The Why & How of Biophilic (Nature-Inspired) Design

10 Ways to Bring the Benefits of Nature Indoors

The Biophilic Buzz

I’m sure many of you have been hearing the increasingly popular healthy design buzzword: biophilia. But what does this strange word mean? Biophilic design is so much more than a trend among the health-conscious or crunchy nature-lovers.

Both laboratory and field studies have shown that all three mind-body systems – cognitive, psychological and physiological –have been verified, to varying degrees, to be impacted by one’s environment. That’s where biophilic design comes in: using evidence-based design to ensure people’s health and well-being are not only maintained, but even improved by their environments. -

In fact, studies have reported that experiences of natural environments provide greater emotional restoration, with lower instances of tension, anxiety, anger, fatigue, confusion and total mood disturbance than urban environments with limited characteristics of nature. Physiological responses are also triggered by connections with nature, where one can benefit from a relaxation of their muscles, a lowering of diastolic blood pressure and even a lowering of stress hormone (i.e., cortisol) levels in the blood stream.

10 Steps to Healthy Design

There are 10 steps to generating an effective, holistic biophilic design that can bring support or positive change to not just one, but all three mind-body systems – cognitive, psychological, and physiological.

1. Visual Connection with Nature. First, establish a view to elements of nature, living systems and natural processes such as through a window or balcony. Next, arrange your furniture to maximize these view opportunities. Viewing scenes of nature stimulates a larger portion of the visual cortex than non-nature scenes, which triggers more pleasure receptors in our brain.

This is especially important because it can lead to faster stress recovery. For example, heart rate recovery from low-level stress, such as from working in an office environment, has shown to occur 1.6 times faster when the space has a glass window with a nature view, rather than a high-quality simulation, such as a video, of the same nature view, or no view at all. Additionally, repeated viewing of real nature, unlike non-nature, does not significantly diminish the viewer’s level of interest over time. And not to worry - If you’re an urban dweller or don’t have access to nature views from inside your home or work, remember you can always bring nature inside too!

2. Non-Visual Connection with Nature. Think about the last time you were in nature. Are you recalling not only your views but the birds and the breeze? Remember, our sight is not the only way we perceive the beauty of nature. Using our other senses (auditory, touch, smells, or taste) just as we would when we are immersed in nature, can engender a deliberate and positive reference to nature, living systems or natural processes.

Research shows that exposure to nature sounds, when compared to urban or office noise, accelerates physiological and psychological restoration up to 37% faster after a psychological stressor. These sounds can also reduce cognitive fatigue and help increase motivation. Finally, incorporating nature sounds and aromatherapy into a space aren’t options just reserved for a spa anymore! Participants of one study who either listened to river sounds or saw a nature movie with river sounds during a post-task restoration period reported having more energy and greater motivation after the restoration period compared to participants who only listened to office noise or silence. In addition, viewing the nature movie with river sounds during the restoration period had a more positive affect than only listening to river sounds alone – proof that combining these methods makes the positive impact even greater.

Even more impactful, biophilic design is literally just at our fingertips. The act of touching pets and real plant life, versus synthetic plants, has also shown to induce relaxation through a change in cerebral blood flow rates (e.g., Koga & Iwasaki, 2013). These examples give reason to believe that the experience of touching other elements in nature, such as water or raw materials, may result in similar health outcomes and expand the potential impact of the healthy, natural materials used in a space.

3. Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli. When immersed in nature, we continually experience instances of non-rhythmic stimuli: birds chirping, leaves rustling, the faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Random and fleeting connections with nature may not be predicted precisely. The built environment, on the other hand, has evolved into a deliberately predictable realm. Designing a space with good Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli creates opportunities for one to feel as if they are momentarily privy to something special, something fresh, interesting, stimulating and energizing.

4. Thermal & Airflow Variability. Research shows that people like moderate levels of sensory variability in the environment, including variation in light, sound and temperature. Environments devoid of sensory stimulation and variability can lead to boredom and passivity. Even subtle changes in air temperature, relative humidity, airflow across the skin, or surface temperatures can help to mimic natural environments.

Consider how welcome a cool breeze is on a hot sunny day, or a rest upon a warm rock on a chilly afternoon. We can mimic these pleasant thermal sensations best when one’s initial body state is warm or cold, not neutral. Recent studies have reported that a temporary over-cooling of a small portion of the body when hot, or over-heating when cold, is perceived as highly comfortable and doesn’t impact the body’s core temperature. Providing variable conductance materials, seating options with differing levels of solar heat gain (indoors and outdoors) or proximity to operable windows can create opportunities for these moments of change, thus improving the overall satisfaction of a space.

5. Presence of Water. We’ve long known that water has healing power that carries beyond our drinking glass. Hearing, touching, or seeing water can all enhance the experience of a place. Taking advantage of the sounds created by small-scale running water, and our capacity to touch it, will amplify the desired health response with a multi-sensory experience. Vistas to large bodies of water or physical access to natural or designed water bodies can also have the health response so long as they are perceived as ‘clean’ or unpolluted. Images of nature that include aquatic elements are also more likely to help reduce blood pressure and heart rate than similar imagery without aquatic elements.

6. Dynamic & Diffuse Light. In nature we encounter varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time. Research has already helped us design for productivity – we know that productivity is higher in well daylighted work places, sales are higher in daylit vs. artificially-lit stores, and children performed better in daylit classrooms with views. Fortunately, recent research has focused more heavily on fluctuation and visual comfort, human factors and perception of light, and impacts of lighting on the circadian system rather than simply task performance.

Observing how sunlight changes color from yellow in the morning, to blue at midday, and red in the afternoon/evening, research has illuminated how the human body responds to this daylight color transition. We can see this response in our body temperature, heart rate, and even circadian functioning. Higher content of blue light (similar to skylight) produces serotonin; whereas, an absence of blue light (which occurs at night) produces melatonin. The balance of serotonin and melatonin can be linked to sleep quality, mood, alertness, depression, breast cancer and other health conditions.

Diffuse lighting on vertical and ceiling surfaces provides a calm backdrop to the visual scene. Accent lighting and other layering of light sources creates interest and depth, while task or personalized lighting provides localized flexibility in intensity and direction. These layers help create a pleasing visual environment. Movement of light and shadows along a surface can attract our attention too. For example, the dappled light under the canopy of an aspen tree, or the reflections of rippling water on a wall. These patterns tend to be fractals, and the brain is already attuned to moving fractals.

7. Connection with Natural Systems. Some of us might marvel as leaves turn bright fall hues, snow falls or flowers bloom. Developing an awareness of the many natural processes and cycles can enhance our feeling of connection. Incorporating features within an indoor space that connect us to the changing natural world is beneficial.

8. Biomorphic Forms & Patterns. Humans have been decorating living spaces with representations of nature since time immemorial, and architects have long created spaces using elements inspired by trees, bones, wings and seashells. Many classic building ornaments are derived from natural forms, and countless fabric patterns are based on leaves, flowers, and animal skins. Contemporary architecture and design have introduced more organic building forms with softer edges or even biomimetic qualities. Integrating these symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature is one of the most celebrated methods of biophilic design.

9. Material Connection with Nature. One can create a distinct sense of place using materials and elements from nature that, through minimal processing, reflect the local ecology or geology. One study has demonstrated that a difference in wood ratio on the walls of an interior space led to different physiological responses. The researchers observed that a room with a moderate ratio of wood, such as 45% coverage, exhibited significant decreases in diastolic blood pressure and significant increases in pulse rate. Increasing the ratio to 90% coverage actually found a decrease in brain activity which could be either highly restorative and beneficial, such as in a spa or doctor’s office, or counterproductive in a space where high cognitive functionality is expected.

Color can also have a profound impact on our experience of space. In a series of four experiments examining the effect of the presence of the color green on the psychological functioning of participants, the results concluded that exposure to the color green before conducting a task “facilitates creativity performance, but has no influence on analytical performance”. Did you know that humans are also able to distinguish more variations in the color green than of any other color? Which variation(s) of the color green most influence creativity or other mind-body responses is yet to be explored and tested.

10. Complexity & Order. One of the challenges in the built environment is in identifying the balance between an information rich environment that is interesting and restorative, and one with an information surplus that is overwhelming and stressful. When we provide rich sensory information that adheres to a spatial hierarchy similar to those encountered in nature using symmetries and fractal geometries, configured with a coherent spatial hierarchy, we create a visually nourishing environment that engenders a positive psychological or cognitive response.

It’s exciting to see such a growth in both research and application of biophilic design practices especially as we continue to spend many hours working or playing indoors. The even better news is that every space can be improved with some, or all, of these biophilic design principles. We’re just 10 steps away from a healthier, happier room!