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How biophilic design improves human health by connecting buildings and their occupants with nature

When American biologist Edward O. Wilson first popularized the term “biophilia” – defined as humans’ innate desire to connect with nature and other life forms – in the early 1980s, he wasn’t talking specifically about architecture and design. And he certainly wasn’t advocating for new ways of constructing buildings.

But because Wilson’s fellow Americans now spend more and more time indoors – currently around 90% of their time, according to most studies – the concept of biophilia, its characteristics, and its profound benefits for urban dwellers has become a hot design topic.

But what is biophilic design, what are its main benefits for companies and employees, and how could it help your next building project?

Read on to find out.

What is biophilic design?

As Keller and Calabrese argue in The Practice of Biophilic Design, most of what we perceive as “normal” today is actually not that normal. While organized agriculture has existed for 12,000 years, mass production of goods and services is just a few hundred years old. Electronic technology has only been around since the 19th century.

Therefore, argue the authors, “The human body, mind, and senses evolved in a biocentric (and) not human engineered or invented world.” But that hasn’t stopped much of modern architecture and design from forcing people to live in boxy, unnatural surroundings featuring zero interactions with nature. “Much of the built environment today is so sensory deprived, it is sometimes reminiscent of the barren cages of the old-fashioned zoo, now ironically banned as ‘inhumane’,” the authors add.

Indeed, a growing body of scientific research indicates that improved quality of life can result from even fleeting contacts with nature or natural settings.

The 5 principles of biophilic design

But biophilic design isn’t just about adding a few trees, plants, or other natural elements and then calling it a day. To be effective, architects must first be aware of the five basic principles of biophilic design:

1. Spaces must feature repeated, ongoing engagements with nature (isolated or occasional experiences don’t have the same effect)
2. Design should focus on natural elements relevant to survival and the human evolutionary experience (try to avoid underwater seascapes, for example)
3. Biophilic design should encourage emotional attachments to natural settings and places by satisfying inherent connections to nature (which can improve well-being, motivation, and productivity)
4. It requires an integrated, mutual reinforcing, and interconnected approach across the entire setting or space (isolated potted plants or other out-of-context natural elements aren’t considered biophilic design)
5. It fosters effective connections between people and their environment (enhancing a sense of community and responsibility)

Attributes and applications of biophilic design

Biophilic design encompasses three potential types of natural experience: Direct experiences (direct contact with nature, such as natural light, water, and animals), indirect experiences (images or representations of nature, such as artwork or natural materials such as wood), and experiences of space and place (spatial features reminiscent of the natural world that promote an innate sense of well-being).

Practical ways to achieve biophilic design

While adding plant life is an obvious way to bring nature into artificial spaces, other elements of biophilic design include the use of biomorphic patterns and biomimicry (such as the Fibonacci Sequence). Other practical ways to achieve biophilic design include:

  • Natural or artificial lighting systems that mimic circadian rhythms
  • The inclusion of water elements such as aquariums, water gardens, or water walls
  • Good airflow stimulation and variability in temperature/airflow (which helps keep people awake and alert)
  • Multi-sensory stimuli (i.e.: a combination of the above)
  • Windows, skylights, and curtain walls, allowing building occupants to observe nature
  • The use of other natural elements such as wood (with the grain visible) or stone
  • The use of naturally occurring shapes instead of straight lines

The benefits of biophilic design

Research has identified several tangible benefits associated with biophilic design. It’s been demonstrated, for example, that patients in healthcare environments with biophilic design have reduced stress, lower blood pressure, and faster healing rates.

In the workplace, biophilic design can also improve productivity, enhance creativity, and even reduce the number of average sick days per employee (resulting in potential annual savings of around $3,000 per employee).

Recent research has highlighted other benefits, including:

  • Ongoing exposure to nature improves cognitive focus (Lee, et. al, 2015) and lowers stress (Park, et. al. 2009)
  • Eye-pleasing views help relax the eye muscles (Lewis, 2012) and triggers more positive mental reactions (Biederman & Vessel, 2006)
  • Forest scenes often decrease stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate (Park, et.al. 2010)

The benefits of the above in healthcare scenarios are obvious, but can have profound cost-benefit implications when it comes to workforce productivity and employee savings, as well. Indeed, human-related workplace costs resulting from unhealthy workplaces have been found to be 112 times greater than energy costs from inefficient buildings.

In one example of how biophilic design can save companies money, a call center in Sacramento saved around $3,000 per year, per employee from simply rotating desks to facilitate easier window views.

Glass and glazing products contribute to biophilic design

The research is clear: Biophilic design can save money, encourage healthier employees, and improve productivity – and one of the easiest ways to bring nature inside any building is through glass and glazing products. Unicel Architectural’s windows, skylights, and timber curtain walls can contribute to biophilic design by providing better views of and connections with nature, improved natural light, and enhanced airflow and temperature regulation through more engaging, more productive, and healthier spaces.

Contact us today to learn more about our skylight and curtain wall systems.