Understanding Biophilia and Biophilic Design

September 08, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

“Biophilia” refers to humanity’s need to connect and be immersed in the natural, living world.

In more colorful terms, it describes that part of us (everyone) that needs to walk along a trail by the water to process thoughts after a hard day. Or that elation we feel when kicking off shoes off at the beach to feel sand between our toes. It’s that impulse to lie down in a quiet field, under the shade of an old tree, and watch the clouds.

Over decades, through a range of academic studies, the term biophilia has connected the mental, physical, and social evolution of human beings to our innate preference for natural surroundings. More specifically, ancient human beings thrived in the presence of clean drinking water, access to food, safety, and shelter; arguably, this is part of the reason why we are hardwired to feel the same way.

Catching up to contemporary times, Dr. Roger Ulrich, a Professor of Architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, illustrated nature’s affect on people back in the 1980’s. Using a highly clinical, sterile environment (a hospital) as a backdrop for his research, he used an evidence-based design methodology to show that views of trees and plants improved healing outcomes, including shorter stays and reduced need for painkillers. “Ulrich’s findings helped to support a design approach that could embrace nature and human delight rather than mere operational efficiency,” according to Biophilic Design: Strategies to generate wellness and productivity, a paper published by the American Institute of Architects.

What we know for certain is that connecting with nature, on a sensory level, is good for our bodies and minds. This has the potential to impact our lives in a myriad of important ways: to heal, learn, recharge, et al.

Connecting Biophilia with Biophilic Design

Biophilic Design originates and draws from this established human affinity for nature; it connects the design of the built environment with that part of us (again, everyone) that thrives when we are immersed in the natural world.

As an approach, it is concerned with incorporating design strategies that create opportunities to feel connected to the natural environment – and to experience the benefits of that connection in our daily lives. At a high level, this is accomplished by offering contextually appropriate ways to create the spark we get from seeing, feeling, smelling, and hearing nature.

All photos: Riff_ Creative

Working in physical space, the experience of nature generally happens in three paradigms:

  • Direct
  • Indirect
  • Place and space

Recreating these experiences through space amounts to far more than adding plants to your office or having views to a park (although those things are great). There are many strategies and ideas that make up the interdisciplinary world of biophilic design, but they spring from a desire to understand the natural environment and social and historical context of a region, and then identify what elements from nature would yield the highest benefit to users when applied through design.

Biophilic design has become more integrated with contemporary design strategies and projects outside the medical world. This is because nature makes everything better: the way we learn, the way we interact, how we calm down. Whether we’re looking at a school, multifamily housing, a retail storefront or office building, the long-term affect that owners will see are tenants who stay longer, work more effectively, and feel more at peace in the space.

At LSW, the more connected we are with the communities we serve, the more important it is that we design in ways that reflect their history, ecosystems, surrounding landscapes, patterns, and cultures. Biophilic design, through this approach, is less of a design sub-category and more simply a critical component of great design.

As the season begins to change and we start noticing the leaves changing color, a slight dip in temperatures early in the morning, and new smells emanating from gardens, consider what these shifts mean to you.

For some, it’s a sign that summer routines are about to end. The days will soon get shorter, and the mountains will soon (hopefully) be covered in snow. We’ll need to start wearing different clothing. Heating bills will soon rise.

For this team, the physical changes around us are a good reminder of the inextricable link between our daily experience and the natural world, and all of the joy that we gain from this connection.