Biophilia, Architecture & Design
With summer in full bloom, and the harvest season not far off, Canadians are spending as much time as they can outdoors, celebrating our lush landscape! So what is it about camping amongst the trees or cottaginglakeside that feels so peaceful and tranquil? The answer is in our body's response to vegetation and being amongst other living, growing things! When that concept is translated indoors to become part of architecture and design, it's called Biophilia!
Our homes are our safe spaces. They provide us with shelter and with a unique opportunity for self-expression through décor (my blog, “Housing As A Symbol Of Self”, talks about this at length!). It only makes sense to harness all the design elements that you can in order to create maximum comfort, calm and visual appeal all at the same time. After all, how we design our living spaces can contribute to our mental and physical health. (Have you read my Healthy Home series? It explores the relationship between your home and your health!)
Biophilia, as a concept theory, has actually been around for a few decades, but with growing awareness of how our spaces impact our lives at home and work and a growing movement for people to greenify their lives , this movement has gained momentum in the past few years. In fact, our sources tell us that biophilia will be one of the most significant design trends in 2019.
But the term signifies an idea that's a bit different than "going green" or being eco-friendly; embracing sustainability is closer - and a big part of biophilic design - but still not the same. So, what is biophila exactly and why should you consider incorporating it into design? Let's explore.
When you are trying to achieve mental calm, what do you visualize? Chances are you get lost in some sort of natural setting: the beach, the forest, the mountains or wide open green space. The air is fresh and soft and the light naturally enhances the experience.
As a society, generally speaking, we are spending more and more time indoors. We are also engaging in longer commutes (here's my post “What Are The Real Financial, Emotional And Health Costs Of Commuting?”), which is taking a toll.
The Biophilia Hypothesis (BET) basically proposes that humans, regardless of their surroundings, seek out connections with nature and other living systems. This hypothesis was introduced by Harvard biologist, Edward Wilson, in his book, “Biophila”, where he explored the concept of human desire to “affiliate with other forms of life”.
While Wilson acknowledged that there is a lack of hard, scientific evidence to support this hypothesis, the obvious widespread presence in daily living is enough to suggest this strong link. Wilson refers to the presence of this connection worldwide, suggesting that it is in part genetic and innate more than a cultural behaviour. This “love of life” includes bringing light, air and elements of nature inside our environments, to having a pet at home. It’s about getting back to basics, literally. This paper on bilophilac design and its history terms the process “Rediscovering The Intuitively Obvious”.
Click here to read an interesting interview with Wilson about his work.
Trees = Health and Happiness
To start, let's talk about nature on a broader scale and its influence on our lives.
Toronto is home to over 1500 parks and 600 kilometres of trails which, to put in perspective, covers about 13 per cent of the city’s total land area. That’s a lot of greenery! In fact, Toronto was recently named one of the world's greenest cities by Treepedia, where the M.I.T. / World Economic Forum collaboration calculates a city's Green View Index based on the percentage of "canopy cover" - neat, eh?
It's a well-known fact that one of the most sought-after amenities for urban living (and not coincidentally, one of the strategic amenities for homeowners hoping to grow their home’s asset value) is proximity to parks and green space. Wilson suggests that having this nearness to parks isn’t just about increasing your leisure opportunities; rather, the draw is on a more inherent level. There is a desire for humans to be in environments that mimic our more primitive habitats. Wilson also suggests that it is beneficial, both from physical and mental health standpoints to immerse oneself in a natural environment, citing research for those who live in urban environments and regularly visit leafy, treed areas enjoy better health. Here is an interview with Wilson : “E.O. Wilson explains why parks and nature are really good for your brain” that explains how vital the inclusion of green, forested spaces are in urban planning for these reasons.
The study done by the University of Chicago, was actually conducted in Toronto. The study was widespread and detailed, chronicling over a half million Toronto trees, as well as health records of numerous study subjects. They were able to drill down the positive impact of trees, even while removing other factors that are known to generally benefit health demographically (wealth and age). With the presence of trees, the health benefits were not just perceived; they were actual. (Here's our blog For The Love Of Trees.)
Researchers cite factors like the way in which trees natural clean the air as well as their stress-reducing properties as a means to improve overall health.
Why It Matters
It only makes sense that, having recognized all the benefits of connecting humans with other living things, we would try to incorporate a number of the elements of the biophilia philosophy into our built environments. This is why architects and designers alike often take a closer look at the interconnectedness of various species and the ways pieces of unique habitats work together.
Is it any coincidence, do you think, that natural décor elements are so popular right now? Not only do many natural materials like green walls, natural stone, and wood and plants help homeowners have an environmentally friendly home (which offers benefits for operating costs and is supportive for to one’s environmental conscience), under the principles of biophilia, it offers the chance to bridge nature and the built environment. And another bonus? These materials look great too!
While the appearance of biophilia in a built environment will vary (as will an interior, based on budget, space and taste) there are certain core features that are consistently embraced: blurring the boundaries that separate indoors and outdoors; proximity to water (either natural or manmade, scattered, clustered, varied vegetation and plants; landscape vistas; natural scents and abundant natural light; privacy and a prevalence of local materials; preserving and limiting disturbance of the surrounding natural world.
There is a certain irony here of course; the built environment is contrived to recreate what happens naturally outdoors. Which is why biophilia isn't fully realized by just bringing plants indoors or creating a grass wall and calling it a day: "These short cut ideas – though well intentioned and perhaps better than no focus on the subject – skip over the underlying philosophy: that our society needs to radically improve and deepen our daily interactions with the world outside of our walls precisely because we are now so separated from it. A veneer of nature alone is wholly inadequate." - Jason F. McLennan in Biophilic Design: A New Scale Emerges.
There are designs that make impressively deep commitments to bringing humans closer to other living systems, particularly in the corporate world. Employers are more commonly using these design elements in the workplace because of biophilia’s ability to reduce employee absenteeism and productivity, reduce workplace stress and improve sense of well-being, and improve employee engagement.
For example, the Khoo Teck Puat hospital in Singapore (video above) was built in harmony with a "green and blue court". Resembling a lush forest, the court includes water bodies with aquatic animals, brightly colored plants, as well as resident birds and butterflies... plus its four times the actual land the hospital building sits on! Or, in Tokyo, instead of simply surrounding employees with greenery, the Pasona Group Offices - designed by Kono Designs - has integrated an indoor farm that employees can visit, use to grow their own food, and cultivate their own agricultural projects (video above). More examples like this, here!
Now, obviously these are exceptional examples, on a larger, more public scale. When it comes to biophilic design in a private residence - a home - there are different levels of integrations of the core ideas, and you have to decide for yourself how deep you want to go.
Considerations For Design
When your goal is to integrate the principals of biophilia into your environment, there are certain design practices that support enhancing our connections with other living systems or mimic them.
For example, we tend to build rooms on hard angles, mostly for the reason of cost effectiveness and ease of construction. However, using non-rectangular footprints for rooms is actually more pleasing to the eye and mimics nature more closely. Think of honeycombs and nests! We are naturally drawn to curved shapes and lines.
Obviously, having a great deal of natural light and movement of air is an essential component of bringing the outside in. What this translates to in design is having open spaces, lots of windows, and perhaps skylights. Specific design in regards to daylighting is essential, with attention paid to angles, light refraction and the position of the sun throughout the day to capture and distribute the light. And since we are inherently visual creatures, glass offers the opportunity to showcase blue sky, plants, and animals... a reminder of the living things around us. For the movement of air, having windows that open is key, but so is a solid ventilation system that will draw stale air out and pipe fresh air in continually. There are physical and mental health benefits to this, which is a main focus of sustainable building. If you're building a new home, you can Google the sun and wind map for your location to identify the wind direction and Solar path. The best performer for light is on the south side rather than in the west and east, and, thus, the design of the buildings have window openings facing the South side. is the basis for the concept of passive lighting and passive heating.
In terms of colour schemes and materials, designing for a biophilic effect is fairly intuitive. Use natural materials, which are readily available and cost-effective now. Not only do they mimic nature visually, they do so with other senses as well. They smell and feel more like nature. They also age authentically. Synthetic materials may mirror the look of nature, but they miss the mark in these other areas, taking away from the authentic experience. One study demonstrated that and increase in the ratio of natural to synthetic finishes in an interior space led to certain physiological responses; researchers observed that a room with a moderate ratio of wood (i.e., 45% coverage), illicited a more “calm and comfortable” feeling, and participants exhibited significant decreases in diastolic blood pressure and significant increases in pulse rate.
Your colour palette can also simulate that which you find in your natural environment. Earth tones and subtle hues are the best. Think of the flora, fauna, sky and ocean when picking your colour scheme. Make sure to include blues and greens, which represent landscape and water elements.
Water features are pleasing as well, like a waterfall, koi pond, or a fountain. This adds not only calm from a visual perspective, but also from an auditory perspective. Running water is immensely soothing.
We know the value of green space with urban living, but there is definite benefit to having access to some sort of greenery right in your home. Whether this is positioning your home with a view of nature, having some sort of terrace that is landscaped well or having a yard with trees and full landscaping, having this leafy connection to nature goes a long way. Want to make the most of your outdoor space? Here's How To Elevate The Value Of Your Balcony, Patio, Or Terrace.
That said, having a room with a view is a great way to connect with nature, but there are ways to make it more connected to the outdoors. For instance, framing a view of the outdoors (say in a courtyard) can be more appealing than a view of wide open space. This is because of the human instinct to seek shelter and refuge. Wide open space goes against that. There is a balance between communing with nature through taking in a view, but feeling protected at the same time.
Check out these posts for tips on biophilic design: “3 Simple Ways To Design A Biophilic Home”, “Biophilic Design: What Is It? Why It Matters? And How Do We Use It?” and “The Benefits And Strategies For Including Nature In The Design Of Buildings”.
Additionally, here's a 2015 radio broadcast by Radio Canada International that explores how biophilic design is rapidly gaining ground among architects and designers. Tune in to hear how Canadians continue to discover and reaffirm the power, beauty, and cumulative health benefits of integrating our domestic and work environments with other living systems - and the natural world!
Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Vancouver, B.C. - ByNature
And if you need a little extra help to bring your design desires to fruition, ByNature is a design firm that specialize in biophilia and making strong connections between nature and man-made environments. They lend their innovative ideas and green expertise to both residential and commercial projects, and they hold offices in both Toronto and Vancouver! Check them out!
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Contact me - Steve Fudge the purveyor of Houseporn.ca and the proprietor of Urbaneer.com at - firstname.lastname@example.org for more info!
~ Posted by Steven Fudge, the purveyor of houseporn.ca and proprietor of Urbaneer.com, a division of Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage.