Rich in benefits to our health and well-being, positively affecting our mental health, and benefitting our emotions and perceptions, biophilia has a unique ability to reconnect human space with the natural world—but how does one design a space for biophilia?
Now that we spend 90% of our time in built environments, we need to understand how our current ‘natural’ habitats can be (re)connected with the nature.
How to design a space for biophilia: 14 distinct patterns
Biophilia is commonly thought of as incorporating plants into space, but that only constitutes one way to use it. In fact, biophilia ranges from what we can see, smell and hear to reminders of nature through the materials and textures we use, or the overall impacts a space can have, such as rooms which are wide open and bright instead of being closed off and dark.
Biophilia can be understood in terms of 14 distinct patterns identified in a study by Terrapin into three categories—nature in space, natural analogues or comparisons, and nature of space—which contribute to its effects.
Versatile in their applications, these patterns can be applied to space ranging from workplaces and recreational space to performance venues, hospitals and whole skyscrapers.
The potential of, and challenges to, biophilia
Over the last quarter century, case studies have documented the advantages of biophilic experiences, from improved stress recovery rates, increased pain tolerance, lower blood pressure, and improved cognitive functions to decreased criminal activity and levels of depression and anxiety, elevated moods, and economics benefits.
“Designers’ growing interest in biophilia stems from our difficulty to connect with nature, because we live in a world of accelerated urbanization and depleted ecosystems and biodiversity,” says Véronique Gravel, a sustainable strategies coordinator at Lemay.
Knowing these benefits, Gravel notes, clients have a better understanding of biophilia’s importance in built environments, and designers are increasingly using its patterns to create spaces aimed at environmental or health certifications.
Time will tell whether it’s a trend or an industry standard, however. Biophilic design is an effective tool in improving health and well-being inside built environments, the landscape architecture around them, and at the scale of whole cities, but Gravel notes that there are challenges to integrating it.
“In my practice, I’ve noticed that time, technical challenges and cost are all obstacles to biophilic design,” she says.
“A successful biophilic concept requires intent, conceptual research, and a thorough knowledge of biophilic principles, but depending on the type of biophilic strategy chosen, the technical constraints can be greater or lesser.”
Let’s go back to that common example of adding plants: They might require adding space, an irrigation system, and natural or sufficient artificial lighting to keep them healthy—all of which means additional costs from construction and horticultural maintenance.
That means a project’s initial plans to add plants end up scaled back or completely abandoned, and the potential benefits are lost.
Gravel says designers can counteract these limitations by highlighting and implementing less familiar biophilic strategies early in the design phase for lower costs. For example, achieving complexity and order through materials, using fractal geometries and visual hierarchies, creating indoor refuge spaces, or adjusting ventilation and fenestration for thermal comfort and airflow control.
The future of biophilia and biophilic design
As biophilia continues to inspire designers, Gravel notes that its use is a sign of how humans can repair a relationship with nature that was once fractured.
“Collectively, we can rethink our vision of biophilia and its synergy with sustainable development objectives in projects,” she says.
“Biophilia can not only address what professor emeritus at Yale University Stephen R. Kellert called the ‘negative consequences of our artificial life on the natural world’, but also reconnect humans and nature itself.”
Through design approaches like our NET POSITIVE™ sustainable strategy framework, we’re using biophilia to create transformative spaces for the future.