Blog (biophilic-design )

by July 30th, 2017

Biophilia: The benefits and strategies for including nature in the design of buildings

Biophilia is the human affinity for natural systems.  Biophilic design is design that takes our affinity for nature into consideration.

When people are in biophilically designed buildings, their health and welfare goes up.  While the research of biophilia is new, there are now numerous studies that confirm the benefits of contact with nature in our built environment.

For example, contact with nature enhances healing and recovery from illness, largely by reducing stress.  Studies have consistently shown that patients in hospital rooms with views to nature have dramatically shorter recovery times, and dramatically less need for pain medication, than patients in rooms with either no windows or windows that look onto non-natural settings like walls or parking lots.  Research has also shown that patients in hospital rooms with plenty of natural light select lower levels of pain medication for themselves, and suffer less depression.  Studies have shown that people who live close to open space have fewer health and social problems.  We also know that people who work in offices with natural lighting, natural ventilation, and views report lower levels of stress, fewer sick days, and higher retention.  A recent call center study showed workers in cubicles with a view had 7% higher productivity than workers without a view.

Unfortunately the trends in our built environment since WWII have been to isolate people from nature.  But there are ways to get the benefits of our affinity for nature back in the design of your home or business.  Here are some examples:


Use natural shapes and forms

Most buildings use rectilinear forms with right angles, not because those forms are the most appealing and healthiest, but because those forms are the least expensive to build.  But introducing organic forms into a design doesn’t have to be expensive, and can get us back to our roots in non-rectilinear nature.  Our bodies and minds are intuitively drawn to curved shapes.  Grid like plans can be mentally grasped immediately, providing little of the richness and interest found in natural settings, while a simple curved path or wall can entice and stimulate us.


Use natural materials

Synthetic materials have evolved and are now almost indistinguishable from natural ones in appearance.  Yet they don’t smell like natural materials, they don’t age like natural materials, they don’t move like natural materials, and they don’t feel like natural materials.  Natural  materials have richness and variety and show the passage of time – all qualities that our minds relate to and need to maintain a deep understanding of our environment.  In terms of our senses, synthetic materials are two dimensional, while we thrive when surrounded by the complexity of three dimensional nature.


Use lots of daylighting

Designing for daylighting takes some thought.  Building orientation and an understanding of sun angles throughout the year need to be carefully considered.  Building form is impacted: for example, narrower rooms are easier to light naturally.  Window heights and shading strategies need to be developed.  Internal and external light shelves can bounce daylight further into a room while reducing both glare and heat gain.  But while designing for daylighting can be complex, the results are well worth it.  Human beings are happier, healthier, more focused, and more productive in naturally lit spaces.


Use natural ventilation

Fresh air does more than just keep you healthy – it also connects you to your outdoor environment in ways that your body understand intuitively.  You can feel the rain coming, sense the changing low pressure system, smell the salt in the air coming off the ocean.  Ventilation strategies need to go much further than just having operable windows.  Homes and buildings can be designed to take advantage of the stack effect, exhausting warm, stale air up high while pulling in fresh, cool air from down low.  Multiple openings can be used to control the flow of air in the areas where it is most needed.  Protected openings can be designed to maintain ventilation in times of rain or storms.


Use landscaping to restore and connect you to the ecology of your land

Most American homes are surrounded by grass, the most unnatural and ecologically useless form of vegetation.  Most American buildings are surrounded by parking lots.  Both of these strategies are isolating and alienating to us, separating us from a connection to, and  understanding of, our environment.  Instead, use native plants to connect your home or business to its site.  Have a small lawn which you will actually spend time on because it is shady and protected and surrounded by the beauty of the plants on the rest of your lot.  Group the parking lot of your building to leave space for trees and vegetation that give views from inside your office.


Use colors

We evolved the ability to perceive and understand a complex environment.  When we spend our days inside off-white cubicles, the lack of sensory richness erodes our connection to our environment.  Colors stimulate us, and bring back some of the environmental complexity that we evolved to handle.


Design for views out (“Prospect and Refuge”)

This is often misinterpreted as “put a glass wall facing anything pretty”, but views need to be controlled.  A window facing a cozy recess in the yard can be as powerful and restorative as a view to the mountains.  Human beings are highly attracted to situations where they have “prospect and refuge”.  That is, a view across an expanse (“prospect”) from within a shelter (“refuge”).  Too much view without enough shelter makes us feel exposed, too much shelter without a view makes us feel confined.  Properly considered and designed for, views connect the interior and exterior spaces in a way that invites us to participate in our environment without giving up our sense of protection.


Design for views in

These may seem counterintuitive, but seeing the life inside a home or business is important to the health of a community.  Often homes are designed with the living spaces to the back, with the result that they present blank windows and a garage, and perhaps an empty porch to the street.  Businesses may provide minimal openings on the street side, often because that space is filled with an unattractive parking lot.  The result is a street that is cold and lifeless, discouraging a connection between buildings on the street and the people who occupy them.  Businesses designed this way can also be intimidating to walk into.  People are much more comfortable when they can see into a space they are about to enter.  A well designed home or business gives life to its community.  Biophilia is our attraction to nature, and a part of nature is other people.


Design for complex order

Nature is infinitely complex, but also filled with patterns, and we evolved to make sense out of that world.  Our brains have the desire to seek order in our environment, and the sophistication to find or create it in diverse settings.  We feel most connected to our buildings when they represent that duality.  When a building is too simple, too readily understood, our brains don’t engage.  When a building is too arbitrary, too difficult to find patterns in, we lose the comfort that comes from recognizing control.  As Grant Hildebraand said, “order alone is monotony, complexity alone is chaos.”


All of these concepts offer multiple benefits as well as improved connection to nature.  For example, well designed daylighting and ventilation reduce energy consumption, and well designed landscaping can provide protection and durability to a building.  But if the building does not tap into our affinity for nature then its occupants will not be as happy and healthy as they could be.


David D. Quillin, AIA, LEED BD&C