Biophilia: Designed by Nature

Biophilia literally translates to love of life and the living world; the affinity of human beings for other life forms. E.O. Wilson coined the term in 1984, but it’s a concept that we all inherently understand. Biophilia explains why we feel more relaxed in nature, why all of our senses are fully engaged when we step outside.

Photo courtesy of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital

As a species that spent most of its time as hunters and gatherers, our interaction with the natural environment formed the basis of our survival–having sightlines and refuge ensured safety, a connection to water and verdant land meant a safe food supply.   So a connection to our surroundings is as fundamental as our ability to communicate. Humans are part of nature, after all.

The values of biophilia…require that we seek to harmonize nature with humanity if we are to achieve a just, secure, sustainable, fulfilling, and loving future.
– Stephen Kellert

The trouble comes when humans surround themselves in a primarily unnatural environment. More than half of the world is thought to live in urban or semi-urbanized areas, playgrounds of steel, cement, and the occasional green space. So what happened to our steadfast relationship? It’s still there, according to Wilson.  We’ve simply forgotten about it.

HOW DO WE CREATE BIOPHILIC PLACES?

Dr Stephen Kellert, a Yale professor, worked with E.O. Wilson to translate the concept of biophilia to the built environment–bringing nature into the houses, offices, and streets where people spend most of their time. Biophilic design takes as many forms as nature itself, and most projects are very space-dependent. A building in a desert climate, for example, wouldn’t feature hanging water gardens, while a house in the middle of a city might not focus on natural outdoor air circulation. The scale of projects also varies greatly. Adding real plants to an atrium might increase relaxation, while installing variable daylighting, leaf-patterned shading, and natural wood paneling could suit an entire office restructuring.  

HOW DOES BIOPHILIA INTERSECT WITH SUSTAINABILITY?

Sustainability advocates are ultimately concerned with the health of people and the environment, and in many cases, the latter is a conduit for the former. Multiple studies find that spaces that incorporate biophilic elements witness improved cognitive ability, lower stress, and increased happiness.  Many biophilic features, such as indoor plants and varied ventilation systems, can also improve indoor air quality, and as most people spend 90% of their time indoors, this can have a significant impact on daily wellbeing. Designing with biophilic principles also often overlaps with more responsible environmental practices. Interventions like natural lighting or water features can reduce the amount of energy a building uses, while the thoughtful treatment of nearby stormwater and plantlife can preserve watersheds and local biodiversity.  

WHO IS WORKING ON BIOPHILIC DESIGN?

After developing a community of practitioners through the Living Building Challenge, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has created  the Biophilic Design Initiative (BDI). There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how to best apply biophilia to design, but ILFI has been able to create a series of resources for practitioners and communities alike. Some of these include:

  • Case studies that touch on the biophilic approach project teams use to create evolved human-nature relationships.
  • A crowdsource biophilic design map that showcases biophilic projects from all over the world.
  • The Stephen R. Kellert Biophilic Design Award, creating awareness of the need for biophilia in the built environment and helping recognize biophilic projects around the globe.

I have also released a book called Creating Biophilic Buildings that shines a contextual light on brilliant historical examples of biophilic design and proceeds to present a carefully chosen selection of 14 international buildings.  The book shows clear examples, imagery, methodologies, and lessons from these case studies, combined with practical tools and resources, giving readers a compelling starting point on the pathway to creating truly biophilic buildings.

Most of us have experienced buildings that connect to our identities, that feel relaxing and inspiring in the rhythm of daily life. There is a regenerative, lasting power in those moments, and we hope to continue designing them. 

To learn more about biophilic design, join our Inspire Speakers Series on March 8 featuring the wonderful author of this post, Amanda Sturgeon. If you want to dive even deeper into the subject, register for GBA’s Biophilic Design Summit taking place March 9. 

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