Biophilic design is a concept that is an ancient concept that is making a comeback while adapting to modern building trends. The idea is to build and design homes that help people feel more connected to the natural world and environment. Modern-day society is highly clustered and industrially focused, and this can be seen even in residential suburbs as well. Biophilic design is a design concept meant to push back against modern industrial architecture through direct and indirect contact with nature, and through evoking more intrinsic, almost instinctive feelings of comfort in space and place (Kellert & Calabrese, 2015).
To date, the majority of biophilic design research and work has been conducted on the urban city level. This makes sense, as it is the highly congested cities that have increased difficulty connecting with nature. For example, many cities suffer a ‘heat island’ effect, where cities are significantly hotter than their surrounding areas at both night and day due to human activities, such as running air conditioners and driving vehicles, increased thermal mass to store heat in the day and release it overnight, and a lack of natural heat absorption via evapotranspiration from vegetation and a lack of natural heat absorption (Yang et al., 2016). One of the most famous examples in the world of a city embracing biophilic design is Singapore, which has been described as a ‘city in a garden’ because of the government’s dedication to fleshing out natural spaces within the city.
High-end residential suburbs have started jumping on the trend, and biophilic design has become in vogue for modern houses. One famous example of a single home incorporating biophilic design is Fallingwater, a home designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright that is situated on a small creek breaking out into a small waterfall (Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, n.d.).
The Dimensions of Biophilic Design
There are three main dimensions in biophilic design that can each be achieved in multiple ways – Direct Nature, Indirect Nature, and Space and Place (Kellert & Calabrese, 2015).
Direct Nature is the most obvious and, potentially, easiest to achieve – as it is directly incorporating present nature into the design. Fallingwater, for example, incorporates the creek and waterfall. Natural lighting is another great and easy example, such as through skylights or multiple windows. Water could be evoked through ponds or small fountains, and vegetation can be achieved through a garden or something simpler, like a vine wall.
Indirect Nature may seem confusing at first, but it is generally easier to achieve because it incorporates representations of nature through images, sounds, and design motifs rather than the actual present nature itself. The simplest would be through images of nature or using natural “earth-tone” colors in the design, but this can also be achieved while designing the home. Using naturalistic shapes or natural geometries can help achieve this, such as thick columns to evoke trees or ripple patterns to evoke water. Using natural materials is another good method, that can also change over time which evokes the sensation of observing nature change over time.
Space and Place is a bit more philosophical and nuanced and thus can be a bit harder to achieve. The idea is to utilize the spatial relationship between resident and home, such as having it evoke refuge and safety, having areas that can transition directly to nature such as porches, or utilizing the natural ecosystem such as through a native flora garden.
Building Standards and Economics
Currently, there are no national building standards in place for biophilic design in the sense of requirements or potential energy credits. There are no set standard guidelines to build with, but many of the tenants can be implemented in line with IECC standards. There are guidelines that can be used through the International WELL Building Institute and the Living Building Institute, but these are more guidelines than standards or codes (USGBC, n.d.).
One of the biggest issues with adopting biophilic design is the economic aspect of it. It can be incredibly expensive to implement, like with some natural materials, and maintain, especially natural fixtures such as gardens and ponds. With minimal tangible economic returns since natural processes are not able to be priced and, especially, with the absence of energy credits or savings, it can be difficult to justify implementing biophilic design.
There is little research in biophilic design specifically, but there is plentiful research in regard to nature’s positive effects on people. Homes utilizing biophilic design can emulate these benefits to both their inhabitants and the natural environment around them. The most obvious example of this is increasing the sustainability of the area through environmental benefits – offering habitats for native fauna, pollinator gardens helping bees and butterfly populations, reducing the heat island effect through carbon sequestration, the list goes on. There are further health benefits that can be had – it is proven that exposure to nature can help people improve their mental health by reducing stress, which could lead to further physical health benefits like reduced blood pressure if the cause is stress-related. It has been shown that having fostered a connection with the natural world helps increase productivity in office spaces, for example, which could be a wonderful boon for remote workers in their homes (Gillis & Gatersleben, 2015). Greener suburbs can provide more tangible health and environmental benefits such as better air quality and cooler temperatures as well, encouraging more engagement with outdoor activities. There can be tangible financial benefits as well, but these are long-run benefits as energy savings increase over time – however, it can be difficult to see this due to the large upfront costs of implementation (Nitu et al., 2022).
What You Can Do
So, why are we talking about this today, if there are no energy credits to be had? Biophilic design could have great benefits for inhabitants, but it could also help builders. Finding small ways to incorporate these ideas into designs can help give homes an edge in the market and can help buyers feel more confident in their purchases. While implementing garden space or a pond may be out of reach due to costs, there are multiple ways that it can be implemented. Skylights, vine walls, earth tones, lots of windows reflecting natural spaces, and natural and softer shapes and patterns are all great and simple examples that can be implemented into designs.
Biophilic design may seem like a foreign concept, but it is really an ancient concept. For centuries, homes utilized the nature around them in their designs and were integrated into it. As we became more industrialized and urban, we lost this facet, but we can work to bring it back to not only help people, but their environments as well.
Designing with Nature, Biophilic Design for the Indoor Environment | U.S. Green Building Council. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2023, from https://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction-core-and-shell-schools-new-construction-retail-new-construction-data-73?return=/credits/New%20Construction/v4.1
Gillis, K., & Gatersleben, B. (2015). A Review of Psychological Literature on the Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Biophilic Design. Buildings, 5(3), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.3390/buildings5030948
Fallingwater. (n.d.). Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Retrieved November 3, 2023, from https://waterlandlife.org/fallingwater/
Kellert, S. and Calabrese, E. (2015). The Practice of Biophilic Design. www.biophilic-design.com
Lee, E.-J., & Park, S.-J. (2022). Biophilic Experience-Based Residential Hybrid Framework. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(14), 8512. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19148512
Nitu, M. A., Gocer, O., Wijesooriya, N., Vijapur, D., & Candido, C. (2022). A Biophilic Design Approach for Improved Energy Performance in Retrofitting Residential Projects. Sustainability, 14(7), Article 7. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14073776
Ten modern homes with interiors informed by biophilic design. (2023, January 8). Dezeen. https://www.dezeen.com/2023/01/08/ten-modern-homes-interiors-biophilic-design-lookbooks/
WELL Building Standards Help Quantify Benefits of Biophilic Design. (n.d.). Haskell Company. Retrieved November 3, 2023, from https://www.haskell.com/insights/building-standards-to-improve-well-being/
Yang, L., Qian, F., Song, D.-X., & Zheng, K.-J. (2016). Research on Urban Heat-Island Effect. Procedia Engineering, 169, 11–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proeng.2016.10.002