Was Freud wrong when he argued that the principal task of civilisation was “to defend us against nature”?
The biophilia hypothesis argues that there is an instinctive and interconnected relationship between humans and the natural world, and that this relationship is essential for us to sustain our health and well-being.
This is why we are captivated by roaring fires and setting suns, by the sounds of crashing waves and birdsong, and by the smell of rainforests and sea breezes.
This instinctive response to nature is reinforced with compelling research which finds biophilic design can lower blood pressure and heart rate, minimise the production of stress hormones, positively affect circadian rhythms and elevate mood.
The World Green Building Council’s Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building synthesises the research from dozens of reports, including the seminal Heschone Mahone study of office workers, which found people in call centres with window views could process calls up to 12 per cent faster. Computer programmers with views spent 15 per cent more time on their primary task, while equivalent workers without views spent 15 per cent more time talking on the phone or to their colleagues.
It’s not just office workers, either. A UK study of more than 10,000 people over two decades found that people living in urban areas with greater access to greenery were happier and had lower incidence of mental health issues. The Economics of Biophilia estimates that providing American hospital patients with views of nature can save US$93 million per year.
Biophilic design isn’t simply a matter of opening the blinds and introducing a few potted plants – it’s an evolving and complex field that combines science, design and a touch of magic. We know, for instance, that the human brain responds to repeating patterns found in naturally occurring fractals such as seashells and snowflake, and that viewing these repeating patterns can help lower stress, improve cognitive function and enhance creativity.
Other biophilic design principles incorporate use of organic materials, subtle changes in air temperature or airflow across the skin, variations of light and shadow as they occur in nature, the presence of water and the sense of the seasons changing. Our connection with nature’s grandeur can be cultivated by playing with scale: through unimpeded views of vast landscape or through small, quiet places of respite and refuge. Natural soundscapes, particularly of the sea, can mask traffic noise, while reducing brain fatigue and improving motivation.
In Australia, we often think a room with a view must overlook a harbour, river or lake, but creating central courtyards, atriums and communal sky gardens with real trees and plants can be just as effective. One building’s roof garden can become another building’s spectacular view – something that can increase biodiversity, combat the heat island effect and improve health, well-being and productivity.
Many buildings apply elements of biophilic design. Spain’s Moorish masterpiece, the Alhambra in Granada, uses cool breezes, trickling fountains and fragrant herbs to inspire and delight. In Vienna, the Hundertwasser House has uneven floors that are “a melody for the feet.” Singapore’s vertical gardens reduce energy consumption while lifting the spirits. New York’s High Line not only attracts four million visitors a year, but also mitigates the urban heat island effect. The Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne features a large-scale atrium aquarium and meerkat enclosure, while the breakout spaces in NAB’s spectacular Green Star-certified 700 Bourke Street in Melbourne feel more like life-sized terrariums than offices.
While greater contact with natural elements such as sunlight, fresh air and living plants are good for people, biophilic strategies are also good for the planet. More natural light, for example, lessens the need for power for artificial light. Biophilic design creates a virtuous circle, which, just like nature, keeps on giving.