Throughout the ages, nature has influenced building design and surrounding spaces to reflect human feelings and emotions. Whether practical or glorious, the design intention and the nature it embraces always sends a clear message – positive or negative.

The Parthenon and the grand buildings of the Acropolis, with their imposing columns ordained with famous acanthus leaf motifs, reach heavenward. The buildings’ strategic position high on the mountain looks down on the people of Athens, whilst reflecting the godlike stature of its past rulers and their belief in the gods. The buildings speak of reverence, fear, respect, democracy, and peace depending on where stand – up close and personal, or at a distance.  The designers wanted to make a point and used the buildings and their natural environment to do it.

In early human times, our links to nature were stronger than they are today. We lived agricultural lives, living by the fields and with the animals we needed for survival. Dwellings and communities were designed to reflect this need, and in reality people were living in nature, not by it. The old phrase ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ comes literally from the fact that domestic animals lived in the roofs of houses often covered by straw which became slippery when wet, hence they ended up falling literally from the sky!

Over the centuries, we have grown into industrial, city-based beasts. Cats and dogs live in our homes and not on our roofs. Mimicking nature and bringing it into modern urban design has become more important, the reason being that 21st century man seeks a more pleasant, stress-free experience.

Parks and open spaces were introduced in the early 19th century to help address sanitation issues because as cities grew with poverty and no real thought, peasants lived back to back with sewers in the street. Space as well as sanitation needed to be created.

With that, the urban evolution of space began. Using nature to ease anxiety and provide relaxation is nothing new, but in early urban cities it was the wealthy that benefited. You only need to take a walk around the gardens of the Palace of Versailles in France or the walled gardens of Hampton Court Castle in England to witness how nature was connected to great wealth. Perhaps this helped the rich forget about the marauding, poor and unhappy hordes banging at the gates.

The modern day term ‘biophilia’ did not originate until the 20th century. A report by sustainability consultants Terrapin Bright Green entitled 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design says the term was invented by psychologist Eric Fromm in 1964 and made more popular by biologist Edward Wilson in 1984.

In a nutshell, biophilia is the relationship of architectural and urban design with nature itself. These are architectural and urban designs that not only reflect the unique intention and objective of a building and its space, but that reflect and include nature to create an energy and atmosphere. In the case of an office, for instance, staff, clients and visitors must feel good when they enter as ultimately this can affect productivity and outcomes.

For staff, having a healthy environment to work in is seen more and more as a must. Design needs to encapsulate air flow, light and position as well as having internal and external spaces full of nature to enjoy on breaks. This has been shown by psychologists to take people’s minds off their worries. In doing this, better health is promoted.

Biophilic design is therefore seen as the modern way forward to enhance performance, manage stress, stimulate patient recovery, support positive community relationships and stimulate overall health and well-being.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a stronger research focus on how biophilia actually affects us, and the impacts were shown to be so beneficial, they have been introduced into green building standards. It is part of policy, even though the concept has literally been around for eons. We are just more open to understanding the psychology of the concept.

A current Australian research project that is looking at the psychology of biophilia, called Closing the Loop, seeks to uncover the evidence that links well-being, performance and learning to biophilia in architectural design and the built environment.

One example of wonderful biophilia in architecture is the ACROS Fukuoka building in Japan, where a pyramid-like structure was turned green when it was covered with plants. It is literally where city and nature merge, not only providing beautiful scenery, but also providing oxygen to the city itself.

The ACROS Fukuoka building is clad with greenery

The ACROS Fukuoka building is clad with greenery

In major cities around the world, the continuing rise in population, denser urban environments and increasing land values makes biophilia increasingly more desirable. What is so encouraging is the fact that decision makers and policy are now supporting this trend. As time goes on, buildings like ACROS will be more common across the globe.

Another extension of biophilia is biomimicry, where nature’s design models are copied or adapted to create buildings that cause less environmental harm. It is not only in architecture and urban design where biophilia or biomimicry can be used, however. Engineers and material designers are turning to nature to seek the answers to complex structural challenges, particularly where new materials are required.

Professor Mark Hoffman, Dean of the UNSW Department of Engineering, is conducting research focused on materials and structural integrity. He said at a recent talk for the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering that nature is “put together with the best structural materials you can get and has developed multi-functionality better than we have yet been able to do synthetically.”

Hoffman explained that although it is impossible to literally copy nature because it is far too complex, we can optimise the natural design. Design optimisation is the result of running different variables through a genetic algorithm that reflects the natural chosen design – such as a branch or a leaf – working out the best solution. Ultimately, it is the genetic evolution process we currently know that is used to find the optimum engineering solution. How incredible is that?

This shows the common denominator in biophilia and biomimicry are patterns, just like patterns in our DNA.  As the Terrapin report states, “Patterns lays out a series of tools for understanding design opportunities, including the roots of the science behind each pattern, then metrics, strategies and considerations for how to use each pattern.”

It is good to see that urban policy is embracing nature to enhance human well-being, all the while supporting productivity and growth on many different levels.