There’s been increasing chatter around the concept of biophilic design lately and while it’s great to hear, I wonder if we are all-talk, no action. Think about it.

Where are you now? In an office perhaps? Maybe on public transport? Are you outside? Do you have a view to the outside world at all? Statistically, it’s likely you’re indoors. After all we spend about 90 percent of our day inside. At home, at work, at school, in shopping centres and gyms… When you’re not in a building, how much time do you actually spend outdoors in the natural environment? Maybe you walk to your car or the train station on the way to and from work each day? Is that it? Would you call that a connection to nature?

We spruik biophilic design as a benefit or nice amenity, when it is really an essential human need like food, water, shelter and safety. There is no alternative to biophilic design – there is either good design (that is biophilic and therefore, fit for humans) or poor design (that is fit for no-one). Which one are you paying for?

What is biophilic design?

In practice, biophilic design seeks to create an optimal ‘habitat’ for humans (as a biological organism), one that advances our health, fitness and wellbeing through the built environment.[1] By integrating natural processes (weather, the passing of time, seasons, smells and sounds) and ecology into our built environment, biophilic design speaks to our genetic attraction to nature. It appeals to our senses and breaks down the stark distinction between natural and man-made.

The theory

It all starts with the biophilia hypothesis posited by biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984. Wilson describes ‘biophilia’ as the innate human tendency to affiliate with life and the life-like processes of nature.[2] But why? Why the inherent pull toward nature and living things?

Stephen Kellert suggests this ‘tendency became biologically encoded because it proved instrumental in enhancing human physical, emotional, and intellectual fitness during the long course of human evolution.’[3] Our species, having evolved over thousands of generations, has developed a genetic advantage through ‘planned modifications of the environment’[4]. We are drawn to nature because it sustains us, but also because we wish to master it in the pursuit of our own constant advancement.[5]

Now this is a bit of a double-edged sword isn’t it? Our love for, and ability to recognise the potential of, the natural environment has come at a cost. As Wilson notes, ‘we are killing the thing we love’.[6] Our domination of nature has resulted in its overall degradation, but if we follow this trajectory, we can see that the solution is a return to nature. Biophilic design turns back toward nature and applies human ingenuity to recognise and mimic the cyclical processes within nature, repairing the damage our love affair has caused.

Harbord Diggers – this indoor environment incorporates biophilic design through the green wall and use of stones, timber and water to create a natural connection. Photo credit: Junglefy

The evidence

Biophilic design aims for the deep integration of nature and the built environment. It is good design. Using the natural world as the ultimate guide for our man-made additions enables us to improve our practices and the materials we use. Our output becomes environmentally friendly and sustainable. At its peak, it is restorative.

It might sound a bit ‘new age’ but there’s growing evidence to support the ‘ancient assumption that contact with nature is critical to human functioning, health, and well-being.’[7] Here are a few case studies to illustrate why biophilic design is just good sense:

Case 1: Enhanced healing and a sense of refuge at Östra Hospital, Sweden

A number of research papers have noted the positive impact greenery has on our health and wellbeing. One study found ‘significant and sizable relationships between green elements in living environments and higher levels of self-reported physical and mental health.’[8]

Other research has shown that contact with nature, whether direct (like the presence of vegetation and natural lighting) or representational (like pictures of a landscape), can ‘enhance healing and recovery from illness and major surgical procedures’. [9], [10]

In Sweden, White Architects implemented biophilic design principles to create a new psychiatric facility at Östra Hospital in Göteborg. ‘The facility was designed to be a healing environment, and to support connections with nature, all while adhering to the unique safety and security needs of a psychiatric facility.’[11]

The design team used living infrastructure (also known as green infrastructure), light atriums, and spatial hierarchy similar to those found in nature, to create spaces of refuge throughout the facility. This allows occupants to ‘choose their preferred level of interaction in the department’s activities’[12], and the way in which they experience their environment.

A comparison of the facility’s pre- and post-occupancy data also revealed noticeable improvements in the ‘number of compulsory injections and restraints per quarter, as well as a decrease in sick-listing of staff.’[13] Overall, the atmosphere at the new Östra psychiatric facility has been noted as calmer with fewer outbursts of aggression from patients.[14]

A health facility that actively contributes to patient recovery? Imagine that.

Case 2: Direct and indirect contact with nature at Paul Chevallier School, France

Contact with nature has been linked to improved cognitive functioning in tasks requiring concentration and memory[15] so it’s important we integrate biophilic design in our schools, universities and workplaces.

The Paul Chevallier School in Lyon, France enables indirect contact with nature by using natural materials. Exposed wooden cladding on interior and exterior walls stimulate the senses, reduce stress and create a connection with the natural world outside.[16]

‘Both the elementary and nursery schools have been laid out in V-shapes to surround an outside space’[17] so kids have a view of the nearby woodland park, while a vegetable garden and green roofs ‘extend the outside space and offer further areas for the children to explore.’[18]

Biophilic design like this is important because playing and learning in a natural setting encourages ‘healthy childhood maturation’,[19] improved self-esteem and confidence, and the development of essential social-emotional skills.[20], [21], [22]

If we aren’t designing schools to promote learning and childhood development, we are wasting money, resources and critically, the potential of our children.

Case 3: Plants, biodiversity and self-sustaining ecosystems at One Central Park, Australia

Good design is about integrating with nature, not steam-rolling it. This is particularly critical in urban areas where space is at a premium.

Vertical living infrastructure like the striking green facades of One Central Park in Sydney, is a great way to bring the benefits of biophilic design into our cities and blur the lines between built and natural environments.

‘Vegetation, especially flowering plants, is one of the most successful strategies for bringing the direct experience of nature into the built environment. The presence of plants can reduce stress, contribute to physical health, improve comfort, and enhance performance and productivity.’ [23]

Façade planters and green walls can help reduce the heat island effect and improve the efficiency of building HVAC systems.[24] Living infrastructure like this has been shown to deliver a number of positive health outcomes for humans, but it also creates a place for biodiversity to flourish. This is especially important in urban environments where so much natural ecosystem has been lost to development and our contact with non-human animal life becomes infrequent.[25]

Case 4: Natural light and a view to the outside world at the McCann Erickson office, USA

I included this case study to show that biophilic design doesn’t have to mean a costly rebuild or a big budget. It is simply good design. Just ‘positioning desks to take advantage of the natural light and maximising the number of people who have a view to the outside’[26] can make a big difference to worker health and wellbeing.

Artificial light can ‘throw our Circadian Rhythms out of kilter and have physiological, cognitive and overall health consequences.’[27] Designing office spaces to maximise natural light allows workers to reset their circadian rhythms, improving their wellbeing, performance and motivation, and lowering stress.[28], [29]

It’s such a simple thing, but a ‘room with a view’ really does wonders. A window to the outside world enables workers to see the sun tracking through the sky and the day progress. It provides a connection with natural systems like weather, seasonal and temporal changes even though workers may be indoors. One study found Australian workers reported increased happiness and creativity when they had a window view of trees.[30]

Don’t buy the lemon

The case studies I’ve included here show that biophilic design is good design. There is nothing remarkable about any of the design features I’ve described. Everything is common sense – hospitals that don’t aggravate illness, schools that spark thought rather than numb it, buildings that exist in nature rather than remove it, a built environment for people not the illusion of efficiency.

Biophilic design can (and should) be as diverse as Earth’s ecosystems and as unique as our fingerprints. It doesn’t have to be expensive but perhaps, for a time it will cost a little more upfront than conventional buildings do now. That doesn’t mean a conventional building without biophilic design won’t cost you more in the end.

That building is a lemon. It is a dud, a cheap deal that ends up sinking more funds than you ever anticipated. You wouldn’t put up with a faulty car, so why the buildings in which you spend 90 percent of your life?

You can do better. We all can.

 

[1] Kellert, S. and Calabrese, E. (2015). The practice of biophilic design. www.biophilic-design.com

[2] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.1). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[3] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.3). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[4] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.12). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[5] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.10). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[6] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia: The human bond with other species (p.12). Cambridge, USA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

[7] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[8] Beatley, T. (2011.) Biophilic Cities: Integrating nature into urban design and planning (p.6). Island Press.

[9] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[10] Ulrich, R. S. (1986). Human responses to vegetation and landscapes. Landscape and urban planning, 13 (pp.29-44). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier Science Publishers B. V.

[11] Nestor, C. and Terrapin Bright Green. (2017). Ostra Hospital: Psychiatric Facility (p.1). USA: Terrapin Bright Green. www.terrapinbg.com

[12] Nestor, C. and Terrapin Bright Green. (2017). Ostra Hospital: Psychiatric Facility (p.3). USA: Terrapin Bright Green. www.terrapinbg.com

[13] Nestor, C. and Terrapin Bright Green. (2017). Ostra Hospital: Psychiatric Facility (p.4). USA: Terrapin Bright Green. www.terrapinbg.com

[14] Nestor, C. and Terrapin Bright Green. (2017). Ostra Hospital: Psychiatric Facility (p.4). USA: Terrapin Bright Green. www.terrapinbg.com

[15] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[16] Heath, O. (2015). 3 inspiring schools using biophilic design. Interface Human Spaces. https://blog.interface.com/en-au/3-top-educational-spaces/ Published 25 September 2015. Accessed 5 October 2018.

[17] Heath, O. (2015). 3 inspiring schools using biophilic design. Interface Human Spaces. https://blog.interface.com/en-au/3-top-educational-spaces/ Published 25 September 2015. Accessed 5 October 2018.

[18] Heath, O. (2015). 3 inspiring schools using biophilic design. Interface Human Spaces. https://blog.interface.com/en-au/3-top-educational-spaces/ Published 25 September 2015. Accessed 5 October 2018.

[19] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[20] Lamar & Jordan. (2016.) Green schoolyards for healthy communities: Building a national movement for green schoolyards in every community. Children & Nature Network.

[21] Department of Health. (2017.) Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour, Nutrition and Physical Activity. Australian Government. Last updated 21 November 2017. Accessed 18 April 2018. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/phy-activity

[22] World Health Organisation. (2011.) Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health: 5-17 years old.

[23] Kellert, S. and Calabrese, E. (2015). The practice of biophilic design (p.13). www.biophilic-design.com

[24] Department of Environment and Primary Industries for the State of Victoria. (2014.) Growing Green Guide: A guide to green roofs, walls and facades in Melbourne and Victoria, Australia, Melbourne.

[25] Kellert, S. and Calabrese, E. (2015). The practice of biophilic design (pp.13-15). www.biophilic-design.com

[26] Heath, O. (2015). Incredible examples of biophilic offices. Interface Human Spaces. https://blog.interface.com/en-au/incredible-examples-biophilic-offices/ Published 24 July 2015. Accessed 7 October 2018.

[27] Heath, O., Jackson, V. and Goode, E. (2018). Creating positive spaces using biophilic design: An accessible practitioner’s guide to help inspire architects and designers to understand the principles of biophilic design and how to implement it at a range of scales and costs (p.15). Interface DesignLab.

[28] Heath, O., Jackson, V. and Goode, E. (2018). Creating positive spaces using biophilic design: An accessible practitioner’s guide to help inspire architects and designers to understand the principles of biophilic design and how to implement it at a range of scales and costs (p.15). Interface DesignLab.

[29] Kellert, S. R. (2008). Chapter 1: Dimensions, elements, and attributes of biophilic design. In S. R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen, & M. Mador (Eds.), Biophilic design: The theory, science and practice of bringing buildings to life (p.4). Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

[30] Interface (2015). Appendix two: Cross country findings. Human spaces: The global impact of biophilic design in the workplace (pp41.42). Interface.