We are nature.
For the 200,000 years that humans have been the species we are today, we've spent the majority of it literally being one with nature. Our concrete, boxed-in current world is a tiny blip in our species' existence.
So yes, as humans we need nature to feel well and to feel whole.
But within the tiny blip of time that humans have industrialized the world, we've completely shut ourselves off from nature. It's become nature 'out there', and man-made everywhere else.
And now our minds and our bodies are missing and craving what we really need to make us feel like humans.
Luckily, some incredible people (including Christopher Alexander, Judith Heerwagen, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, Stephen Kellert, and Roger Ulrich) have been researching and sharing their knowledge on this 'Nature Deficit Disorder' (coined by Robert Louv) that many people are going through, and we're learning why we need to bring nature back into our everyday existence, and how to do it.
So today we're going to dive into the what, the why and the how of biophilic design in architecture.
And there are a lot of great images and examples included!
What is Biophilic Design?
Biophilic design is about applying the concept of biophilia to the built environment.
And biophilia is human's innate connection to nature.
Long story short, Biophilic design is the human-nature connection applied to the built environment.
There have been some really neat studies showing us why we need nature so much and what we're most drawn to in nature. Here are a few theories that have come from this research.
What are we drawn to?
The Savanna Theory:
It turns out us humans are most drawn to the Savannah landscape. Picture the savanna, with its swaying grasses and its sweeping views allowing you to see long distances. But it also provides places to hide with rock outcroppings and pockets of dense vegetation. This is the perfect landscape to survive in. You can hide and protect yourself from danger while at the same time observing everything that's going on around you. In Biophilic design this is called Prospect and Refuge. I'll talk about that a bit more later.
Humans spent a lot of time in a landscape like that, surviving and evolving. And now even though we don't need to hunt and gather our food or protect ourselves from being eaten by lions, the need to be in a savanna-like landscape is still baked into us.
Just think about a typical suburban neighborhood. You have your house, then you front lawn, maybe a tree or two, then a sweeping view of the street and neighboring homes. Your home is your protection, your place to hide, and the lawn provides sweeping views out to the wild streets beyond your front door.
Isn't that crazy?! I love it. And it goes to show us that whether we like it or not, we are nature.
I've talked a bit about circadian rhythms before. But I like the way this slide from the International Living Future Institute presentation on Biophilic Design sums it up.
You can read more about circadian rhythms here, but basically our bodies are tuned to be their most successful when we stick with the patterns of nature daylight. In the morning we want to be exposed to bright light to energize us for the day, and in the evening we want warm, orangey light like the setting sun to help calm up down and prepare us for sleep. There's a lot more to it than that, but that's a start!
Why Do We need Biophilic Design? How does it help?
There are a few theories that have emerged from the study of the human-nature connection that explain why it's so important for humans to be in nature. I won't get too deep into them here but thought I'd share the Attention Restoration Theory.
Attention Restoration theory (ART) says that nature helps us thrive because it does four things to us:
- Clears the mind
- Provides mental fatigue recovery
- Provides soft fascination
- Provides reflection and restoration
Intuitively we all know these things. We can feel these things when we're immersed in nature.
But what I want to highlight is the step called Soft Fascination. That sounds odd, what does that mean??
Soft fascination is how nature is constantly changing, but it does it gently without being a distraction. There is nothing still about nature. Leaves are always fluttering in the wind, squirrels are hopping from rock to rock, birds are singing different tunes.
Humans are drawn to that constant movement and change. And when we're in a place devoid of change, it hinders our health and happiness.
This is an important understanding when thinking about how to bring biophilic design into your home. Subtle change is good! Staleness is bad.
How Do you bring Biophilic Design into your home?
Alright, now let's get onto the fun part. How do you bring nature into your home?
Here's the process I take when thinking about connecting the built environment with the surrounding natural environment.
Here are some ways to get inspired by nature.
- First thing to do is study your ecoregion.
- Understanding the local ecology that you live in will give you inspiration for how to bring nature into your home. Go here to find and learn more about your ecoregion. https://ecoregions.appspot.com/
- Study the cultural history of your town (or even your home if it's old enough).
- You might get some fun ideas just by understanding the history of your natural environment.
- Sit in your yard for a while.
- Spend as much time on your site as you can. Listen to what's around you. Notice what kinds of trees and plants are growing. See what animals are scurrying by you. How windy is it? How sunny is it?
- Here are a few more ideas to look out for: vegetation, quality of light and air, textures and patterns, materials, color palettes, unique spatial qualities, inspiring organisms, ecological relationships, natural processes
- Use all your senses!
- For example: Is it really windy where you live? Then maybe you have something inside your home that's a nod toward the windiness. Here's a cool example:
Explore Biophilic Design Elements
The next step is to understand the different strategies for incorporating biophilic design into your home design. Steven Kellert was one of the leaders in biophilic design and created these 6 Biophilic design elements to show all the ways humans respond to nature.
The key take away is that biophilic design is not just about adding a bunch of plants to your house. There are direct and indirect ways to bring in nature. There are real and artificial ways of bringing in nature. Basically, there are tons of options!
Here's a brief summary of each of the 6 elements.
The 6 Biophilic Design Elements
1. Environmental features
- A literal introduction of nature
- This is about literally bringing plants, water, animals (coy pond anyone?), branches, rocks, etc. into and around your home
2. Natural shapes and forms
- Mimicking natural shapes
- Form follows functions (biomimicry)
- Bringing art in that mimics nature
3. Natural patterns and processes
- This could even be done with tile or wall paper patterns.
4. Light and space
- This is my favorite thing to incorporate into design. Playing with light is fun and can be incredibly dramatic (or it can be wonderfully subtle).
- Creates curiosity
- Keeps the building from being mundane with the same light levels throughout the day
5. Place-based relationships
- How well the building is connected to its local ecology and culture
- Using local materials
6. Evolved human-nature relationships
- It's our relationship with nature. what we're looking for.
- Prospect and refuge: Creates a safe place for us to sit back and observe our surroundings.
- Curiosity and excitement
- Constant state of change - this goes back to idea of soft fascination
- Fear and awe - I love this one. it's about presenting a risk, something that makes you feel a bit nervous. But it also makes you pay attention, and because it makes you aware of what you are doing, it makes you present in the moment.
Brainstorm with your Family, friends, anyone!
Share your ideas with your family or whoever you'll be living in your home with. Share ideas with your friends, coworkers, whoever might be interested and would have fun imagining with you.
It's amazing what can come to be when everyone is contributing ideas (good, bad, it doesn't matter!)
Now that you know how you want to incorporate biophilic design ideas into and around your home, you've got to implement the ideas!
If you're building new or doing a major renovation, the best time to think about your biophilic design ideas and start implementing them is at the very beginning of the design process. But if you're way past that, and are ready to start construction, don't rule out biophilic design. There are still a ton of things you can do right before or even during construction to incorporate natural design into your home.
And if you're working with an architect, let them know about your ideas early so they can help you implement them.
Biophilic design is a huge topic! I've barely scratched the surface of what it can cover. The ideas are endless.
There isn't one right way to incorporate nature into your home. Biophilic design can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it's connecting you with nature.
Have fun with it! (because that's the whole point).