Biophilia – the future of eco design, health and well being?

oliver General, Healthy spaces

As a designer passionate about the built environment and sustainability, incorporating a sense of nature has been a recurring theme to much of my design and media work. These ideas are neatly summed up under the concept of “Biophilic design”, and over the last 30 years there has been an outpouring of fascinating research and data demonstrating the benefits of incorporating its principles into many areas of the built environment.

Biophilia quite literally means “love of life” and is a term popularised by the American biologist Edward O Wilson, when he noted society’s drift away from nature. The term refers to humans innate attraction to nature and natural processes,  and concerns our residual genetic inheritance from the hundreds of thousands of years we spent surviving and thriving in nature, either as hunter gatherers or as an agrarian society. It’s only in the last 150 years, since the industrial revolution, as we have become more urbanised that we have unceasingly lost our connection to nature to the detriment of our health and well being.

On some level we all know the deeper benefits that we receive to our health and well being from being in or close to nature; be it a walk in the woods, looking out over rolling hills, sitting next to a roaring log fire or even just the company of pets.

Im currently working with visionary carpet manufacturer and sustainability pioneer, Interface to promote the many benefits that Biophilic design can have in the built environment – and we’re uncovering some exciting research which you can see at the new site

Biophilic design looks at how we can use the concepts behind our attraction to nature and natural processes to improve  the products and spaces that we live and work with everyday. As an emerging science and style It’s a subject that’s of increasing importance to a number of organisations including Interface, Amazon, Google and Apple.

Biophilic design offers opportunities to make all the spaces that we inhabit better. Spaces can become invigorating improving energy levels and concentration, calming allowing greater focus, or secure to allow restorative places for us to regroup our mental and physical energies in preparation for new tasks ahead. These are the emotional and physical needs that apply to many of the spaces we inhabit be it offices, schools, healthcare, facilities and even our homes.

As we have drifted towards an urbanised society, spending more time indoors, we have certainly lost our connection with nature – be it a lack of exposure to plants and trees, a reduction in dynamic natural lighting conditions that impact on our circadian rhythms, or even just our views out onto trees, water and open space.

By embracing urbanisation we have unwittingly decided that a connection with nature is not related to our health and well being; and this is reflected in our wider approach to environmental conservation. We have decided to our detriment that our cities and nature are two quite separate spaces that shouldn’t mix. One is clean lined and pristine, one is dirty and dangerous – but let’s be honest – which is which?

Of course we are an enormously adaptable species and can live cooped up in ever smaller spaces without connection to nature. But what is clear is that we are similarly seeing a rise in stress, which is a known cause to mental health and cardiovascular related illnesses, which the World Health Organisation has noted will be the two key contributors to illness by 2020

Studies in the US have demonstrated measurable benefits in a number of building types where biophilic principles have been applied:

Hospitals have been shown to improve rates of post operative recovery with less pain, 8.5 % shorter stays and 22% less medication. They allow for greater focus for staff and improve conditions for all including visitors. I love the playful and natural qualities designed into the Crown Sky garden at the Chicago Children’s Hospital.

Schools have demonstrated that children learn 20 to 25% faster when natural light is present, with improved rates of cognitive functioning and reduced impacts of ADHD. I love the way St Mary’s School In Oxfordshire by Jessop and Cook Architects allows natural light to flood in, views out onto nature and plenty of natural materials inside.

Offices can improve levels of productivity, and creativity whilst reducing absenteeism and presenteeism ( where employees are at work but not focused on tasks in front of them). When you consider that staff costs represent 90% of many business expenses then clearly ensuring their health and well being can create large improvements in profit for relatively small outlays. In fact companies such as Amazon and Google are even using biophilic principles to attract and retain the best staff.

There are four key principles which can be applied to the spaces we inhabit be it homes, offices, schools and healthcare spaces; allowing us to perform better.

Natural light – maximizing natural light is essential to our health and well being be it through windows, rooflights or glass doors- it helps govern our circadian rhythms.

Views out onto nature – be it a view onto a park, garden, a green roof space or terrace – views onto nature can improve focus and create a greater sense of calm.

Natural materials – studies have shown that natural materials, patterns, products and textures have a calming and restorative quality with a surprising number of positive side effects.

Safe spaces to retreat back into– we all need a space to sit and restore our energy, and focus after a period of activity. This could be a quiet space in an office or a favourite armchair next to a roaring log fire.

There are of course the immediate and tangible benefits to areas such as productivity and creativity, but it’s also about understanding that our psychological and physiological well being is intricately connected to that of the nature and environment that we have emerged from.

Once we understand this we can measure the many tangible benefits in many spaces, such as hospitals, schools and healthcare facilities, and start to put a financial value to them. Sadly it seems that only by placing a monetary value to nature linked to our health and well being can we really impress on our society the value of preserving nature and the environment on a wider scale.


If you’d like to find out more about Biophilic design please do get in contact through my website

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