What Is Biophilic Design Architecture?

Biophilic design architecture, also known as biophilic architecture, is an architectural design framework that intentionally incorporates nature into built environments or human-made structures and spaces. Its goal is to fulfil the human need to be connected to life and the natural environment.

Biophilic architecture implementation can vary greatly in complexity. It can be something as simple as a live green wall on a partition wall of an office building or a fully functional conservatory with a 40-metre indoor waterfall surrounded by a five-storey terraced garden (i.e., the Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore).

Biophilic design architecture is believed to relieve stress, promote a healthy physical and mental state, and boost productivity and creativity.

Understanding Biophilic Design

How did biophilic design evolve, and what are its distinguishing features? In this section, we talk about the origin of the biophilic design concept and its core principles.

Moss Wall at Anantara Dubai

The origin and evolution of biophilic design

Biophilic design is grounded in the biophilia hypothesis. It posits that humans are naturally inclined to seek a connection with nature.

‘Biophilia’ is a word coined by the American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his work, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness’ (1973). Biophilia is defined as ‘the passionate love of life and all that is alive’.

In 1984, American biologist Edward O. Wilson published ‘Biophilia’. He proposed that our tendency to focus on and associate with nature and other life forms is genetic.

The specific gene or genes that compel us to seek a connection with nature and other living beings have yet to be identified. However, the belief that humans are genetically biophilic persists. The fact that we fear certain plants, animals and natural phenomena innately supports this hypothesis.

It’s worth noting that biophilic design existed long before humans knew what to call it. The Greeks and the Romans understood how important nature was to their health and well-being, so they intentionally incorporated the environment into their structural and space designs.

The ancient Greeks had sanctuaries (Asklepeia) that generously incorporated the natural environment into their design. These had streams, gardens, murals, shaded walkways, and lovely tranquil nature views. Roman homes, likewise, had gardens, water features, shaded porticoes, and virtual nature walls (i.e., murals). Their cities had public parks and other green spaces.

You could say biophilic design has existed for as long as human civilisations have. This gives credence to the hypothesis that we are genetically wired to seek a connection with our environment and other life forms.

Indoor green wall

The core principles of biophilic design

Biophilic architecture operates from the premise that:

  • We have a compulsion to be connected to nature and other life forms; and
  • satisfying this impulse is essential to our well-being.

Therefore, the goal of biophilic design is to create spaces where humans, as biological organisms with an intrinsic and instinctive tendency to seek out nature and life, can thrive.

To this end, Yale University’s Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus Stephen Robert Kellert and architect and biophilic design educator Elizabeth Calabrese cite five core biophilic design principles in their work, The Practice of Biophilic Design (2015).

According to Kellert and Calabrese, biophilic design:

  1. Requires repeated and sustained engagement with nature
    Biophilic design cannot be isolated or transient, so indiscriminately adding one or two plant pots somewhere is not biophilic interior design. Intentional interior landscape design or plantscaping is required. Maybe it’s one interior wall transformed into a continuous wall of live plants, artificial plants, and moss, with a fish-inhabited pond or stream underneath.
  2. Focuses on beneficial human adaptations to the natural world
    Nature in the built environment must be relevant to human fitness and survival. Spaces must have characteristics or features that help advance human health and well-being.Creating open spaces that satisfy the human need for prospecting and surveillance is an example. A tree-lined path that provides shade, aids in mobility and way-finding, and signals a transition from one area to the next is another good example.
  3. Encourages emotional attachment to a setting or place
    Biophilic designs can represent cultural and ecological design elements that are familiar and dear to people’s hearts, engendering a feeling of belonging and attachment to a human-made structure or space. An example is planting local plant species. Recreating or creating a space inspired by a well-known natural landscape is another.
  4. Promotes positive interactions between people and nature
    Incorporate biophilic elements in areas with high levels of foot traffic to enforce frequent interactions.
  5. Encourages integrated and interconnected architectural solutions
    Waterfalls and other water features can provide not only direct contact and interaction with water. They can also serve as temperature control devices, focal points, and sources of natural ambient sounds. Tropical bamboo plants are excellent for biophilic landscaping, and they make an exceptional fencing solution and privacy screen. Additionally, you can install a controlled sprinkler or spray irrigation system that also doubles as a water feature.

Indoor landscaping

Benefits of Biophilic Design

Biophilic architecture satisfies our very human need to be connected with our natural environment, and this fulfilment has very real psychological, physical, and social benefits.

Psychological benefits

Vistas of plants, the sound of trickling water, the breeze, and the light and warmth from the sun can help us feel calmer, less anxious and less stressed. They can improve our mood and make us feel happier. Being one with the environment also helps boost the brain’s cognitive functions, so we are more creative and productive.

Physical health benefits

Physical well-being is among the most important benefits of biophilic design. We become physically healthier and become ill less frequently by occupying spaces that keep us one with and connected to nature.

Built environments with biophilic architecture and design benefit from cleaner air, enhanced ventilation, and an abundance of natural light. They encourage you to walk, stroll and explore through meandering, naturally interactive pathways and staircases, so you’ll be physically active as well. Consequently, biophilic architecture leads to lower blood pressure, better sleep, better appetite, and improved physical comfort.

Social benefits

Spaces that integrate the natural environment are tranquil and beautiful. They can bring people together, encouraging social interaction. Biophilic design also fosters attachment to the environment, fostering a sense of community and cohesion.

Successful biophilic spaces also enforce interaction between their human inhabitants and the environment. They engender sentiments of environmental stewardship and a push towards environmental protection and sustainability.

Indoor Plants

Case Studies

You can see biophilic design in many places in the world. The following are four examples, including two we worked on ourselves.

1. Bosco Verticale
Bosco Verticale, which translates to vertical forest, is a metropolitan reforestation project in Milan, Italy. It puts plant-scapes front and centre in biophilic architecture. It also shows the world how vertical developments can be exemplary biophilic spaces.

Two blocks of flats comprise the project. They don’t look like the typical high-rises with glass, steel and concrete curtain walls and surfaces. Instead, they look like they are growing blocks of trees.

They are significantly covered in greenery: 780 trees of various sizes, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 other plants. These create a sustainable ecosystem supporting birds and other life forms, a cool and stable microclimate, and a screen of vegetation that diffuses sunlight and makes natural light more dynamic.

2. The Spheres
The Spheres is part of the Amazon campus in Seattle, United States. Unlike other biophilic architectural projects, the three ultra-modern spheres that comprise The Spheres look strikingly distinct, even alien, from the rest of its surroundings.

However, they are biophilic through and through, designed to reconnect people to nature. Inside are gardens, living walls (including a living wall/aquarium hybrid), a canopy walk, and a waterfall. There’s an abundance of natural light through the glass walls. Integrated with these are spaces for focused work, meetings, dining, and relaxation.

3. Aprons & Hammers
Aprons & Hammers is a seafood restaurant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Our award-winning design and installation for them includes transforming seating alcoves into lush biophilic sanctuaries through floor-to-ceiling live-plant green walls and hanging plants.

4. Amazonico
Amazonico is a restaurant brand with branches in London, Madrid, Monte Carlo, and Dubai. We worked on the interior landscape of Amazonico Dubai, designing and delivering interior spaces that evoke the lushness, dense vegetation cover, and rainforest canopy of the Amazon.

Implementation Tips

In ‘The Practice of Biophilic Design’, three experiences and attributes represent the biophilic design framework: direct experience of nature, indirect experience of nature, and experience of space and place. These categories inform biophilic design strategies.

Direct Experience of Nature

Biophilic design requires actual contact with elements of the natural environment. These elements include light, air, water, plants, animals, weather, fire, and natural landscapes and ecosystems (e.g., mountains, deserts, rainforests).

Therefore, designing interior and exterior spaces to reinforce the human-nature connection means incorporating one or more of the above elements. Biophilic design strategies that can provide a direct experience of nature include:

  • Letting natural light in through skylights
  • Providing the soothing sounds of water through water fountains and streams
  • Allowing interaction with other life forms through terrariums, aquariums, fish ponds, and aviaries
  • Creating green spaces through interior and exterior landscaped gardens, green walls, moss walls, and potted plants and trees.
  • Providing nature vistas outside through picture windows, patios and balconies.

Indirect Experience of Nature

Biophilic design also entails experiencing nature indirectly through the use of elements that invoke and evoke natural elements. Design strategies in this category include:

  • Images of nature: paintings, prints, murals, and virtual backgrounds that depict life forms, mountains, oceans, rivers, and other natural landscapes
  • Natural materials: pots made of clay, bronze sculptures, exposed wooden beams, and leather seats
  • Natural colours: the browns of the earth, the greens of the forest, the blues of the sea and sky, the red of the sandy desert, the greys of stone
    Stimulating natural light and air: the use of lighting that changes its temperature according to the time of day and mimics the natural light outside, the use of air-conditioning and ventilation systems that simulate natural breezes and provide cooler, comfortable temperatures
  • Naturalistic shapes and forms, natural geometries, biomimicry, and other designs that evoke nature: designing, decorating and building in a way that mimics or brings to mind natural elements, patterns, textures, and forms, including rolling hills, sand dunes, spider webs, termite mounds, ant hills, animal hair, mountain cliffs, caves, lakes, leaves, animal shapes, seashells, waves, raindrops, burrows, grooves, fractals, the Fibonacci sequence, etc.
  • Information richness: providing complex but comprehensible details, like a structure of jagged blocks and corners that the mind can comprehend to be a representation of rocky mountain cliffs
  • Age, change and the patina of time: introducing movement and dynamism through dappled lighting, shifting light and shadows, a series of artwork depicting the changing of weather and seasons, and the use of weathered (and naturally weathering) materials for finishing and furnishing

Indoor Pot Plants

Experience of Space and Place

Designing biophilic environments also necessitates incorporating the spatial features found in natural environments that have helped advance human health and well-being. Examples of these spatial features include:

  • Prospect and refuge: Design built environments so they have open spaces that provide unimpeded views to satisfy the human need for surveillance, but make sure to provide separate, cocooning spaces that feel connected but separate, embracing and sheltering.
  • Organised complexity: Incorporate fractals and geometric shapes with detailed and small-scale, diverse but repeating patterns. Spaces must be complex but must provide a clearly discernible organisation and pattern to ensure they’re engaging but not overwhelming.
  • Integration of parts to wholes: Ensure that the separate spaces feel like they are parts of a cohesive whole. You can use colours, materials and themes to show unity. Discernible boundaries (e.g., doorways, a partition half-wall, different lighting, distinct vegetation, etc.) can indicate sequence.
  • Transitional spaces: The design must provide areas and structures that facilitate movement from one place to another. Hallways, gateways, doorways, paths, porches, patios, and colonnades are commonly understood as connective architectural devices.
  • Mobility and way-finding: Design spaces so people will find it easy to move around and find their way. There should be plenty of visual cues on traffic flow, and it should be easy to move from one area to another through discernible pathways, exits, entryways, and straightforward access to transition spaces.
  • Cultural and ecological attachment to place: Incorporate cultural and ecological elements that feel organic and relevant to the building occupants. For instance, the use of the domed roof (i.e., cupola), Islamic patterns (calligraphy, arabesques and geometric patterns), native plants (e.g., date palm, ghaf tree, acacia, etc.), and locally recognisable silhouettes (e.g., the shape of sand dunes and rock mountains) can help reinforce a sense of belonging and attachment to human-made spaces in the UAE.

Landscaping in Biophilic Design

Landscaping is a crucial component of biophilic architecture and design. The incorporation of plants and natural colours, shapes, forms, and materials are key strategies for attaining connectedness with nature.

Landscaping can provide:

  • Direct interaction with nature (in the case of live plants in pots, green walls, and  moss walls)
  • An indirect experience of nature (in the case of artificial plants, including preserved natural tree trunks combined with artificial leaves and plant containers in earthy colours or custom-printed with cultural and ecological patterns)
  • A functional experience of space and place (in the case of trees that provide shelter, flowers that inculcate a sense of attachment, and plants that dampen noise, regulate the temperature and purify the air )

Designing for biophilic experiences is deliberate and intentional. Biophilic landscaping requires planning and collaboration among all parties involved, including the stakeholders (building owner, occupants, etc.), structural engineer, architect, interior designer, and landscape artists.

A limited budget does not preclude biophilic landscape design. You can try the following strategies:

Biophilic design on a budget can be challenging, but not impossible. Start small and choose to incorporate biophilic elements where they can have the most impact, such as an area everyone naturally passes through (e.g., just outside the front doors, the lobby, doorways, hallways, etc.).

Indoor Plants

Challenges and Future Directions

Adding biophilic elements to an existing building can be difficult, especially if there are structural limitations (e.g., load-bearing vertical and horizontal members, electrical conduits, air-conditioning ducts, etc.).

Biophilic architecture is easier to implement if you can incorporate biophilic elements from the conceptualisation stage – before you break ground to build. This way, even the shape and form of the building can be biophilic.

Bringing nature into built environments can also be costly. And maintaining natural environments – especially indoors and despite a harsh climate and conditions – requires vigilance. Living walls and gardens require regular landscape maintenance.

Additionally, biophilic design planning can be complicated. It requires thought, deliberation and collaboration among various parties. Project managers figuratively walk a tightrope to achieve results that are satisfactory to all parties involved.

Biophilic architecture remains enticing and exciting, however, especially in light of emerging trends and technologies. The push towards sustainable and circular design makes biophilic architecture more relevant than ever. Incorporating nature into human-made spaces and structures can be an effective way to create self-regenerating and regulating natural systems, minimising waste and the need for input resources.

Technological advancements are helping overcome challenges and provide new ways of incorporating biophilia in designed spaces. Indoor environments can mimic the outdoors to stabilise human circadian rhythms.

Smart lighting systems can change the light quality and temperature throughout the day to mimic how it behaves outside. Climate-control systems powered by artificial intelligence, using feedback from telemeters and smart sensors processed using algorithms generated through machine learning, can automatically regulate temperature, ventilation and humidity to ensure they remain optimal at all times.

Inner spaces can benefit from screens that show virtual outdoor vistas, making one feel like they are looking out through glass windows. The same technology can provide ambient noises similar to what’s present in protected areas, natural reserves or the neighbourhood park, e.g., the call of birds, the flapping of their wings, the tinkle of flowing water, and the white noise of the blowing breeze.

Indoor moss wall

Enhance Your Space With Biophilic Design

Biophilic design architecture fulfils our innate need to be one with nature, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety, inducing feelings of calm and tranquillity, improving our physical health and well-being, and boosting our creativity and productivity. It makes us healthier, feel happier and better, so it’s certainly worth embracing and implementing.

Explore the concept of biophilic design and get started in implementing biophilic principles in your space.

Planters UAE is a landscaping company in Dubai that can help you incorporate biophilic elements in your landscape design. Talk to us for biophilic design ideas and suggestions.

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