an interior design with incorporated greeneries, trees into the interior space; people walking; there is a glass structure in the middle that is connected to the ceiling

Biophilic Designs: How Do Nature Incorporated Designs Impact Human Health?

As urbanization increases and more and more skyscrapers with metallic bodies populate the cities, the gap between humans and nature enlarges. As the studies indicate, the disconnection between nature and humans negatively affects human physiology and well-being, leading to many deficiency disorders and stress-related health problems. So, it’s very important for humans to feel secure, comfortable, and connected to nature, if possible, to focus and work better, which highlights the importance of spatial contexts. Over the past few decades, people have been discussing the concept of “biophilia,” which stands for the innate human need to connect with nature, and its application to architectural designs to “humanize” cities and make them more livable places.

This has become even more relevant and necessary during the last two years. Due to COVID-19, our homes have been transformed into work zones, minimizing the time spent outside. As such, we needed ( we still need to) to cut down on our contact with the exterior world, which currently necessitates investing more thought in interior/exterior designs to maintain a healthy state of mind. Bearing this in mind, embracing an eco-friendly and human-centered attitude, architects come up with projects that they couple nature with their architectural designs built upon the philosophy and psychology of “biophilia.”

This blog is concerned with introducing you to the concept of biophilia, what biophilic design means, and what kind of architectural vocabulary is applied to such designs. In the following, I offer some examples of biophilic designs from all around the world, including the USA, Singapore, and Australia. Lastly, the article covers how we can apply biophilia to our homes and workplaces.

What is biophilia, and why is it important?

a picture of a child's hand shaking hands with a branch; the leaves attachted to the branch looks like fingers; the setting is a forest
Credit: Sustrana

As a compound word consisting of bio (life, living) and philia (love), “biophilia” loosely translates to “love of life.” Erich Fromm first used this term in 1964 to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital (Dias 148), and he based the concept on “two fundamental tendencies of living organisms: sustaining life from death threats and positive integration with each other.” However, “biophilia” got popular in 1984 after the publication of Biophilia, written by the American biologist and naturalist Edward Wilson.

Wilson emphasized the need for emotional attachment with natural surroundings, inherently present in human beings. This notion also has an affinity with psycho-evolutionary theory. To be more specific, the major focus is on the human body and mind, the evolution of the human body as part of a natural process, and how it adapts to the changing environment.

Another key figure who has taken on this term is the social ecologist Stephen Kellert. He associates 9 values with biophilia, including ‘utilitarian, naturalistic, scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, dominionistic, and negativistic.’ In light of these theories, we can briefly state that the concept of biophilia is constructed upon the notion that humans need to stay connected to nature to maintain their physical and mental health and societal relationships in a community.

In the 21st century, the concept was adopted by architects who attempted to apply the concept in the domain of architecture. The aim is first to create ec0-friendly and human-centered habitats for human beings to maintain their well-being. Secondly, it is to diminish the effects of humans’ degrading actions towards nature.

Biophilic designs: what makes a design biophilic?

a diagram that points to the characterists of a biophilic design, with 8 symbols under which the meanings are written on a background of leaves
Credit: Ambius

Borrowing from environmental psychology and employment of concepts such as biophilia paved the way for biophilic designs. These designs are particularly important to nurture and cultivate an environment with organic material applications, emulating natural patterns. They help us form connections with nature and effectively manage natural resources. Thus, they aid in achieving sustainability.

To test whether a design is biophilic, we can look at if the concerned architectural structure evokes the feelings nature would evoke in us or whether it stimulates our olfactory, visual, gustatory, and haptic senses. Additionally, geometric and biomorphic forms replicating natural patterns and using organic materials such as wood, stones, earth, and timber indicate biophilic assets. Integration of plant walls in the interior space and well-designed layouts to enable thermal and airflow are other key features of biophilic design. To put it differently, biophilic designs put us in contact with nature directly or indirectly.

But of course, in addition to the concept of biophilia, there are other theoretical foundations placed under diverse categories. Those include habitat and dwelling, restoration, and place.

To start with, the aesthetics of survival linked to habitat and dwelling, for instance, highlights nature as outstanding architecture with five characters: “prospect and refuge, enticement, peril, and complex order.” Secondly, Attention Restoration “aids in relieving mental stress and brain fatigue. Interactions with nature do not require much cognitive work, thereby restoring exhausted attention.” Lastly, for the place category, we can mention “Place Attachment Theory,” which examines how we develop an emotional connection with places and attach a sense of belonging. 

In other words, the very human need to stay connected with surroundings that stimulate our five senses is the key for designers and architects. Now we can look at some examples of how these theories are applied in practice.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania USA

a house partly built over a waterfall, surrounded by rocky formations, the house has layers in earthly colours located in a rugged forest, below which the water falls
Credit: Britannica

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, Fallingwater, situated partly over a waterfall, is a house with dynamic elements in harmony with nature. Tucked away on a rocky hillside, 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, it features organic forms and Japanese architectural elements in Pennsylvania’s Bear Run Nature Reserve area.  Cantilevered ledges, narrow corridors, and rooms with low ceilings direct people to the outdoors. Sounds of nature, particularly water, offer a soothing effect.

Wright’s concept of “organic architecture” was inspired by American transcendentalism, which emphasizes the inherent goodness in people and nature. Some of the key characteristics of this concept include open-plan layouts, which eliminate the sharp distinction between interiors and exteriors, geometric forms analogs to natural forms, spatial interventions to simulate different cognitive responses and respond to humans’ emotional needs. The architectural designs following the mentioned details privilege the individual’s needs and nature itself.

WOHA’s Oasia Hotel

three buildings in the middle, rises a high-rise Oasis hotel with red facade and coated with greeneries,sandwiched between two metal and concrete buildings
Credit: Archdaily

Oasia Hotel, situated in Tanjong Pagar, Singapore, the city’s central business district, stands out among other buildings as one of the greatest examples of biophilic design with its remarkable red facade partially coated with plants. The 27-story high tropical skyscraper accommodates 314 hotel rooms, 100 offices, a restaurant, a swimming pool, meeting rooms, a gym, and a garden. It composes different layers covered with plants and a sky garden. Open spaces allow for natural cross-ventilation. As such, it also maximizes the natural light flowing in.

Greenery wrapping around this skyscraper comes with countless benefits. The plants prevent overheating, provide nonhuman animals with habitat, and consequently, enrich biodiversity. In addition, plants cool down the temperature, diminishing the need to use air conditioners in the interior and creating microclimates. As Richard Hassell, one of the designers of the hotel points out, “its [Oasis Hotel’] surface temperature measures at around 25 degrees (centigrade) versus the 55 degrees of a neighboring building that is wrapped in glass and steel. On a normal day, Singapore’s average temperature is around 30 to 32 degrees.”

About the architecture firm WOHA

In 1994, Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ founded WOHA in Singapore to spot architectural fallacies. From scratch, small-scale projects, they made it to the top and engaged in large-scale projects. Summ and Hassell were particularly concerned about climate change, population growth, and declining biodiversity. They sought designs to emphasize interconnectivity between man and nature. As Hassell states in an interview,

“We’ve developed a “systems approach” in which we view every project as part of larger social, economic, and environmental systems—be that on a precinct or city level. Our buildings interact with their context, people, and nature. To achieve that, we can’t have tunnel vision where we see our building as an isolated object. We think it’s important to set up situations in which positive feedback loops can start happening and build connections that spark new relationships and greater productivity.”

The overall aim is to “humanize buildings,” in the words of WMS, “to enable people to relate to them.” Considered a biophilic city, Singapore is famous for being a garden city, rather than having gardens in a city.

Layer House by Robson Rak Architects in Coastal Victoria

one-story building built with the use of timber and rammed earth, where we see the courtyarwhere wood is used as a doinant material; it is a house nestled among the trees.
Credit: Archdaily

“That strong connection to the outdoors is paramount in the Australian psyche.”- Robson Rak

Another example of biophilic design is located in the coastal region of Victoria, Australia. The layered house consists of limestone shelves and underground caves. Local building materials (particularly rammed earth and timber) and techniques are used in the construction of the house, which allows this unit to be an extension of the landscape, adapting the region’s local character.

In other words, the architects used organic materials throughout. As such, the house forms a meaningful connection with its natural surroundings by mimicking material structures in nature, particularly with the use of rammed earth for walls and timber for floors and ceilings. Other technical achievements of the units include cross-ventilation achieved with louvers, a green-tiled island bench that helps connect the landscaping with internal space.

Additionally, the use of window walls blurs the distinction between exterior and interior, maximizing visibility. Likewise, an open floor plan layout helps with natural light and airflow, improving the impact of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The courtyard shaded by roof extension offers a calming spot by preventing direct exposure to sun and rain.

Biophilic design and its impact on human life

Enclosed spaces featuring elements that expose the inhabitants directly or indirectly to nature offer a multitude of benefits for human health, economics, and education.

Biophilic Design-Health Benefits

Nature makes us feel better, and there is science behind this assertion. The human body responds to its surroundings, and nervous, endocrine, and immune, and sympathetic systems change in accordance with its surroundings. Nature has a healing and soothing effect on human beings. To give examples, regular exposure to nature lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, improves attentiveness and mental health, and boosts creativity.

Hospitals’ designs, for instance, where biophilic principles are incorporated, can make significant changes in the healing and recovery processes of patients. Robert Ulrich observed that the patients whose windows had the views of nature tolerated pain better, were emotionally relieved and recovered faster.

Another study indicated that the children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who spent 20 minutes in nature exhibited significantly better concentration than those who walked in a typical city environment (Taylor and Kuo. 2009).

Biophilic Design- Educational Benefits

School architecture plays an important role in students’ performances and improving their learning capacities. For instance, in poorly lightened, small, cold, and not properly ventilated classrooms, students perform poorly, due to the negative spatial effects on students (David and Weinstein, 1987). David and Weinstein and other researchers use this study to provide a basis for some important propositions:

1.  Environmental experiences in childhood continue to be influential throughout life; therefore, how a school is designed and built can influence student learning (David and Weinstein, 1987).
2. Planners, teachers, school administrators, architects, and designers must recognize the emerging impressions on students formed by the architecture and physical attributes of spaces within schools (Kunz, 1998).
3. Built environments have direct and symbolic impacts on children (David and Weinstein, 1987).

Additionally, as another study points out, “lights of different colors affect blood pressure, pulse, respiration rates, brain activity, and biorhythms. Full-spectrum light, required to influence the pineal gland’s synthesis of melatonin, which in turn helps determine the body’s output of the neurotransmitter serotonin, is critical to a child’s health and development” (Ott, 1973).

Biophilic Design-Economic Benefits

Houses or apartments with sea views always sell at higher prices in the real estate sector: “The US showed that homes with full views of water achieved a 58.9 percent increase in value, compared to only a ~30 percent increase for those with partial views. Compared to a typical home in the area, homes on the lakefront experienced a 127 percent increase in value (Benson et al., 1998)“.

There are also studies on the effects of commercial buildings on absenteeism in the workplace. For instance, according to a study by the University of Oregon, 10% of employee absences could be due to architectural structures that have no connections with nature (Elzeyadi, 2011).  Absenteeism at work leads to economic losses in the private sector.

Another example is retail stores with natural connections or that integrate biophilic elements. Studies show that these retail stores sell more and improve their profits.

Additionally, these examples set a contrasting picture to the commonly held assumption that biophilic designs are expensive. Biophilic designs, even if their applications are expensive initially, compensate for additional expenses in the long term by reducing absenteeism and attracting more customers with their inviting nature.

How to apply biophilic designs to your own home

a picture showing an interior home design with lots of houseplants, hardwood flooring, wooden furnitures, natural light coming in, and a woman standing by her desk
Credit: Ecohome

Transporting nature indoors aids you in fulfilling your potential, making your body-mind feel at ease and ready to focus on your task. But the question is, “how do you make biophilic designs?”. Here are some tips you can use in your personal living spaces and workplaces:

  • Use of natural materials such as wood, timber, stones, and earth: wood surfaces, for instance, lower blood pressure and heart rate. Thus, you can furnish home interiors with wooden cabinets, timber tables, and chairs.
  • Building a visual connection to nature: full-height glass windows maximize the visibility between interior and exterior spaces.
  • Presence of water
  • Creating playful spaces such as nooks
  • A place that speaks to or simulates your five senses
  • Use of natural fragrances to make you feel closer to nature
  • Houseplants: Just one plant can improve air quality by 25 percent. You can adorn the rooms with hanging plants.
  • Integration of chaos and order, the application of different textures and forms, creating a place with rich stimulants: a combination of wood and stones could be one option.
  • Use of light and shadow in various densities
  • Benefiting from the daylight: natural light is essentially important for balancing circadian rhythms; you can rely on windows rather than air conditioners.
  • Thermal and airflow variability
  • Use natural analogs, for example, organic non-living and indirect evocations of nature. Objects and ornaments emulate natural forms and organic geometry.

Significance of biophilia and biophilic designs 

a gian tree leaning towards the glass ceiling of a building with green branches
Credit: cognitive studios

Biophilic designs have a great impact on human well-being by bridging the enlarged gap between humans and nature. Plus, they alleviate the economy, fasten health recoveries, and improve the learning environment in the classrooms. More, they engender attachments between people and living spaces. Consequently, they motivate people to focus better and work more constructively.

Biophilic designs can be adapted to create cities with green profiles in the future to diminish the heat island effect in tropical countries and drastic global changes due to climate change all around the world. We can also transform our living spaces with the right strategies into biophilic environments. It all starts with adopting a new consciousness and recognizing the common needs of nature and humans:

‘The successful application of biophilic design fundamentally depends on adopting a new consciousness toward nature, recognizing how much our physical and mental wellbeing continues to rely on the quality of our connections to the world beyond of which we still remain a part’ (Kellert, 2015).

Works cited:

The Layered house by Robson Rak: Combining Light and Earth – Layer House by Robson Rak
Archdaily-layer house

Rory Martin and Stephen Choi- Biophilic Design

Bruno Duarte Dias- Beyond Sustainability- Biophilic and Regenerative Design in Architecture 

C. Kenneth Tanner – The influence of school architecture on academic achievement

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