How does workplace wellbeing sound?

“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.


Opportunity blooms

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.


The seeds of change

So can we focus on better integrating the auditory experience for the people who use workplaces? Can we fix this discrepancy, to realise more of biophilic-design’s potential? Our senses work together to form our perceptions, meaning that only when we see, hear and feel the natural stimuli in a unified way do we then receive the full psychological effect – as affirmed by many scientific papers and design frameworks from researchers and thought-leaders the world over.

Of course, like most good design, the solutions must resolve lots of disparate considerations. While natural sounds can be created ‘live’ through physical elements, or could be simply pre-recorded and replayed, all sounds must be consistent with the wider design concept or they risk becoming distracting and disruptive. Any recorded sounds must feel real, and cannot be obviously ‘lo-fi’ or fake (as is currently being explored by the University of Exeter together with the BBC). Whale noise in a jungle or farmyard, for example, would be mentally jarring.

Furthermore, differing sounds offer differing benefits. Running water for instance is proven to increase focus and provide much-needed ‘sound masking’, and so would work well for areas of focussed activity, while other areas meanwhile may conversely benefit from calm relaxation and recuperation, wherein a gentle brook-like soundscape may be more beneficial. Current research shows clearly that any soundscape’s success will depend on its design context, and will benefit from at least some amount of user control and operational transparency.

So, with all of the above considered, what might some effective design solutions look like? Here’s some ideas:

  • Today’s open-plan offices already implement speech-masking systems for privacy between adjoining working zones. Natural soundscapes have been shown to provide a reliable replacement for traditional white-noise masking, and could better support the occupants’ satisfaction and wellbeing.
  • Dedicated wellness suites could offer a respite for the busy; complete with adaptable electronic or organic sound-sources such as running water, to create a calming and restorative environment. This could well benefit the occupant’s cognitive function.
  • We already have the technology to live-stream the most beautiful natural soundscapes directly into our city-centre offices from anywhere in the world. Smart-building systems will facilitate this with greater customisation, variety and control. Such an immersion could benefit our natural circadian patterns, and ‘straight from the source’.
  • Throughout, these soundscapes could be matched to the environmental impression that the workspace offers – such as for a temperate, tropical, or seasonal climate.


The buzz gets louder

In October 2020, researchers at the UK’s University of Cumbria found that people’s conscious love for nature became more intense during the sudden withdrawal from the outdoors during the country’s coronavirus lockdowns. Ninety-four percent of the respondents said that listening to birdsong had become the most meaningful way of reconnecting with nature during that time. Good biophilic design connects with our senses to help people feel calm and happy, and it’s something that we can achieve now: in today’s industry, with today’s materials and technologies, and certainly within today’s commercial-sector budgets.

The buzz around biophilic sound is getting louder. As we continue to reimagine the workplace post-pandemic, we must explore ways to marry acoustic and sound design thoughtfully as part of this biophilic philosophy, to create memorable spaces and uplifting brand experiences. Biophilic design should be thought of as much more than just the inclusion of vegetation or natural materials, moreover it must become an underlining ethos that forms the basis of many fundamental design choices.

At Hilson Moran, we’re often left in charge of many of the occupant’s senses and thus the occupant’s behaviour, as people subconsciously adjust to the comfort of their surroundings. It’s our responsibility to get workplaces to work.

To explore how we can bring this sort of value to your own workplace project, contact Senior Acoustic Consultant Jack Richardson.

We’re also continually seeking collaborators to explore and research these sorts of design frontiers further. To learn more, contact our team.

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