Biophilic Design: More Than a Distraction?

When you first started your architecture education, you were no doubt exposed to concepts tying the built and natural environments such as the chambered nautilus, bi-lateral symmetry, golden section, and of course Le Corbusier's Modular Man.  It seemed like cracking the code of nature would give some kind of magical solution to any design problem.  Then you probably forgot all about that stuff as you began a career and had to deal with real program requirements and code constraints.  Nature-inspired design is back, and this time its about more than just proportion or organic shapes a la Bruce Goff. It's also more than just putting up some twinkly LED lights in the ceiling or an illuminated photograph of a natural scene to simulate an outdoor view.

Incorporating evidence based design principles, biophilic design looks to meld the materials, process and cycles of nature into architecture.  It links our health, job performance and well being directly to the built environment. Design that takes into account natural processes and cycles feels better to inhabit. And now, it has evidence behind it.

In his popular book Biophilia, Edward Wilson, a biologist and social researcher describes a connection that humans innately seek with other living things.  The deep psychological connections that we have formed with nature influence us in primal and subconscious ways.  As behavioral psychologists began to study biophilia in greater detail, the applicability to healing environments became evident. Roger Ulrich has shown direct correlations between connections to nature and reductions in pain and depression, both of which lead to fewer complications and faster recovery. His work in particular seems to indicate that the most beneficial type of stimulation comes from evoking nature, as in artwork, or through actual exposure to nature itself. The growing amount of research into the impact of biophilic concepts on the built environment has included work with actual patients and hospital staff, such as the Ambient Experience created by Phillips, focused on building systems that provide a multi-sensory environment for patients, families and staff.  

This seems intuitive.  However, what exactly to implement in each type of space you are creating is not.  Your game plan:
  1. As part of your space program, create a column for what you are trying to promote in each space.  In corridors, you may want to promote wayfinding and reduce noise; in staff work areas, reduce errors; in patient rooms, promote healing; and reduce stress in procedure rooms.  
  2. Look at existing research on what will best produce the desired effects in each space.  For example, stress and anxiety contribute strongly to high pain levels.  Views of nature create a  positive diversion that helps to keep people focused on things other than pain or anxiety and promote healing.
  3. Brainstorm as a team about ways these effects can manifest themselves in each space- can you provide views to a landscaped area?  Should artwork of natural landscapes be a focal point? What about lighting and acoustics?  What opportunities are there to get natural light, especially sunlight, into the space?  Can the space adapt to the time of day or season?  Are there opportunities to actually bring nature inside through plants or water features?
  4. Determine how you can measure the results of your strategies and incorporate them into your evidence-based design plan.
Why does it work?  Some speculate that reducing anxiety is all about distracting people, but I think it goes further than that and taps into a primordial state of balance that helps inhabitants to feel calmer, more focused and invigorated.  Being in a biophilic environment is enriching and by stimulating our senses, we stimulate the soul.