What is biophilic design?

What is biophilic design?


Most of us are aware of the huge benefits being out in nature brings to our mental and physical health. Walking through tree-lined parks, woods, fields or along the beach, our eyes drinking in the soothing hues of greens and blues, we feel our bodies unwind and perhaps our breath flows a little more easily and deeply. It can feel like we have hit our ‘reset’ button – like we have made it to where we are truly meant to be. Those of us who are most tuned into these feelings might feel a deep-rooted urge to seek out these moments in nature as often as we can.

The word ‘biophilia’ defines this biologically driven human instinct to be outside amongst other living things like plants and animals. Our connection to the natural world has built up through hundreds of thousands of years of living in agrarian settings. Our species has evolved for more than 99% of our history in response to the natural world, so it makes perfect sense that this is where we feel most at home and at peace.

In recent years humans have begun to spend more time indoors than outside, often in built-up urban areas, disconnected from nature. This is not only having a detrimental effect on our own health, but, as we all know, rapid urbanisation is destroying the environment, having a devastating effect on the health of the whole planet. Biophilic design acknowledges and honours all of this: turning its back on modern artificial materials, plastics, screens and bright lights, and instead striving to use architecture and interior design to connect people back into nature. Typically the products it uses are sustainable and the ethos is around valuing nature and all it has to offer us.  

At its simplest and most accessible, biophilic design might mean using sustainable wood or stone for flooring and furniture, incorporating lots of plants, or choosing wallpaper with floral or leaf prints. At the other end of the spectrum, at the level of architecture and urban planning, it can mean opening up whole buildings to nature. Architects consider everything from variations in daylight, to airflow and temperatures, and some even aim to create spaces that invite birds and other animals in too.

Places like Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong are at the forefront of biophilic design, aiming to restore biodiversity and combat the loss of nature, alongside improving the health and wellbeing of their populations. Singapore is now dubbed “a city in a garden” with its Jewel Changi Airport featuring the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the 40m HSBC Rain Vortex, surrounded by trees and shrubs. Hong Kong boasts the Zero Carbon Building, which features an urban native woodland with 220 native trees and a diversity of other plants. Here in the UK designer Thomas Heatherwick is reimagining Nottingham’s part-demolished 1970s shopping centre Broadmarsh, turning it into a community garden, climbing wall and housing complex, while Birmingham has become a member of the Biophilic Cities organisation, a network of cities from around the globe dedicated to improving the connection between people and urban nature.

But quite aside from major urban planning projects, perhaps you have noticed yourself, or friends and family, turning to nature for joy and nourishment more than ever before – including by buying and tending to houseplants, or suddenly deciding you need to paint your walls Breakfast Room Green! Perhaps it was the pandemic and being stuck at home for weeks on end that sparked a need to fill our homes and living spaces with the natural world, creating a feeling of sanctuary and safety we didn’t crave so much before.

The Benefits

The benefits to biophilic design are twofold, having a positive impact both on our lives as individuals and potentially on the life of the whole planet. On a personal level, it can improve our wellbeing, our mindset and our overall health. It is estimated that patients can recover eight-and-a-half times faster when looking out onto trees and greenery than on grey walls, and 22 per cent better when they recuperate in natural light. There is also evidence to suggest biophilic design principles reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve immune response, improve creativity, and encourage positive emotions. Research by Brighton based design firm Oliver Heath shows that productivity in offices incorporating nature into their spaces can be increased by 8% and rates of wellbeing by 13%; while in education settings rates of learning can increase by 20-25%, with improved test results, concentration levels and attendance.

On the global level, it is plain to see how incorporating more plants and trees, encouraging biodiversity in cities and using sustainable, natural materials rather highly manufactured, non-biodegradable materials contributes to action on climate change and is thus better for the future of the planet.  

How can I bring biophilic design into my home?

While most of us are not in a position to design and build our own homes from scratch, there are many ways we can begin to adopt its ideas and ethos. Look for as much direct contact with nature as possible, through elements like plants, trees, light and air. Bringing plants and greenery into our homes is an obvious first step, as is arranging rooms to benefit from natural light and views out onto nature. Another thing most of us can easily do is throw open the windows and doors to let plenty of fresh air in.

In addition to forging a direct connection to nature we can also evoke the touch and feel of nature through the patterns and textures we use. Choosing natural materials like wood, wool, cotton and stone can bring a beautiful, calm and earthy feel to a space, as can painting walls in sky or sea blues and cyans, or shades of leafy greens. Using mostly neutral tones with just the occasional pop of colour, just as we see in nature’s flowers and fruits, can create a relaxing, serene space, rather than having too many bright, overstimulating colours.

However you go about incorporating biophilic design into your home, remember that at its heart, it is all about embracing and honouring nature. With that in mind, you can’t go wrong. 

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