The origins of biophilic design can be traced back to American biologist and theorist Edward O Wilson, who popularised the term ‘biophilia’ (literally a love of nature) in his 1984 book of the same name. In the book, Wilson argued that humans benefit from being in close contact with nature, and suffer when excluded from it.

He realised that as humans rushed to live in urban spaces towards the end of the 20th century, they were becoming increasingly divorced from the natural world, which was having a detrimental impact on their health.

In architectural terms, it’s generally considered to be the idea of fusing design with natural elements to bestow wellbeing benefits.

Roger Ulrich’s 1984 study is considered a major milestone in biophilic design as it provided objective proof that the environment can affect health. Ulrich found that patients recuperating from gall-bladder surgery in a room with outside views had shorter postoperative stays and took less pain relief medication than patients recovering from the same surgery in rooms with views of a brick wall.

The science behind biophilic design is of interest to Oliver Heath, an expert in the field of sustainable architectural and interior design, and author on the subject of biophilic design. “What’s different about biophilic design to a traditional design process is that it largely takes an evidence-based approach,” says Oliver.

“We discuss architecture as a cross between a science and an art, but the science aspect is not something that many of us necessarily undertake. Biophilic design brings the science back into design because it’s about using evidence and research to inform how we can best create spaces.”

How to Define Biophilic Design

Pinning down an exact definition of biophilic design had been difficult until recently. Terrapin Bright Green’s 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, released in 2014, has been instrumental in providing a framework for designers to work to. “It provides a comprehensive list of principles that many designers refer to, including us,” explains Koru Architects’ Tegan Tallullah.

Those 14 patterns are divided into three sections: ‘nature in the space’, ‘natural analogues’ and ‘nature of the space’. Oliver Heath defines the three sections as:

  • Nature in space is how you improve the direct contact with nature, so it’s how you introduce water, trees, plants and natural light into the space — the real forms of nature.
  • The less well-known one is how we use natural analogues — using elements that mimic aspects of nature: natural materials, colours, textures and patterns.
  • And most easily forgotten is how you create spaces that allow people to reconnect with nature.

What Does it Mean for your Project?

Some degree of biophilic design is evident in plenty of homes — perhaps without the owners or designers even realising. “People use biophilic design often without knowing the word,” says Tegan Tallullah. “The word and the evidence is new and trending, but the ideas and practices are ancient.”

Research + Design’s director Robert Bednar goes further, suggesting that biophilic design taps into an evolutionary desire for humans to live in connection with nature. “Why are people drawn to living by the coast or on the moors or in the middle of the woods? Why are these the most coveted places? Is it just the clean air or sense of ownership where you can’t see another house or is it something deeper — something more profound and primal?”

Ninety per cent of respondents to the UK Home, Health & Wellbeing report by major manufacturing company Saint-Gobain (2016) wanted a home that didn’t compromise their health and wellbeing, with a third of those willing to pay more for it. But, as Oliver Heath says: “It’s not about money, it’s about creativity and recognising opportunity to introduce elements of nature to reduce stress and aid recuperation.”

Those opportunities don’t occur just because someone is looking to build an eco-friendly house, either. Oliver Heath believes that biophilic design is a more human-centred approach to design than the carbon-led approach that typifies an ‘eco home’. Robert Bednar agrees: “A Passivhaus design may achieve 100% energy efficiency but because it’s so well insulated, none of the windows can be opened for fresh air, or the windows are so small on the north side that the interior is unwelcoming or even oppressive.”

Rather than focusing on the building’s properties, biophilic design focuses on the connection it affords those living in it to nature. As Oliver Heath says: “People have to love buildings. They have to love being in them and it has to feel good.”

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