Biophilic design: How architecture can contribute to a healthier, less-stressful life

By Janet Dunn
Despite the many conveniences and advantages of modern life, wellbeing and contentment continue to evade many of us. The cure may be in an architectural concept that sounds new but is as old as the hills. Take a dose of biophilia and read how your home’s design can help you live a healthier, less stressful life.

The tale of a tiger


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Tony the Siberian-Bengal tiger was an attraction at a truck stop in Louisiana, USA until recently, when his life – lived out in a cage outside the petrol station – was cut short due to illness. The tiger spent most of his 17 years in the fume-filled artificial habitat, but had his owner known more about the links between an animal’s surroundings and its health and happiness, Tony’s story may have ended differently.

Is there a lesson humans can take from Tony’s fate? Deprived of sensory stimuli, social bonds and connection with nature in our homes and workplaces, we may be heading down the same path. Biophilic design is being advanced as the next important focus in architecture and as a remedy, partly, for the plethora of modern-day conditions linked to fatigue and stress.

What is biophilic design?

Biophilia literally translates as ‘love of life’. In the 1980s, American biologist E. O. Wilson proposed that evolution has soft-wired us to prefer natural settings over built environments. In Wilson’s words, we have “an innate and genetically determined affinity … with the natural world”. Exponents of biophilic design are attempting to address this instinct architecturally.

Photo by Brickworks Building Products

Essential to biophilic theory is the idea that buildings aid our physical and mental health only when they are designed holistically. Rather than isolated elements – for example, simply putting plants in a building – benefits occur when diverse and complementary factors reinforce our experiences of nature. Wilson’s colleague Dr Steven Kellert named plants and natural lighting, and indirect influences through shapes, forms and materials that originate in the natural world, as some of the attributes of this kind of design.

Is it just another name for green architecture?

Green building principles emphasise responsibility to the environment and efficient use of sustainable resources. Although biophilic design embraces these aims, its focus is more on the wellbeing of those who use the spaces.

The merging of planet-based with human-based philosophies is causing a stir in architectural circles. Brian Donovan of BVN Donovan Hill commented that “architecture will never be the same again”.

What’s new about it?

Biophilic design is a rediscovery of an ancient practice, not a new idea. For aeons, architects have recognised the place of humans in a wider ecosystem and integrated natural elements into built forms. Athens’ Parthenon, Rome’s Pantheon, and the ancient Vietnamese city of Hoi An are examples of biophilic design at work, although the label wasn’t attached until the 1980s.

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Frank Lloyd Wright was a more recent exponent of biophilia. “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you,” he advised, and many of his buildings bear this out. Notably, his groundbreaking Fallingwater (pictured above) is so integrated with nature as to be inseparable.

Why are we talking about it now?

Today, the concept of biophilia is supported by a more scientific understanding of the psychology behind building-based wellness. Exponents of biophilic design believe the large proportion of time we spend in built environments may contribute significantly to feelings of isolation, tension and lethargy.

Today, there is growing interest in designing restorative, productive and appealing buildings with sustained opportunities to engage with natural systems. Workplaces, medical and aged care facilities and, vitally, our homes are set to benefit hugely from this trend.

What are the elements of biophilic design?

  • Natural light from windows, skylights, clerestory openings; full-spectrum artificial light sources that complement daylight; dynamic light of varying intensity via facades, shades, shutters and apertures.
  • Exterior views. A distant view past a close view gives perspective and a sense of connection to a wider ecosystem.
  • Water sources such as fountains, ponds and water features, that can be seen, heard and touched.
  • Rich sensory stimuli that reference nature; scented plants, plants that change colour seasonally, plants positioned to move in breezeways, open flames, tactile materials. Minimally processed materials that reflect the local ecology; natural fibres such as leather, stone, timber and handmade objects.
Photo by Olivia van Dijk Architecture - Look for living room design inspiration

An intriguing aspect of biophilic design is that, in the absence of real natural environments, simulation has equal benefits. This is known as ‘biomimicry’ and is perhaps the feature that is most useful and achievable in urban spaces. It is found in:

  • organic shapes in construction and furniture (geometric shapes are rarely found in nature).
  • colour schemes derived from nature – earth and vegetation tones, colours found in water and the sky.
  • nature imagery, either realistic or derivative, including photographs, art, murals, sculptures and stylised floral or vegetal patterns
Photo by MRTN Architects – Browse dining room photos

An architect talks about biophilic design

Architect Antony Martin says biophilic concepts are very present in MRTN Architects‘ projects. For example, Fairfield Hacienda (above) includes multiple sources of natural light, ventilation and natural materials associated with physical and mental health benefits. Martin describes the undulating cedar-clad ceiling as “the antithesis of the ubiquitous flat, white plasterboard ceiling, moving towards more environmental shapes and forms.”

A green buffer to the street enables connection and interaction with vegetation and views for the occupants and passers-by. Internally, a central courtyard allows visual connection with other areas of the house and creates a thermal ‘lung’ for natural cooling and heating.

Photo by MRTN Architects - More kitchen ideas

Meanwhile, in his Rathmines project, salvaged materials relate to the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi – the beauty in imperfection and natural processes. The kitchen island is topped with tactile recycled wharf, while the interior walls and barbecue area outside are constructed of salvaged brick.

In Martin’s Trentham Long House, the material palette echoes the natural environment, favouring texture over flat colour. Timber cladding is allowed to silver over time and contrast with the character-filled slate tile floor. Gabion stone walls shelter alfresco living areas, allowing outdoor connection even on windy days.

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A lattice of timber battens throws dappled shadows on the slate floors. “The moving patterns evoke the protective canopy of trees on the forest floor,” says Martin.

Photo by MRTN Architects – Search kitchen pictures

An extension to the Carlton Cloister was achieved by a corridor link between the main house and the two-storey addition. The covered walkway connects continuously to the garden through north-facing glazing. Built from red brick and blackbutt cladding, materials in this project more closely align to external spaces than interior ones, reinforcing the outdoor aspects of the walkway.

The house is positioned around a central courtyard and offers layered views from every aspect. Concentrating the garden to the north optimises natural daylight. The high thermal mass of internal red brick walls and concrete slab capture direct solar heat like a battery, which is then released when needed. The result is a home that comforts the body as naturally and effectively as it does the soul. And that’s biophilic in one simple phrase.

This article originally appeared on Houzz.

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