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biophilic design

What Is Biophilic Design?

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jul 21, 2020

Under normal circumstances, most of us are accustomed to commuting to and from our places of work. These workplaces often surround us with cement, drywall, computer screens, and phones. So, many of us have developed the routine of stopping at a park or other natural area during our commute back home. Once home, we again find ourselves surrounded by the comforts and commodities that separate us from the natural world. Those brief retreats into the natural world, short moments where we can hear the birds sing to the setting sun and the chorus of frogs and other amphibians welcoming the advancing night, are strangely soothing and reinvigorate us. 

Unfortunately, the primary considerations that architects and builders consider when designing and fashioning a structure are related to issues that revolve around human comfort and the "livability" of spaces. Sustainable architecture incorporates elements of energetic efficiency and carbon footprint reduction in homes. Unfortunately, many supposedly sustainable homes resemble the anthropocentric bias of edifices that disconnect us from the natural world around us.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Biophilia? 
  2. What is Biophilic Design?
  3. What Are the Health Benefits of Biophilic Design?
  4. Is Biophilic Design Sustainable?
  5. Three Tips for Biophilic Design
  6. How to Incorporate Biophilic Design Into Your Home
Walk In Woods

What is Biophilia? 

In 1984, Edward Wilson wrote his seminal work, "Biophilia." In his book, he proposed that humans have a natural, perhaps even evolutionary, tendency to affiliate with the natural world. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that human beings subconsciously seek a deeper connection to all that is alive and natural. Those relaxing and therapeutic respites at the nature park you pass by on your commute home, then, might very well be some more profound evolutionary urge to reconnect to the natural world around us. 

The findings of a 2009 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health were stark. They found that human-constructed spaces entirely divorced from the natural world can act as a "discord" with potentially damaging psychological and even physical health effects. A 2014 UN report stated that by the year 2050, two out of every three people would live in urban spaces. Most of these spaces will resemble the worst aspects of urban sprawl and slums that have little, if any, connection to the natural world. 

Besides the health and quality of life considerations associated with a complete lack of direct contact with the natural world upon which we depend for our survival, it is increasingly difficult to imagine meaningful conservation efforts by a population that doesn't have a contact relationship with the natural world. The fight against global climate change, biodiversity loss, species extinction, and other severe ecological concerns is much more conceivable and plausible when people directly connect to those they want to protect.

Houseplants Anna Church Art
Houseplants. Photo Credit: Anna Church Art

What is Biophilic Design?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the average person spends close to 90% of their time indoors, both at home and work. With so much time spent inside the confines of walls and roofs, biophilic design is concerned with finding ways to reconnect people with the natural environment through the design of edifices and how they incorporate elements of nature into the building itself. 

Whereas green architecture is more associated with reducing construction's environmental impact, biophilic design goes further. It aims to provide for our innate need to stay connected to the natural world. Biophilic design brings parts of the natural world into buildings. It allows for more natural light to illuminate indoor spaces, offers nature, plants, and animals views from our windows, and incorporates natural patterns, textures, and materials into a building's overall structure. In doing so, biophilic architecture allows those who spend their time in buildings to increase their connection to the natural world.

What Are the Health Benefits of Biophilic Design?

Research has revealed that biophilic design leads to numerous positive health benefits. Catie Ryan, Director of Projects at Terrapin and biophilic design leader, observed a 37% improvement in mental health from audible stimuli such as sounds of nature versus common urban noise after stressor exposure. Another study found that adding plants in interior spaces reduced stress and increased pain tolerance. The sites and sound of water were restorative, and incorporating nature views is also mentally restorative for occupants.

Is Biophilic Design Sustainable?

Biophilic design has been found to manage stormwater runoff as there are fewer imperviable surfaces and better infiltration. Biophilic design increases biodiversity while decreases the heat island effect and carbon emissions. This can be accomplished by adding plants, trees, vegetable walls, green roofs, and rain gardens to the built environment, buildings, and cities. Greywater can be utilized to reduce the freshwater reliance that these natural elements require.

Three Tips for Biophilic Design

Biophilic design aims to be much more thorough and comprehensive than simply bringing in a few potted plants to adorn hallways. There are several different techniques to allow the natural world to permeate our living spaces. Below, we offer three ideas for biophilic designs that homeowners, designers, and architects can incorporate into any human-built space.

Villa Styling Studio
Photo Credit: Villa Styling Studio

Large Windows that Look Towards Natural Areas

In most residential areas, the largest windows in a home look towards the street. While this might provide an attractive home façade, the people inside will spend much of their time looking at the road, cars passing by, empty lawns, and other homes. Many homes, however, have a more natural backyard or side yard. Perhaps you have a small tree line dividing your property from that of your neighbors. If that is the case, incorporating large windows that look toward it or the most natural area on your property will allow for a greater connection to the natural world. The visual connection to nature is one of the most critical tenets of biophilic design.

Linen Bedding Anna Church Art
Linen Bedding. Photo Credit: Anna Church Art

The Importance of Touch

Of course, we experience the natural world through much more than just sight. The materials and fabrics we use in our home can also connect us to the natural world. For example, instead of replacing your old carpet with new carpet, consider incorporating wood flooring or bamboo or cork flooring. Avoid synthetics and plastics and search for natural fibers for your textiles, curtains, and other interior design elements.

Water Feature Botany Geek
Water Feature. Photo Credit: Botany Geek

Allow for the Presence of Water

Water is one of the most fundamental aspects of the natural world and one of the elements most absent from buildings. Flowing water (such as streams, rivers, and waterfalls) creates negative ionization, a physiological stimulant to our human bodies. Incorporating moving water into the inside of our homes and building through fountains or sprays or other innovative features is another easy to implement but essential aspect of biophilic design.

Orchidea Flowers Maison Saint Michele
Orchidea Flowers. Photo Credit: Maison Saint Michele

How to Incorporate Biophilic Design Into Your Home

Many families do not have regular access to parks or other wild and natural areas due to poor urban planning and the increasing scope of technology over our lives. As a result, small urban grassed regions do not have the same benefit as the unspoiled wilderness that previous generations might have enjoyed as children.

Fortunately, the suggestions listed below for incorporating biophilic design can allow homeowners to bring nature into their homes in virtually any setting.

garden walkway view

Create an Outdoor Living Space 

One of the central tenets of biophilic architectural design is that we need to blur the boundary lines that usually separate our home's interior and exterior areas. Even in dense urban settings, an outdoor patio can encourage us to get outside, breathe unconditioned air, and feel the wind on our back. Even if there isn't a tree within a kilometer of your home, plants can be used in outdoor living spaces to create a natural oasis of biodiversity. Outdoor patios, decks, and exterior dining rooms encourage us to pull away from the screens that increasingly dominate our lives and to instead look into the sky to enjoy a sunset or to search for a shooting star. For homeowners who live in areas with long, cold winters, this Rise article gives some ideas for how to incorporate outdoor winter living spaces around your home.

Plants Thumbs Up

Plants, Plants, and More Plants 

Plants make up about 80 percent of Earth's total biomass, about 1,000 times more than animal biomass (including us humans). Bringing plants into your home, then, is one way to reconnect with the most abundant source of life on Earth. Plants don't only add color and life to stale and musty home interiors; they can also add tangible benefits such as improved air quality. Through evapotranspiration, plants can regulate humidity levels in homes. These air purifying plants can also pull allergens and even volatile organic compounds (VOCs) out of your home, thus drastically improving your interior air quality. For homes with small interiors, blooming tables offer practical ways to incorporate "plant furniture" for multiple purposes. For more ambitious homeowners, living walls for both home interiors and exteriors can give your home a "jungle-like" ambiance.

window view of sea

The Importance of the Sight and Sound of Water 

Our bright, blue planet differs from the thousands of other gaseous and rocky planets discovered throughout the Universe. The existence of water on planet Earth is one of the defining characteristics of life. Biophilic design focuses on highlighting our dependence on water by creating water features inside the home.

If you live next to the ocean or a creek, use windows to your advantage to invite the rhythmic sounds of the crashing waves or the soft and steady bubbling of a mountain stream. Interior water fountains use minimal amounts of energy while mimicking water's soothing sounds. Water walls are more extensive and more expensive additions to home interiors. When combined with plants, however, they can transform a home interior into a biophilic refuge.

green house full of green plants

Add a Greenhouse to Your Home 

Putting your hands into the soil to grow vegetables, flowers, and other plants is a palpable strategy to reconnect to the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. A small greenhouse attached to the south-facing side of your home will not only allow you to grow plants year-round but can also increase the energy efficiency and thermal performance of your home. Greenhouses can capture solar energy as part of an integrated passive solar design. With a bit of innovation, greenhouses can be made into outdoor living or dining areas, where "farm-fresh" produce takes on a whole new level of meaning.

Windows onto Woods

Floor to Ceiling Windows Where the Natural World is Present 

If a part of your home borders any natural setting, incorporating large, floor-to-ceiling windows is a great way to allow the natural world to "invade" your home. Forest settings, bodies of water, open prairies: any of these natural views should be encouraged to permeate your home through large windows. Of course, if you are worried about privacy, you can always install curtains or shades. 

Investing in triple-pane glass windows will allow you to enjoy the benefits of large windows without negatively affecting the thermal performance of your home.

The biophilia hypothesis states that human beings have an innate connection to the natural world. However, too many of us spend most of our lives inside homes and buildings with virtually no connection to nature. The five ideas outlined above allow homeowners to bring nature to a healthier and more vibrant house.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-25T00:20:17+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.