The importance of Biophilic Design

Advancing our physical and mental well-being

By Heather Dubbeldam

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the importance we place on healthy homes and workplaces,

at least from the perspective of infection control. While

measures such as air filtration, sanitation and physical

barriers deal effectively with physical risks to health, much less has been done to address the mental toll the pandemic continues to exact on individuals and society as a whole.

There has been no more critical time in modern history for architects and interior designers to reflect on how their work can create environments that promote occupant health and wellbeing.

On average, Canadians spend roughly 90% of their time indoors between home and office. While we have long aspired to create healthy indoor spaces, the pandemic has highlighted how critically important it is. Over the past year we have seen a mini-exodus from cities as people seek healthier environments, more space and a reconnection with nature. City parks have confirmed their importance for urban dwellers as oases of refuge that offer green spaces and fresh air. Residential architects have been busy making homes more livable and more conducive to remote working. The crisis has also laid bare the shortcomings of social housing that has largely ignored occupant wellbeing.

While corporations have often looked at the office as a real estate transaction, fitting as many people as possible into a space, they are now looking at the workplace from a relationship perspective. With the upcoming return to the office and with work practices upended, employers will need to create workplaces that are seen as both safe and enjoyable. Businesses at the forefront of workplace design are investing in biophilic design to improve employee well-being and productivity, and to attract and retain the best staff.

So how can architects and designers create environments – whether residences, workspaces or institutions – that promote positive physical and mental well-being? One approach is through the incorporation of biophilic design.

Biophilic design is often confused with biophilia or biomimicry; although they are related, they are not the same:

• Biomimicry is the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes – the mimicking of nature in manmade things.

• Biophilia, meaning love of nature, focuses on humanity’s innate attraction to nature and natural processes. It proposes that we have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through millennia spent living close to or immersed in nature.  It explains why we feel more relaxed in a park, hiking in the woods or spending time at a lake.

• Biophilia also contributes positively to our health; research shows that regular exposure to green space and natural elements is associated with a multitude of positive neurological and physiological outcomes, including a reduction in blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol and improved quality of sleep.

These concepts are foundational to biophilic design, which utilizes natural materials, patterns, and sensory elements to maintain a connection to nature within the built environment. This is a human-centred approach to design, integrating natural principles to support the physiological well-being of building occupants. Incorporating ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ elements of nature into the built environment has been demonstrated to reduce stress, while supporting cognitive function, increasing productivity, creativity and self-reported rates of well-being.

‘Direct’ elements of nature include views to the exterior, plant material, ample natural light, and access to fresh air; ‘indirect’ elements include a sensory experience of the natural world achieved through spatial strategies, forms, pattern or materials.

Biophilic design is not simply about organic forms and green walls, it is a series of design techniques that are integrated into the built environment in a more subtle, but equally meaningful way. Successful biophilic designs are inspired by the qualities and features of natural settings without being exact duplicates. The means by which this is achieved varies from spatial strategies to visual cues to forms and materials used in the design.

These strategies can be grouped into three categories:

NATURE IN THE SPACE

The presence of nature in a space, visual, sensory or auditory, in the form of plants, water, breezes, scents, light, shadows, and other natural elements.

NATURAL ANALOGUES

The representational presence of nature using natural materials, colours, patterns, and shapes incorporated into building design, facade ornamentation, or decor, including images of nature, simulated natural light and air, organized complexity, and biomorphic forms and patterns.

NATURE OF THE SPACE & PLACE

The incorporation of spatial elements commonly found in nature including:

  • Prospect:  Unimpeded views.
  • Refuge: Places for withdrawal in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead.
  • Mystery: Partially obscured views or other sensory devices that entice the individual to travel deeper into the environment, or a mild sense of risk – like stepping stones over a shallow pond or a double height space.

Heather Dubbeldam, OAA, FRAIC, LEED AP is principal of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and founder of THENEXTGREEN.CA.

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