Have you ever given in to the peace and quiet of nature to feel better or relax? How do you feel when you run along the beach or go hiking in the mountains? Do the big ocean, lush forests, and fast-moving creeks amaze or calm you? Does going outside for a few minutes change how you feel?

We used to be surrounded by nature. It still is in a technical sense, but the quality of the nature around us has changed. At the moment, 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities. By 2050, this number is expected to rise to 66 percent, which is two-thirds of the world’s population. Most of the time, people spend 93 percent of their time indoors, away from nature.

This problem is a bad result of how we act as a society right now. As more and more of us move to cities and spend more time inside, we spend less and less time with nature every day. In the end, this makes it more likely that we will be hurt mentally and physically. How can we try to stop this trend and make our communities better places to live?

One new idea is biophilic design, which is a way to use and benefit from nature in the built environment.

How does biophilic design work?

The biophilia hypothesis says that most people have an innate love of nature, that we long for it, and that our health could suffer if we don’t connect with it. So, biophilic design is a way to satisfy this need for nature by putting natural elements and processes into the built environment.

Biophilic design can be used in a neighborhood, a building, or a small project. And if the design is done right, it should have a big, good effect on our health and well-being.

The hard part? Clearly defining what biophilic design is and how people may or may not take advantage of its many possibilities. Many researchers have tried to explain what biophilic design is and what they think makes a space biophilic. Stephen Kellert and Elizabeth Calabrese, two well-known thinkers, recently put together a list of strategies based on three main experiences: direct experience of nature; indirect experience of nature; and experience of space and place. In this blog, I’ll talk about the first two experiences and how biophilic design can be used in any workplace.

What Does Science Say?

A lot of scientific studies show that being close to nature, whether through houseplants or natural light, is good for your health. This has led to a trend called “biophilic design.” A major study from 2019 found that children in Denmark who spent more time in nature had 55% fewer mental health problems as adults than those who didn’t spend as much time in nature. Other research has shown that plants can make you feel less stressed, help you concentrate, and even make your immune system stronger.

Studies have also found a link between plants and work output. In two studies done in Norway, researchers found that people who did reading and tasks that required them to pay attention while surrounded by greenery did better over time than people who didn’t. What’s going on? “Attention Restoration Theory” is one idea: We spend a lot of time at work concentrating very hard, which makes our minds tired. Even taking a few seconds to look away from your screen and at a plant on your desk could help you clear your mind and get back to work. This is why Google, Etsy, and many other companies have turned to biophilic design as a way to make their employees happier, more creative, and more productive. Living walls are so common in tech company offices that they have become a design cliche. Desks and tables for the office are now made with planters built right in.

Companies that sell plants today also say that houseplants clean the air, but this is more hype than reality. A report from The Atlantic said that to clean the air in an office that is 10 feet by 10 feet, you would need 1,000 houseplants. Even though plants might make you happier, most of the time they don’t clean the air enough for that to be a good reason to spend more time with them. One office in India’s capital city, New Delhi, has four times as many plants as people because of a greenhouse designed to clean the heavily polluted air inside the building. The Indian government says research shows that this makes employees healthier.

Biophilic design lets people get close to nature.

In the built environment, direct experiences of nature include plants, light, water, and anything else that puts you in touch with green things. Even natural air movement can be part of it! These are things we should add to the places where our clients work, whether they are schools, hospitals, or factories.

Plants are helpful because they are breathing, living things. Studies have shown that plants improve creativity, performance, and productivity, all of which are things we want to see more of at work and at home.

— Direct views of nature and being outside during the day also have a big effect on environmental psychology. Roger Ulrich did a study in 1984 that suggested that people in hospitals who could see green nature recovered faster than those who could only see a brick wall. Do we think about what our neighbors want when we build a new building?

— Water and air movement are also important parts of biophilic design. Whether a building has an indoor river or natural airflow, both of these things add to the natural atmosphere.

As our buildings come together to make a bigger community, I think we need to start thinking about these issues and how we can help our clients get the most out of their everyday interactions with nature.

How do designers actually use it in the real world?

It’s no surprise that designers of coworking spaces and offices were among the first to use it. The Portugal branch of the coworking space Second Home is known for having more than 2,000 plants. This is to block out noise and provide privacy, as well as to take advantage of all the other benefits of being near plants. Rohan Silva, one of the founders of the coworking space, told Fast Company in 2017 that everything they do is based on nature and biophilia. “The designs don’t have straight lines because nature doesn’t have straight lines.” This is also why every chair and desk lamp has a different shape. This is similar to how every leaf and snowflake in nature has a different shape.

Google has tried out skylights to let in more natural light, added more plants to its spaces, and even changed the wallpaper and carpet to patterns that look more like nature. The company says that these changes have helped its employees focus better, be more creative, and get more work done. “One of the big differences between the office and the outdoors is how varied the sensory stimulation is,” Mikhail Davis, whose company made some of Google’s nature-themed carpets, told Fast Company back in 2015. “In a traditional office, the temperature stays the same, there are a lot of the same colors and textures, and the humidity is always the same.” When you’re outside, these change throughout the day, which is why many of these benefits happen.

Not all companies can give their workers places to work where they can connect with nature. Others take short cuts. One company makes fake windows with video screens in them to make dark office spaces look like they have a skylight.

Is biophilic design influencing other industries?

Yes, it has an effect that goes beyond traditional home and office interior design. It has also been very helpful in building hospitals and other health care facilities. In a hospital in Washington, there is a healing garden where children and their families can take a break. An oncology center in Anaheim, California, is set up so that patients can always see a Zen garden outside. Every room in a hospital in Toronto, Canada, has a view of a park. Some cancer centers resemble treehouses more than hospitals. Studies have shown that getting out into nature can help people get better faster.

A new cabin designed by Snohetta and built in the forest next to Oslo University Hospital in Norway may be the logical end of this idea. The cabin can be reserved by children and their families as a break from their normal patient rooms. Some patients aren’t well enough to go outside, so the cabin gives them the next best thing. It is made of wood and has windows that look like portholes.

Biophilic design is good for your health, even if you’re not in a forest. Biophilic design was used a lot when Parsley Health, a new company that just opened its first clinic in New York, planned the space. The Manhattan clinic has plants, floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light, natural materials like wood, and even a light and plant installation that changes depending on the season and time of day. The design team based its work on a guide to biophilic design written by the environmental consulting and strategic planning firm Terrapin Bright Green in 2014. The guide is made up of 14 core elements. Some of these principles are often overlooked when designing buildings, like making long views to give people a sense of scale inside a room. In Parsley’s case, this feeling is created by a lighting installation at the end of a long hallway.

The movement of biophilic design includes whole neighborhoods and even whole cities. Scientists think that plants could act like sensors to help keep an eye on things like mold and volatile organic compounds in our buildings. In a 2016 report, the engineering firm Arup says that all buildings should be covered in plants to pull carbon dioxide out of the air, clean the air, reduce noise, and keep cities cooler. The goal of the Biophilic Cities project is to show how different cities are giving their residents more access to green space, whether that’s through parks or less common ways, like rooftop gardens.

We are all better off when we spend more time outside. Biophilic design just takes that fact into account and helps make our homes, buildings, and even cities a little less gray and a little more green.

Biophilic design also lets people experience nature in indirect ways.

Beyond the obvious and direct parts of biophilic design, there are also ways to bring nature into a space in a less obvious way. Some very exciting ideas come into play here, like using natural materials like wood and earth, or even pictures of nature. Indirect experiences are great solutions for places where plants aren’t wanted or where you can’t see nature or open a window.

— The prospect and refuge method gives people who don’t want to be seen by others a place to hide. Simply put, the idea is for people who are on the most introverted end of the spectrum and who like to see people but may not like not having a place to hide, especially behind them.

— Smells and sounds add to a biophilic, multisensory experience. Even though most research has focused on sight, natural sounds and smells also play a role in the design and operation of buildings.

People have a lot of control over what they see and feel, but indirect experiences aren’t always as easy to control. They can be helpful if the place, the people who will use them, and how long they will be used are all carefully thought out. Make sure to talk to your neighbors about these ideas!

Getting out of work

Let’s get to work now that we know how important nature is to the built environment. Here are five tips and tricks that will make it easy for you to use biophilic ideas at work.

  1. Slide the blinds open. Even though glare can happen at different times of the day, remember to open your blinds back up when the glare is gone.
  2. Buy a plant (or two or three). When you take a break, your eyes are more likely to wander to your plants, which gives you a small moment of rest. (Hint: peace lilies, snake plants, and orchids are good plants.)
  3. Put up pictures of nature. Try to include pictures that make people feel awe or nature that makes them curious.
  4. Listen to sounds from nature, like water running or air moving. This can be very relaxing at work. Note: Your neighbors may be bothered by these sounds, so put on some headphones.
  5. Get outside. Go out and try the real thing! Even though this doesn’t really have an effect on our desks, many of us end up spending the whole day at our desks. Even a 20-minute walk outside will help you do better during the day and might help you sleep better at night.

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