Designing Authentic Connections to Nature: Biophilia in our Interior Environments
Biologist E. O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” In architecture, the concept of biophilia is rooted in the idea that humans are innately drawn to the natural world and seek out natural elements within the built environment as well as outdoors. Biophilic design is more than just adding plants to a workspace; it creates a meaningful connection between the people who use a space and the environment through patterns, textures, and natural materials. Enhancing connections to nature within a design is a timeless practice which has found a renewed popularity in recent years as sustainable design and wellness have become high priorities for building owners.
Biophilic design celebrates three types of attributes: environmental features (nature in the space), natural shapes and forms (natural analogues), and natural patterns and processes (nature of the space). Environmental features might include natural light, framed views to nature, natural air flow, natural materials such as wood and natural fibers, or even a fire feature. Natural shapes and forms within a space might be manmade, but might reference something found in nature through botanical motifs, arches and domes, or organic and rounded shapes. Natural patterns and processes within a design include complex visual patterns, sensory variability, information richness, or authentic patinas that show the passage of time. Humans are also drawn to spaces which offer both prospect and refuge; a sense of height and physical perspective as well as a sense of enclosure.
A welcome complement to the sleek finishes and hard edges of many contemporary designs, biophilic materials such as wood are typically described as more “homey” or inviting. Research supports our intuitive affinity for such materials. A Japanese study comparing physical and emotional responses to viewing wood versus steel panels found that wood offered both physiological and psychological advantages over steel (Sakuragawa et al., 2005). Wood panels were associated with decreased depression or dejection, while steel increased both.
Companies are increasingly making employee wellness a top workplace priority, and biophilic elements are an excellent way to create a healthier, happier, more inviting work environments. The inclusion of environmental features, natural shapes and forms, and natural patterns and processes can boost employees’ moods, morale, and productivity. One of the easiest ways to enhance an employee’s workspace is to incorporate live plants, which immediately improve air quality by releasing oxygen and removing pollutants from the air. Plants also provide a human-scale element, soften hard lines within a space, and provide soothing color and texture. Taking advantage of the outdoor environment through expansive views generates the same benefits and provides distant views to encourage employees to look up from their screens, rest their eyes, and re-charge. (Careful placement and sizing of windows will help control glare and solar heat gain.)
What does the future of biophilic design hold? Look for biophilic design opportunities to continue to increase in the commercial sector, as employers continue to seek differentiators within their workplaces to attract and retain high-quality talent. The hospitality market will also continue to incorporate biophilic design elements in creating memorable experiences for guests. The education and healthcare sectors have long understood the positive impacts of nature on learning and healing, and will continue to embrace biophilic principles. As prioritizing sustainable design and wellness becomes the norm across all building types, we can expect biophilic design to continue to be a growing and thriving part of the industry.