Consider a modern big box store: fluorescent strip lights hang from the ceiling on wires, casting a stark white light over the serried ranks of shelves. Air conditioning vents jut from a featureless grey metal roof, maintaining a constant temperature and a largely odourless environment. Beyond the first aisle, there are no windows, no views outside. Every surface is smooth and slick. There is almost nothing natural in sight, it’s an almost complete disconnection from the real world, and it’s little wonder that many people find such places strangely depressing.
A big store or supermarket is almost the opposite of biophilic design. It’s an entirely artificial environment, and the big brands are of course aware of that. It’s supposed to be that way – supermarkets are designed to make us fill those trolleys and hurry along. If they’re too uncomfortable we wouldn’t come back, but a slight sense of stress and disorientation makes us more likely to buy more than we need, so plenty of research has gone into getting the balance right. (I’m not being cynical, by the way. If you’ve never read anything on the , it’s worth looking up. It will reduce your shopping bills.)
In our homes or workplaces, in schools or public buildings however, we might want to take a different approach. There are proven ways to create spaces that reduce stress, slow us down, and help us to be more creative and thoughtful. When applied to hospitals, good design can help people to get better quicker. “Design that reconnects us with nature – biophilic design – is essential for providing people opportunities to live and work in healthy places and spaces with less stress and greater overall health and well-being.”
So what are we talking about? What is biophilic design?
In many ways this is intuitive, and elements of natural design have cropped up repeatedly through history in different forms. Ancient cultures all over the world had particular building layouts, patterns and forms that they perfected. Design movements such as arts and crafts, or art nouveau, investigated similar themes. Biophilic design is the latest iteration of this, with its slightly awkward name, pulling together past insights with modern psychology. It was first articulated as an architectural design philosophy in 2004, so it’s relatively new.
is a nice introduction from the green design agency Terrapin. It draws on the idea of pattern language and describes three overall categories of things to consider.
Nature in the space: how can nature be incorporated into the space? The visual connection to nature is the most important, and is known to reduce blood pressure and improve feelings of tranquillity. We can do this through indoor plants, courtyard gardens, green roofs or walls. Dynamic and diffuse light better mimics the natural world, so windows and skylights and natural light matters, or artificial light that is dappled or reflected. We appear to love the sight, sound and touch of water, so fountains, ponds, bird baths or aquariums could be included.
Since nature is multisensory, we’d want to account for breezes and air flow, smells and sounds. Some of this can be very subtle. Little changes in temperature or air pressure are likely to go unnoticed most of the time, but they imperceptibly change the way we feel in a space. Even though we’re unaware of it, research shows this variability in the air improves concentration and cognitive functioning.
Nature analogues: Secondly, there are ways to bring nature into a space indirectly, evoking it rather than including it physically. One way is through materials, choosing wood or stone, something with texture and grain. Locally specific materials and colours help to add to a sense of place. A second indirect route is through pattern and form, using motifs and shapes inspired by nature in decoration and furniture. Experiments have shown that we feel more creative in spaces that include natural patterns and materials. There’s no need to pack lots in and overcomplicate it. “A single high quality intervention can be more effective and have greater restorative potential than several low quality interventions.”
Nature of the space: finally, we need to consider the aspect of a space, and the way we feel in it. Does it offer a view? Can we create spaces that feel safe and contained? Others that surprise us, or draw us forward – can we design in a sense of mystery, of hidden things to discover? Garden designers have known about that sort of thing for centuries, long before we identified the dopamine release associated with them.
For dynamic spaces, we could even add a little danger. Or specifically, “an identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.” So perhaps we’d choose not to put a railing around a water feature – the thought that we could fall into the water gives us an animating sense of risk, but the knowledge that it is shallow enough to step right back out means we’re not afraid. Floor to ceiling windows that look out over a drop have a similar effect.
Naturally, we can pick and choose these techniques as appropriate. For a bedroom, we’d want to make a refuge from the world, something that make us feel safe and relaxed. If it was a classroom that we were building, we’d want to accentuate features that would make students more alert and attentive.
Biophilic design may or may not be sustainable – it’s about spaces that connect us with nature rather than about environmental impact. But living in a space that honours the natural world is going to make us more aware, more considerate. Combining biophilic design with sustainable construction is a powerful formula, and I look forward to more architects and designers putting them together in the years to come.
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