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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Biophilia Hypothesis: The basis of Biophilic Design

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

As cities continue to become more urbanised, driving humans further and further away from natural environments, we have become more aware of the impact the built environment has on health, well-being and sustainability. In response, many seek outlets to reconnect with more natural and primal habitats, and adopt sustainable solutions that align with contemporary lifestyles. Due to these circumstances, biophilic design is a concept that has rapidly gained popularity in recent years, as it champions the health and wellbeing impacts of being connected to natural settings, striving to weave it into the design of our built environment.


This article will briefly explore the history and principles of biophilic design, and discuss the benefits and challenges of incorporating it into various settings.



Introduction.


Biophilic design has its roots in the late 20th century, when research on human-environment relationships flourished (Kellert et al., 2008). Extensive studies, that remain relevant and well-supported to this day, explored the connections between nature, human health and well-being highlighting how exposure to nature has a positive impact on our physical, mental, and emotional health (e.g. Ulrich, 1984). The success of biophilic design is based on these findings, as it aims to bring elements of nature into the built environment with the overall vision of improving quality of life and re-establishing some balance between natural and man-made habitats.


However, biophilia as a theory did not have its origins in design.


Erich Seligmann Fromm (1973), a German social psychologist and psychoanalyst was the first to use the term to describe a human psychological tendency towards associating with all other living beings. This idea was later expanded on and popularised by scholars with a focus on biological, evolutionary and psychological aspects of the connections between living beings and nature, including Edward Wilson who's work this article will discuss.


Mini overview

  1. Theory: Biophilia Hypothesis

  2. Theorist: Edward O. Wilson

  3. Publication Title: Biophilia

  4. Publication Date: 1984

  5. Publisher: Harvard University Press

  6. Field of Origin: Evolutionary Biology

  7. Topic: Human connection with natural environments

  8. Key Concepts: biophilia, biophobia, innate predisposition to the natural environment

Background.


Edward O. Wilson (1984), an American biologist and naturalist, is known for his theory of biophilia, which suggests that humans have an innate affinity for nature and the natural world. The theory is based on the idea that our connection to nature is rooted in our evolutionary history, and is a fundamental aspect of human well-being. It therefore provides a framework for understanding the positive impact nature can have on our health and well-being, while being grounded in several philosophical standpoints that are increasingly relevant in tackling contemporary challenges. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Environmentalism Rooted in the environmentalist perspective that nature is not only important for human survival, but also for human well-being and happiness.

  • Holism Suggests that human health and well-being are interrelated with the health and well-being of the environment, and that a holistic approach is necessary to understand this relationship.

  • Systemic Thinking Acknowledges the complexity of the human-nature relationship and the need for systemic thinking in order to understand the interconnectedness of humans and the environment.

  • Constructivism Recognizes that human perceptions and experiences of nature are culturally and historically constructed, and that these perceptions shape our relationships with nature.

  • Human-Centered Approach Takes a human-centered approach, focusing on the ways in which nature impacts human health and well-being, and how human activities can impact the environment.

  • Scientific Realism Based on a scientific realism approach, which recognizes the role of empirical evidence in shaping our understanding of the world and the human-nature relationship.

  • Evolutionary Biology Informed by evolutionary biology, which provides an understanding of the ways in which our evolutionary history has shaped our relationship with nature.

It is therefore no surprise that this Biophilia has gained popularity among spatial design disciplines such as interior design and architecture. The approach encompasses multiple shared objectives and viewpoints to what makes a positive experience of place, lending itself to (seemingly) straightforward pathways for adoption in practice.


Applications of biophilia for design.


Indeed, Wilson’s Biophilia has clear applications for the built environment and our contemporary human habitat as highlighted by Steven Kellert et al. (2008) adoption of key biophilic principles for spatial design. Stephen R. Kellert was a Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of Biophilic Design (Dennehy, 2017).


Kellert’s principles of biophilic design


According to Kellert & Calabrese (2015), there are three kinds of experience of nature that represent the basic categories of his biophilic design framework:

  • Direct experience of nature Refers to the interaction with physical aspects of the environment such as plants, animals and water.

  • Indirect experience of nature Refers to the interaction with representations of natural elements of the environment, including photographs, artwork and natural materials.

  • Experience of space and place Refers to aspects of the environment that encompass human perception, sense of safety and other cognitive responses such as prospect and refuge, organised complexity, mobility and wayfinding.

These categories encompass a set of 24 attributes of biophilic design that serve as a guide for designers and architects looking to incorporate biophilic elements into their projects. This is a long list so please bare with me as I summarise each one in the section below:


Direct experience of nature

  • Light - natural light through windows, skylights, and other features

  • Air - comfortable temperatures and natural air flow, through the use of natural ventilation and heating/cooling systems

  • Water - engaging the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and movement of running water

  • Plants - abundant vegetation and foliage and especially the presence of blooming flowers

  • Animals - interaction with other living beings including domesticated animals such as pets, fish, birds, as well as observing wildlife using feeders, binoculars and other modern technologies

  • Weather - elements that respond to the weather fluctuations and times of day, such as light, temperature, the sound of wind, barometric pressure changes, and humidity

  • Natural landscapes and ecosystems - engagement with the natural environment, such as gardening, bee keeping and interaction with wildlife

  • Fire - fireplaces and hearths or simulated by the creative use of light, colour, movement, and materials of varying heat conductance

Indirect experience of nature

  • Images of nature - photographs, paintings and other visual representations of nature such as plants, animals, natural landscapes and water

  • Natural materials - materials that can be found in nature or are naturally occurring such as wood, rock and slate

  • Natural colours - colours that are common in natural environments that would be considered suitable for human habitation such as greens, blues, and greys

  • Simulating natural light and air - artificial light and mechanical ventilation systems that reflect natural environments such as light features designed to mimic the spectral and dynamic qualities of natural light

  • Naturalistic shapes and forms - organic forms that can commonly be found in nature such as curved lines and organic shapes of leaves and animals

  • Evoking nature - elements that mimic or evoke memories of natural environments, such as rock formations, water features, and natural landscapes

  • Information richness - diversity and variety of natural environments reflected in space variety of different setting, shapes and arrangements

  • Age, change, and the passing of time - elements that reflect to the changing seasons and passing of time such as weathering materials

  • Natural geometries - naturally occurring geometries such as scales, and fractals

  • Biomimicry - replication of the form and function of nature through natural shapes and patterns, natural processes or ecosystems

Experience of space and place

  • Prospect and refuge - spaces with capacity to observe without being seen

  • Organised complexity - sense of order and organisation through the use of pattern and structure, while still incorporating a degree of complexity

  • Integration of parts to wholes - individual components that can be read together as part of a whole

  • Transitional spaces - spaces that link and differentiate other spaces, creating a sense of flow between then

  • Mobility and wayfinding - aspects of spatial design related to navigation and being able to identify where someone is in relation to where they need to go

  • Cultural and ecological attachment to place - the engraved cultural and historical connotations that relate to perception of different types of space

By following these principles, designers can create spaces that foster a sense of connection to nature and promote health and well-being.


A critical view of biophilic design.


From the above discussion it should be evident that one of the strengths of biophilic design is that it provides a practical framework for designers to create spaces that promote well-being, as well as environments that are more sustainable, due to a preference for natural materials. Unlike other research-based approaches that may require further interpretation to implement in practice, biophilic design provides a well defined pattern book that is easy to understand and incorporate, reducing the barriers to access.


In addition, various studies conducted over decades support the positive effects of biophilic design on reducing stress (Roskams & Haynes, 2020, Yin et al., 2020), lowering blood pressure, pain relief, recovery from illness (Ulrich, 1984) as well enhancing mood and productivity (Haynes et a;., 2019; Hähn et al., 2020). It is an actively evolving area of research that continues to produce supporting evidence across multiple settings from individual homes to the public realm.


Nonetheless, no approach is without its limitations.


One of the main challenges of biophilic design is that it can be difficult to implement in practice, as the cost of incorporating biophilic elements into a building can be a barrier for some clients and developers. Future articles will cover how design guides such as "Creating positive spaces using biophilic design" by Heath et al. (2018) have attempted to create a roadmap for implementation. In my experience, this is often due to maintenance costs or lack of appreciation of the overall cost benefits of this approach. As a result, biophilic design often becomes an afterthought or is eliminated entirely in value-engineering processes.


This strain between cost and quality can also have other unintended consequences. This includes the displacement of wildlife and destruction of natural habitats through the selection of invasive plant and animal species, and increase of plastics in landfills through the use of artificial plants and other unsustainable interventions that have a detrimental effect on the potential of this approach in the context of sustainability. It is therefore important to consider the environmental impacts of incorporating biophilic elements into the built environment and opt for sustainable and well-considered solutions.


Biophilic design is not always well understood by stakeholders, something that can lead to confusion and miscommunication about the goals and benefits of the approach which limits its adoption and implementation. A good example of this is the assumption that biophilic design is only about adding a couple of plants in a space. While this can be a marginal improvement for the overall environment, it does not utilise the full range of benefits of design that incorporates this holistic perspective from concept to implementation including natural shapes and materials, a coordinated strategy around spatial experience, connections between the indoor and outdoor environment and more.


Conclusions


In conclusion, biophilic design has the potential to significantly improve our health and well-being in the built environment. However, it is important to consider the challenges and limitations of the approach, and to work with stakeholders to ensure that biophilic design is implemented in a way that is both effective and sustainable. The approach has come a long way over the years and continues to be increasingly more relevant as urbanisation drives us further away from natural habitats. The next part of this series on Biophilia will therefore focus on the benefits of this approach as well as some case studies of successfully implemented biophilic design.


 

Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.

 

Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.

 

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