Bringing Biophilia

by David Krebs

Throughout history, humans have harnessed the power of nature for our benefit. We have used the forces of water for grinding grain, the sun to bake bricks, and the wind to make power. More recently, we are understanding how to harness the power of nature in the built environment to impact our wellness.

One area of research leading the way is called biophilia, which refers to our innate need and desire to be connected to nature. The concept began in the 1960s by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who used the words “bio,” meaning “life,” and “philia,” meaning “friendly feeling toward.” While the concept has been around for a while, we are just now starting to see its strategies used in the built environment.

While we instinctively know we have an emotional connection to nature, we are understanding more about its powerful impact on our wellness. Unfortunately, statistics show that our daily time spent outdoors continues to decrease with each generation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we spend 93 percent of our day indoors. From our busy schedules to technology usage to the continued growth and densities of cities, that trend doesn’t seem likely to change.

Biophilic Design

Since nature is a key component of wellness, we need to find ways to reap its benefits. We can try to get outdoors more, but when we can’t, we need to understand what is happening to our bodies when we spend time in nature and figure out how to achieve that in the built environment. This is where biophilic design comes in.

Biophilic design uses science to offer a set of design strategies based on the benefits and attributes of spending time in nature, along with ways to magnify, repeat or mimic those benefits through design.

While there are dozens of design strategies that can be used, they generally can be grouped into three main categories: direct connection to nature, indirect connection to nature and experience of environment.

Direct Connection to Nature

Being directly connected to nature includes views, light, water, air, fire, texture, temperature. In designing a new home, it would mean framing a particular long view or panoramic view outside a window. In your existing home, this may include changing the landscaping outside to give you something more natural to look at, like a bird feeder or garden. In both cases you could design furniture layouts to take advantage of the view to provide a visual break and increase mindfulness.

While sight often is the first of our senses we use in designing or decorating a home, research is showing us the need to incorporate our other senses—taste, touch, hearing and smell—as they do more for our wellness than we realize. Opening up windows to hear the birds or the rustling of leaves in the wind, or to smell fragrant flowers are examples. These are simple yet deliberate choices that we can make each day.

Indirect Connection to Nature

When the direct connections to nature cannot be achieved, science is showing that our brains have an amazing ability to connect memory and experience at a subconscious level to reap the benefits of patterns in nature without actually being in nature. Strategies in this category often stimulate our creativity and reduce stress.

There are many ways to use these strategies—from giving a building an organic shape, to incorporating biomorphic forms and patterns in flooring or the detailing of railings. A designer may study the structure of a leaf as the inspiration for an exposed wood-framed ceiling or the patterns of shale cliffs for a fireplace or the selection of the shape and texture of furniture.

Experience of Environment

Scientists believe humans have an innate desire to explore, create and take risks. We are constantly scanning our environments looking for opportunities and threats. Two strategies in this category that are often linked are prospect and refuge. You can picture settlers going west in 1820, scanning their environment, looking for opportunities. Could there be deer in the coming pasture or fish in the ponds? At the same time, they would always be looking for safety along the way as there may be a storm in the mountains or winter could be setting in.

One of the interesting ways that we see these two strategies manifest in design is the increase in construction of covered

A home spa

outdoor living spaces. These allow us to get prospect through views, smells, breezes and temperature changes, and at the same time have the refuge that we need.

Since our brains are wired for action, this category can be achieved even if we are in an apartment without any access to outdoor areas. A large picture on a wall can offer the benefits of being in nature at the subconscious level. When we see a picture of a hang glider, we imagine ourselves floating through the air. If we see an image of a walking trail, we imagine ourselves walking down that trail and exploring.

There are many strategies that can be used in design. The goal when designing is to understand the effect you are trying to achieve and then select the appropriate strategies. While ideally we will strive to spend more time outdoors, we inherently are going to be in the built environment for the majority of our time, and architecture must continue to evolve to play its role. In a time of increased isolation and commercialization, we do have an innate need for an emotional response to our surroundings. Biophilic design is a powerful set of strategies to close the gap between our need for nature and living in the built environment.

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