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What is Biophilic Design? 

Biophilic design is an architectural approach that aims to increase the building occupants’ connection to nature. This can, for example, mean natural lighting, ventilation, and landscaping.

CIRS, Vancouver, BC

In our eagerness to build our cities, we have become isolated and disconnected from our natural surroundings, leading to many adverse effects on human health and well-being. Humans simply aren’t suited for lives in sensory-deprived non-natural environments; our productivity is affected, and people get sick and miss work.

This is where well-executed biophilic (“love of nature”) design can be of use and even create a clear return on investment (ROI) through more meaningful and healthy interactions with our environment. But is biophilic design always eco-friendly as often assumed or even promised?

The Greenwashing of Biophilic Design

Biophilic design is truly a green marketing buzzword, and as with all marketing buzzwords, it warrants a critical view. As with most things in marketing, there is a true core, but it is far more complex than merely assuming that biophilic design is always “green.” There are no requirements for eco-friendliness in biophilic design. However, biophilic design can still be a powerful tool for urban sustainability and promote human health and well-being – provided it is well executed.

Paul Downton, the eco-city pioneer, summarizes this well: “the eco-city is, per definition, a biophilic city, but biophilic design is not intrinsically eco-friendly.”

What is, and what is not, Biophilic Design?

The basic framework for biophilic design was created by Stephen Kellert, a pioneer in the field. Kellert defined a framework of principles (three basic elements and 25 attributes) with the aim to support a multisensory built environment with natural or nature-like components.

Read more about the biophilic elements and attributes here.

An essential aspect of true biophilic design is the repeated and sustained engagement with the elements and the space. For example, a space with disconnected biophilic elements such as a couple of potted plants, or a single wallpapered wall with plant motifs, does not create a biophilic project. The biophilic elements need to be connected and interlinked in a meaningful way. Kellert thought of it more like an ecosystem where all the parts interact, including the humans occupying the space.

The Return on Investment of Biophilic Design

Biophilic design has a lot to offer in terms of improved life quality and happiness, but also in terms of simple economics. Well-executed biophilic design projects often have clear business cases as it usually is a direct investment in productivity via health. One study showed that 10% of employee absence could be attributed to poor architectural design that failed to provide the employees with the five most vital requirements for basic functioning established by the American Association for Psychology. 10% is a considerable number and provides a huge opportunity for improvements and savings.

Other examples come from the healthcare sector, where many studies have shown that exposure to nature leads to faster healing. In one study, exposure to views of nature reduced hospitalization duration by 8%, translating into significant savings opportunities considering the daily hospitalization costs of over $10,000 per patient.

People are also more inclined to spend more money on biophilic properties – the addition of attractive landscaping with at least one tree added 7% to the rental value of properties in Cleveland, Ohio. The partial view of a lake brought in 30% extra. Green walls, such as cost-effective and low maintenance trellis systems, e.g., from greenscreen®, are great biophilic additions that offer interactive possibilities with the space itself.

The Ellington from outside the parking structure
The Ellington inside the parking structure looking out

Biophilic Design and Building Standards

Despite the vagueness of the definition of biophilic design, it is a crucial concept. Returning to Paul Downton’s quote above, “the eco-city is, per definition, a biophilic city, but biophilic design is not intrinsically eco-friendly.” Hence, our future sustainable urban dwellings will be biophilic, but we need better standards and more precise definitions.

There are a couple of building standards that support biophilic design, aiming to create a more solid framework with qualitative and quantitative metrics defining what is and what is not biophilic design. Two examples of such standards are the Living Building Challenge15 and the WELL Building Standard16 . The Living Building Challenge only lists qualitative measures, but the WELL Building Standard also lists a few quantitative metrics.

Biophilic design is an incredible topic and the way forward. Still, I firmly believe more standardization must be applied for it to remain meaningful and not end up as a mere greenwashing buzzword.

By Dr. Anna Zakrisson

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