”
From there, Aoife kept working with a smaller group. “I wanted to work closely with the people who were going to be working in the new spaces, making sure we discussed everything so it would work for them.”
That wasn’t just about the environment, but also the configuration. “People were coming together like a new community, so we had to work out how they wanted to work together. Like, how open do they want the space? How many people can sit in one area and feel comfortable? If we create something, will it be used? Otherwise there’s no point creating a beautiful space.”
Creating collaborative spaces
A major driver of the upgrade was to create a flexible modern workplace where Scion’s people could work collaboratively “in spaces they deserve”, says Aoife.
“Based on our engagement, we’ve created an open workspace that’s not totally open plan but has areas designed for the number of people we discovered worked best. For us, having 10 to 15 people means they’re happy and will chat away and collaborate. But if there are more, like 20 to 30 people, everyone is really quiet and doesn’t interact.”
Aoife continues to gather feedback and has made adjustments to spaces as people use them. “I work off the idea that no one knows everything and you’re always working with different people, so what works in one space may not work in the next.”
Aoife says it’s been great to use what they’ve learned from refitting the first building and applying it to the further designs.
“The new hub will be our real innovation showcase as it’s an ambitious design. This is the first three-storey-high timber diagrid structure built worldwide, designed using sustainable principles and showcasing all the timber technology available. It’s going to be a special place.”
Biophilic design and wellbeing
While reflecting and replicating the forest in the workplace is clearly in keeping with Scion’s research focus, Aoife says it’s also very much about wellbeing.
“Scion has strong principles around staff health and wellbeing. Given our unique location nestled amongst the redwoods, we encourage everyone to embrace the outdoors – go for a mountain bike ride or a walk at lunch, or ‘destress’ by taking your dog for an afternoon stroll across campus.
“It’s lovely getting outside, however, people don’t always have the chance to do that. Research shows that even having a visual connection to nature is calming. That’s been around for quite a while, but people have tended to resist it in terms of building design. Now it’s increasingly being used within the work environment to get the best out of people.”
Aoife says the new building has transformed the ability of staff to connect. She says previously people worked in individual or small offices, and many chose to work from home.
“Now that we have these bright, open, welcoming spaces, people have come out of their shells and back into the office. They’re talking to each other more; engaging more. The change has been massive – people feel comfortable and that they can do their best work in these new spaces.
“It’s helping create the culture we’re trying to permeate through the whole company.”
Biophilic design and budget
The obvious question is whether biophilic design costs more? Not necessarily in the long-term, says Aoife.
“We’re a Crown Research Institute so we must be fiscally responsible and accountable to central government. We’ve looked for where we can get the most value in the build, and the best benefit for our people.
“We’ve spent money on feature panelling and acoustic functions. We’ve chosen passive ventilation that requires a bit more money up front on sensors and actuators for the windows, etc. But we get value in the long term, and it’s kinder on the environment.”
And that, says Neil de Wet from Toi Te Ora Public Health, is another biophilic benefit. “While it increases our sense of wellbeing at work and increases productivity and creativity, and reduces absenteeism, it also celebrates and respects nature.
“It not only looks at how to enhance human health and wellbeing but also how it enhances the health and wellbeing of nature, locally and globally. Beyond the immediate benefits for workers and employers, biophilic design is gaining importance because it’s about valuing nature.”
Aoife, too, sees both sides, especially given Scion’s business. “We want to showcase timber and nature in our building because we’re a forestry organisation, but the staff benefits are pretty resounding. It’s a win-win for sure.”
If you would like to know more about Scion's biophilic project, please email Aoife.