What is biophilic design and why is it essential for us and our planet?

Most of us feel good in nature. If you ask anyone to imagine a place where they feel happy and relaxed, many describe a warm, sandy beach or woodland walk. Some may speak of camping under the stars, picnicking by a river, pottering in the garden, enjoying the sound of birds, or viewing a beautiful landscape. Whatever the variation of the description, there's always nature involved. That's what biophilia means: our innate love of nature. Biophilia focuses on human’s attraction to nature and natural processes. It suggests that we all have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in natural environments, and that it can help improve our mental and physical states. Keep reading to unveil what is biophilic design and why it's important in today's world.

1. What is biophilic design?
2. Why is biophilic design important today?
3. What are the benefits of biophilic design for each type of space?
4. How did biophilic design begin?
5. How can we implement biophilic design?

1. What is Biophilic Design?

Biophilic Design is a human centred approach aimed at improving our connection to nature and natural processes in the buildings that we live and work. This improved connection can benefit our wellbeing by reducing stress and improving recuperation – helping to cut costs and improve outcomes in the built environment.

Many experts affirm that more than just a new design trend, Biophilic Design should be seen as a universal design ethos – after all, at some point in our lives we’ve all had positive experiences of nature. So, implementing it isn’t necessarily about spending money, but recognising the many ways that we can connect to nature through the culture and design of the spaces that are so important to us.

Biophilic Design: A form of design that responds to our human needs. 

“Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”

– Yoshifumi Miyazaki

Our response to natural environments stems from our evolutionary development and survival. It makes sense that our ancestors felt calmer in places that had an abundance of greenery and living elements, as they indicated the availability of food and water and this meant they could focus on other things. Similarly, spaces that offered both the security of being contained, or sheltered, and that had a good vista over the landscape would have been essential for our ancestors to keep an eye out for predators or animals to hunt.

We still experience a psychological inheritance of this survival instinct (even though we don’t have to worry about foraging for sustenance or predators in the same way) in our urban environments. This means that a space designed to have a sense of refuge and prospect with plenty of living elements in (or references to them) can make us feel less stressed and more productive. With this in mind, Biophilic Design offers an approach to creating buildings and spaces that respond to our human needs.

Biophilic Design principles can be applied to existing and new buildings, interior and exterior spaces alike. They can be implemented at a range of scales and budgets and have greatest impact within the urban environment where we have strayed the furthest from nature.

2. Why is biophilic design important today?

Creating spaces that enhance wellbeing is an important design aim to achieve. Why? Because as urbanisation has increased, stress rates have also rocketed. Coincidence? We don’t think so.

Here’s some astonishing facts that demonstrate why:

With a vast body of research to support the ethos, it’s important that we find ways to creatively develop the implementation of the principles of Biophilic Design and make it financially accessible, to increase the uptake.

For our health & wellbeing

The World Health Organisation expects stress related illness, such as mental health disorders and cardio-vascular disease, to be the two largest contributors to disease by 2020. With a diminished connection to nature, the increasing pressure on urban space & the ubiquitous technological presence we have less opportunity to recuperate our mental and physical energy.

Incorporating direct or indirect elements of nature into the built environment have been demonstrated through research to reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, whilst increasing productivity, creativity and self reported rates of well-being.

Businesses at the vanguard of work place design such as Apple, Google and Amazon are investing heavily in Biophilic Design elements. These principles are shown to improve worker concentration, engagement and cognitive ability but also to attract and retain staff in the “war for talent”.

For our planet

Biophilic Design is an innovative way of designing the places where we live, work, and learn to help us reconnect to nature. We need nature in a deep and fundamental way, but we have often designed our cities and suburbs in ways that both degrade the environment and alienate us from nature. The recent trend in green architecture has decreased the environmental impact of the built environment (i.e. energy efficiency, water usage...), but it hasn't accomplished enough in the way of reconnecting us to the natural world - the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development.

3. What are the benefits of Biophilic design for each type of space?

Despite so many office workers living city-dominated lives, with increasingly limited access to natural elements, they all share an affinity with the natural world. No matter where they are, people yearn for more natural light, peace and quiet, and most importantly, the chance to be closer to nature. It follows, then, that businesses that boast offices with design elements inspired by nature, such as more natural light and greenery, will have employees that are happier and more productive at work, and perhaps healthier too.”38

– Sir Cary Cooper (CBE FAcSS), Psychologist

There have been numerous studies over the last 35 years on the benefits to the built environment through improving a connection to nature. 

Biophilic Design can have tangible benefits within the workplace, educational, hospitality, retail and domestic sectors – creating savings and improving profits. Using Biophilic Design can create a greater sense of health and well-being for inhabitants, staff and visitors alike. But it can also have hugely beneficial financial implications that stem from improving the health and well being of the building occupants. A research done by Interface, points out a few of the sectors where the economic benefits of biophilic design add up.

Office design

Offices can be more productive and create lower levels of stress, fostering greater happiness and creativity, whilst helping to retain staff and reduce absenteeism. Productivity can be increased by 8%, rates of well-being up by 13%, increases in creativity, with reduced absenteeism and presenteeism.

Hospitality design

Hotels and restaurants can decompress the stress of everyday life for their guests and staff, whilst commanding higher rates of return on rooms with nature connections. Guests are willing to pay 23% more for rooms with views of Biophilic elements.

Education spaces

Schools can increase focus and concentration in students and staff whilst reducing the impacts of cognitive fatigue, stress and ADHD. This can improve the schools performance and staff and student retention.

Increased rates of learning 20-25%, improved test results, concentration levels and attendance, reduced impacts of ADHD.

Healthcare spaces

Post-operative recovery times decreased by 8.5%, and reduced pain medication by 22%.

Retail

The presence of vegetation and landscaping has been found to increase average rental rates on retail spaces with customers indicating they were willing to pay 8-12 % more for goods and services.

Homes

Home spaces can become more calming and restorative, with 7-8 % less crime attributed to areas with access to nature, and can command an increase of 4-5% in property price.

4. How did Biophilic design begin?

The American biologist Edward O Wilson in the 1980’s, first popularised the term when he observed how increasing rates of urbanisation were leading to a disconnection with the natural world. With high rates of migration to urban settings in the developed world and soaring rates in developing countries – Biophilia is of ever increasing importance to our health and well-being in the built environment.

Biophilic Design uses these ideas as principles to create a human centred approach that when applied improves many of the spaces that we live and work in today, with numerous benefits to our health and well-being.

From our evolutionary past and the origins of architecture to the world’s most celebrated buildings, we encounter examples of the architecture of life - buildings that connect people and nature - hospitals where patients heal faster, schools where children’s test scores are higher, offices where workers are more productive, and communities where people know more of their neighbours and families thrive. Biophilic Design points the way toward creating healthy and productive habitats for modern humans.

5. How to implement Biophilic Design?

Biophilic Design shouldn’t be seen as an expensive option, but as a creative exercise to improve wellbeing. The key to this is recognising the opportunities and creating strategies that make it accessible at a variety of scales.

With that in mind, you could implement Biophilic Design at different scales according to time, levels of disruption, and economic considerations:

  • No Cost – educational shift in culture and awareness.
  • Low Cost – petty cash, money in pocket, one-off costs, such as decoration.
  • Medium Cost – interior design and refurbishment, medium budget and ongoing maintenance, such as furniture and furnishings.
  • High Cost – large scale interior refurbishment, new build projects and ongoing maintenance, from structural features to architectural considerations.

Some of the aspects to consider when implementing biophilic design to make improvements in your space are:

  • Use of natural materials textures, patterns and colours
  • Improved natural and artificial lighting
  • Internal and external views of nature
  • Air quality, toxin levels and ventilation
  • Incorporation of recuperative spaces
  • Acoustic comfort
  • Psychological and physiological effects of the space
  • Optimisation and organisation of spaces with a human focus
  • Thermal comfort levels

Final note

At Forest Homes, we want to help you implement more sustainable, biophilic design in your indoor life with decor built with nature features in mind, and informative content to assist you in applying biophilia into your spaces. We're constantly reminded that biophilia is not just about greening our buildings or simply increasing their aesthetic appeal through inserting trees and shrubs. "Biophilic design is much more, it is about humanity’s place in nature, and the natural world’s place in human society...” Stephen R. Kellert and Judith H. Heerwagen (Kellert et al., 2008)


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