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Biophilic Design; The Future Of Construction?

Biophilic Design; The Future Of Construction?

Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson

On first hearing the term ‘biophilia’ you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a medical condition, or, worse yet, that it was an imprisonable offence. It was a term that I had never heard of until I attended the Exeter Climate Summit last week, organised by Glen King PR.

Biophilic design was introduced by David Phillips and Robert Bedner; directors of Cura Design. Phillips, a structural engineer, defined biophilic design as “designing with nature for our mutual benefit”. He explained:

“We need to start creating rather than destroying habitats in our built environments.”

It has long been the practice in construction to clear the land before building work can commence, thus destroying existing habitats. Biophilic design instead aims to build with these existing habitats and help them flourish. Bedner explained:

“The more we can be in contact with nature, the better it is for us.”


For our mutual benefit

It can be very easy to think of construction in black and white terms; construction companies destroy habitats in order to create environments for humans or habitats are preserved at the benefit of flora and fauna and detriment of humans. Phillips’ explanation of biophilic design being “for our mutual benefit” breaks down this age-old dichotomy and presents a new way of viewing construction.


How can biophilic design be implemented?

Putting a few plants in a work space and calling it biophilic design is a common misconception. The main principles of this school of thought do involving bringing the outdoors indoors, but in a more complex and layered approach than adding pot plants to the office.

Biophilia, which translates to love of nature, focuses on humans’ innate attraction to nature and natural processes. Enhancing the connection with nature in the work place takes into account a number of factors including:

  • Air quality, including toxin and ventilation levels
  • Natural lighting
  • Internal and external views onto nature
  • Use of natural materials, textures, patterns and colours
  • Incorporation of recuperative spaces
  • Psychological and physiological effects of space

In short, adding a few pot plants to desks is unlikely to achieve the 8% increase in productivity and 13% increase in wellbeing cited in studies of biophilic design in offices. (Oliver Heath)


biophilic design


What benefits can biophilic design offer?

The World Health Organisation expects stress-related illness, such as mental health disorders and cardio-vascular disease, to be the two largest contributors to disease by 2020. According to Oliver Heath design, global experts in biophilic design,  “we have less opportunity to recuperate our mental and physical energy” due to our “diminished connection with nature” and the “increasing pressure on urban space and the ubiquitous technological presence”.

Research has demonstrated that incorporating direct or indirect elements of nature within a built environment reduces stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates whilst increasing productivity, creativity and reported rates of wellbeing.


Even the big guns are on board

Businesses at the forefront of work place design, such as Google, Apple and Amazon are investing heavily in biophilic design.

Google’s Chicago headquarters was previously a windowless cold storage warehouse facility. The seven floor office now maximises natural lighting through the use of windows and an overhead atrium, providing employees with a direct connection to the outdoors. In the more interior spaces, employees are able to adjust the colour temperature of their lights thus ensuring that they benefit from a full spectrum of light no matter where they are in the building. In addition to light, space is another key part of biophilic design. Google has created this through the large atrium which acts as the central ‘piazza’ for Google employees.

Apple’s futuristic Apple Park uses maple finishes throughout to provide an element of depth and warmth. It is also intended to make staff feel more ‘grounded’ and at ease with their surroundings. In addition, the design incorporates floor-to-ceiling windows which look out on the twenty-acre property, enabling a blending of indoor and outdoor space. The company are also planting more than 3000 native Californian species of trees which will benefit the air quality of the environment and two miles of running tracks have been created for staff to enjoy.

Amazon’s Seattle biospheres maximise natural light, providing employees with an indoor-outdoor office environment. Formed of three interconnected glass spheres, the office provides a plant-rich environment with a design reminiscent of a greenhouse or conservatory. The spheres contain more than 40 000 plant species from the cloud forest regions of over thirty countries and the company even has a tree house meeting space.


biophilic design

Apple Park’s futuristic design.


Biophilia in health care

Research has shown that biophilic design within healthcare spaces can have a beneficial impact upon patient wellbeing and recovery. Studies showed that post-operative recovery times decreased by 8.5% and pain medication was reduced by 22%.

The Khoo Teck Puat hospital in Singapore is a leading model in biophilic design within healthcare. Winners of the first-ever Stephen R Kellert Biophilic Design Award, the vision for the hospital was driven by the Ex-CEO’s wish that the hospital be designed so that “one’s blood pressure lowers when he/she enters the hospital grounds.” (Living Future)

The hospital aims to achieve this by integrating with nature using innovative biophilic design and abiding by the following three principles:

  1. Help patients forget their pain and improve their rate of recovery by immersing them in a natural healing environment.
  2. Create an invigorating park-like ambiance for Caregivers and the general public.
  3. Enhance views and access to nature to create a conducive working environment for staff.

The site was designed to be ‘forest-like’ and contains water features with over 100 species of fish as well as plants and trees chosen specifically for their contributions to air quality and for the habitats they provide to attract birds and butterflies.


biophilic design


Remarkably, for a development located in a dense urban setting, KTPH managed to achieve a green plot ratio of 3.92. This means that the total surface area of horizontal and vertical flora is almost four times the size of the land that the hospital sits on. Members of the local community are encouraged to visit the hospital site and tend to the rooftop gardens, which provide organic fruit and vegetables for the patients.

The success for both patients and the environment has been evident at Khoo Teck Puat. The planting of local, indigenous flora has resulted in a dramatic increase in species of butterfly which has risen from three to eighty-three. The on-site gardens provide an educational opportunity for volunteers and visitors who might not know about food growth and harvest in urban Singapore and of course the patients are provided with fresh, seasonal food that is free of pesticides.


Implementing biophilic design in your workplace

Very few companies have the financial freedom to explore biophilic design as the giant conglomerates have. Despite this, implementing biophilic design into your work place does not necessarily involve constructing and financing three biospheres. K2 Space, a workspace design company working with clients in the UK and USA, has provided a simple list of ideas that companies of all sizes can implement.

  • Access to natural light and views of the outside matters. Natural lighting and views of the outdoors have a major impact on employee wellbeing, productivity and energy levels.
  • Utilise available outside areas. If your company is fortunate enough to have an outdoor space (roof, balconies, garden etc..) , ensure you are using it properly. Add some comfortable seating and tables so staff can work outdoors when the weather permits as this access to natural light and fresh air has numerous benefits including increased productivity, creativity and wellbeing.
  • Embrace colour. Colour can have an impact on staff wellbeing with numerous reports finding that dull colours can have a detrimental effect, while a study from France found that bright orange had a positive impact, while in Denmark, shades of blue worked best. Many companies who have measured increased rates of productivity and wellbeing had consulted their staff on design principles such as colour scheme.
  • Incorporate natural features and textures, for example wood and stone. Including these natural features and textures can help to mimic the outdoors and really does follow the ‘bringing the outdoors indoors’ mantra.
  • Include plant life in your workplace. Simple, yet obvious, plants can increase oxygen levels and subsequently improve concentration levels and decrease mental fatigue.
  • Give staff space and choice. Choice really is key. If staff want to concentrate, give them a quiet space to do so. If staff need to collaborate, give them a comfortable setting to do so, and make sure you provide enough space so it doesn’t feel overtly cramped or stuffy.


biophilic design


Biophilia forever

At the Exeter Climate Summit, Robert Bedner explained that humans make up just 0.01% of Earth’s total biomass, with over 82% being accounted for by plants. Despite this, in his words, “we’ve managed to mess [Earth] up pretty badly.” With one and a half acres of forest cut down every second, having a direct impact on carbon dioxide absorption, our planet truly is in crisis. As David Phillips, fellow director of CURA Design, said:

“We need to look after what we’ve got and incorporate it into what we’re doing.”


Photo by Drew Saurus , Carles Rabada , bady qb , Alesia Kazantceva , Annie Spratt on Unsplash


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