How biophilic design is helping to improve the built environment

Biophilia is a Latin term meaning, to love life or living systems. It encapsulates the foundational connection that humans have with the natural world around them. In a world dominated by urban environments and technology, that all-important connection with nature can be lost. Green spaces in cities are threatened by developers and modern lifestyles disconnect people from the natural world.

Biophilic design is helping to address that disconnect by embedding green elements into the built environment. What was once a fringe concern within architecture and construction is now going mainstream as concerns about well-being and sustainability come to the fore.

What is biophilic design? 

Biophilic design is the way through which nature is incorporated into building design to help contribute to the health and well-being of its occupants. Biophilic design will include elements such as natural light, living walls, natural textures and materials, living walls and views of nature.

Nature is the inspiration for biophilic design, but it’s more than just an optional add-on at the end of the design process. Biophilic design conceives the entire building as part of nature and looks at how natural elements can be incorporated to reflect that. Biophilic design will also consider the future challenges that a building might face due to the climate crisis, seeking to be part of the solution rather than helping to exacerbate the problem even further.

The principles of biophilic design

Biophilic design can incorporate a range of features depending on the particular context. The most common principles guiding the biophilic design process are: 

  • Views and access to nature 

Buildings will be sited to maximise their view of natural surroundings, whether that be mountains, a forest or just an urban park. When buildings are in densely urban areas with little green space nearby the design could incorporate courtyard gardens and other spaces. Trees and planting might be used to create an urban oasis that occupants can use when they want to recharge.

Other access features might include windows that can be easily opened by the occupants, rolling doors that allow office space to open to the outdoors and air circulation systems.

  • Natural lighting

 Access to natural light is a key principle in biophilic design and plays a critical role in supporting the well-being of building occupants. Sun shading elements, window-to-wall ratios and orientation will all be considered. The aim throughout is to create a comfortable, well-lit environment that minimises the need for artificial light with limiting glare.

  • Improved acoustics

 Traffic noise, mechanical equipment, elevators and people moving about a building can all create high noise levels which can be distracting. While conventional design may look to limit excess noise through the addition of acoustic panels, biophilic design may choose to incorporate green walls and roofs, or well-placed interior plants and water features.

This helps to create a softer, more sound absorbing environment as well as delivering some of the other benefits that greenery can provide. Green roofs and walls can also provide added insulation during colder months. 

  • Natural materials

 The choice of materials is a key aspect of biophilic design. Where possible, natural materials will be used in both the interior and exterior, complete with finishes that reflect nature. This might be through natural paint colours, the use of wood, cork or natural stone rather than concrete. These may be sustainable and can also incorporate elements from the circular economy such as coffee grounds, seaweed or coconut fibre.

The materials used will also reflect the climate and the natural environment in which the building is located, helping to blur the division between the built environment and nearby nature.

Biophilic design can improve our physical and mental well-being

Biophilic design is aimed at creating restorative places that help to connect humans to their surroundings. Architects incorporate nature into their design in order to contribute to the health and well-being of the occupants and of people in the immediate environment. By opting for natural materials or by incorporating features that mimic or reflect the surrounding ecosystem, they create buildings that work with our deep-rooted connection to nature.

Biophilic design has been widely used in hospitals and hospices where it has been shown to improve recovery rates. It’s now being increasingly used in schools where it has a positive impact on the cognitive function of students. In offices and other workplaces, green elements have helped to increase productivity.

Biophilic design is in tune with the shift towards a more sustainable economy and more holistic society. It illustrates how good stewardship of the environment includes the built environment and the humans who interact with it.

By placing nature at the heart of the design process it creates a built environment that nurtures people as well as the planet.