What is Biophilic Design and Why is it Important?

“Nature” much? If your answer is “no” then you are not alone. As a culture, we have erected artificial as well as actual barriers between ourselves and nature. Our houses, cars, roads, and even our shoes are all byproducts of us removing ourselves from the natural world that once surrounded us.  While this separation may have brought us many modern comforts it also left our souls with a strong  yearning for nature. This phenomenon even has a name: it is known as the biophilia hypothesis or BET. Many modern architects and urban planners are now taking this idea into consideration when building their cities and buildings. All over the world, biophilia has become a new and exciting phenomenon that has captured the hearts of millions. In a lot of ways, the people of the world are taking a new look at nature and ultimately, slowly bringing it back into their lives. 

With that being said, getting out in nature is easier said than done. As a student at the University of Illinois, I am often swamped with homework and I trudge through my days thinking I have no time or energy to go outside. I believe that many Americans share this attitude. “There are just not enough minutes in the day,” a fellow student told me as we walked to class together. “I am just too crammed with papers and tests. I have to stay indoors to get good grades!” Studies show that my friend and I are not alone in with this dilemma. Americans now spend approximately 90% of their lives indoors (Klepeis, et al., 2001). 

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Ikea’s indoor sphere garden design © Joany. via Wundr Studio on Office Snapshots

Biophilia is more than just a feeling– it represents our innate primal need to experience ourselves interacting in nature. We can do this in a variety of ways, from taking a casual stroll outside to hiking the great Pacific Crest Trail. In whatever way you can get it, obtaining your daily dose of nature is truly vital to your health and well being. Interaction in nature has been shown to improve a vast array of conditions from stress, aggression, and anxiety to depression (Frumkin, et al., 2017). If more of us ventured into nature every day, we would live in a much more happy and healthy society.

The compelling notion of biophilic design has been around for centuries. Throughout human history, artists and designers have taken inspiration from nature and incorporated it into their work. Some famous examples include the Alhambra garden courtyards of Spain, the hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the papyrus ponds of Egyptian nobles among many others (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014, p. 6). The peoples of these cultures lived in close proximity to nature and did not have to look hard to find it. They generally used nature for aesthetic appeal. Just like modern landscape architects, these people used their natural environment to their advantage to achieve their aesthetic goals. As it turns out, we can do the same thing in modern times, just using slightly different techniques.

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Hanging Gardens of Babylon © History.com

Biophilic design is composed of complex parts that each play a role in making us feel immersed in nature. The different types of biophilic architecture and landscaping can include both organic and vernacular design. Organic design is defined as using nature itself as well as naturalistic shapes and symbols in the built environment. This may include rocks, plants, water, lighting, and sometimes even living animals. Vernacular design focuses more on the local aspects of culture and tradition within the regional area. Usually, using this type of design means using resources from the geographical area. It could also mean decorating the built environment with native plants and local species (Kellert, 2006). Most architects use both techniques when creating a layout of their biophilic designs.

Your entire environment does not have to be completely redone to implement biophilia into your everyday life. One significant thing you can do is add a small native plant or orient your desk closer to a window to get the maximum amount of natural light. Even though these may seem like minor changes, the benefits can be enormous. A visual connection with nature can improve your mood, attentiveness, and may even lower your blood pressure. In addition, letting more natural light into your life decreases stress on your eyes and repairs your circadian rhythm (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

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Natural lighting and indoor plants are small ways to incorporate biophilic design © EarthTalk

There are several other things you can do to implement non-visual biophilic designs components into the workplace or home as well. This requires trying to engage the rest of the four main senses in the body. One easy way to do this is using water. Running water stimulates your senses of hearing, touching, and smelling. The resulting auditory stimulation tends to speed up the rate of recovery after a stressful event, although sounds are heavily correlated with visual aspects. Studies on the olfactory systems after exposure to nature have been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. Sadly, the hepatic (touch) and gustatory (taste) responses have not been studied enough to form concrete solutions but studies to date suggest actions resulting from this induce relaxation, at the least (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) supports the idea that spending quality time outside or looking outside restores our mental capacity and focus aptitude (Kaplan, 1995). One can only attain full restoration though, when they give their “soft fascination” to nature (Izenstark & Ebata, 2016). Soft fascination allows the mind to wonder, without paying attention to one thing. Hard fascination, on the other hand, holds and keeps all our attention in one place at one time. This can be something as simple as reading a book. Studies have shown that nature helps restore our soft fascination which in turn restores our mental fatigue.  

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Biophilic architecture at Bosco Verticale, Boeri Studio in Miano, Italy © Pxhere

In one experiment, scientists asked 90 people to either look out a window at a natural landscape, watch a TV screen containing the same landscape as the window, or stare at a curtain after experiencing mild stress. The subjects heart rate recovery was then noted. The study found that the recovery rate of the people looking out the window and seeing actual nature, in-person, was much faster than the people looking at either the TV or curtain (Kahn, et al., 2008). The results of this experiment were touted as a reason to use biophilic design to improve productivity in the workplace.   

Biophilic design has become very popular in the last few years and use is projected to rise in the foreseeable future. As people become increasingly aware of the benefits of letting nature back into our lives, it is sure to become a much more widely used practice. Taking inspiration from past architecture may help us create new and innovative designs while helping us preserve traditions and cultures. With the help of biophilic design, employers can significantly improve the psychological and physiological lives of their employees and clients. You too can do many things to improve your life by letting just a little bit of nature back into your environment. And if all else fails, just try your best to #GetOutside! 

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Biophilic designs can include greenery, natural light, flowing water, air ventilation, nature sounds, natural materials, and much more © Home Stratosphere

For further reading:

  • Browning, W., Ryan, C., & Clancy, J. (2014). 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: improving health and wellbeing in the built environment. (A. Hartley, Ed.) Washington: Terrapin Bright Green LLC. Retrieved from http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/14-Patterns-of-Biophilic-Design-Terrapin-2014p.pdf 
  • Frumkin, H., Bratman, G. N., Breslow, S. J., Cochran, B., Kahn Jr, P. H., Lawler, J. J., . . . Wood, S. A. (2017, July 31). Nature and Human Health: A Research Agenda. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi:https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP1663 
  • Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. T. (2016, June). Theorizing Family-Based Nature Activities and Family Functioning: The Integration of Attention Restoration Theory with a Family Routines and Rituals Perspective. Journal of Family Theory & Review (8), 137-153. doi:10.1111/jftr.12138
  • Kahn, P. H., Friedman, B., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., Freier, N. G., Feldman, E. N., . . . Stolyar, A. (2008, May). A plasma display window? —The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology (28), 192-199. 
  • Kaplan, S. (1995, September). The restorative benefits of nature: toward and integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology (15), 169-182. 
  • Kellert, S. R. (2006). Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Renewable Resources Journal (24), 8-11; 23-24. 
  • Klepeis, N. E., Nelson, W. C., Rott, W., Robinson, J. P., Tsang, A. M., Switzer, P., . . . Engelmann, W. H. (2001, July 24). The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology, 11, 231- 252. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.jea.7500165
  • Rogers, K. (2010). Biophilia Hypothesis. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis

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