Bringing the Outdoors In: The Benefits of Biophilia

Guest post written by Emily Vidovich

Biophilia is defined as the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. The term is derived from the Greek words for “life” and “love or affection;” making its literal translation “love of life.” This concept is foundational to biophilic design, which utilizes natural materials, patterns, and phenomena to maintain a connection to nature within the built environment. Biophilia is more than just a philosophy—biophilic design has been found to support cognitive function, physical health, and psychological well-being. NRDC incorporates biophilic design into all its offices to encourage the connection between humans and nature, as well as promote staff wellness and productivity. Since the average American spends 90 percent of their life indoors, increasing biophilia in the built environment would have significant results.

Under the canopy of biophilic design, there are three categories:

  1. Nature in the Space. The direct presence of nature in a space in the form of plants, animals, water, breeze, scents, light, shadows, and other natural elements.
  2. Natural Analogues. The representational presence of natural materials, patterns, objects, colors, and shapes incorporated into building design, facade ornamentation, decor, and furniture.
  3. Nature of the Space. The incorporation of spatial elements commonly found in nature such as expansive views, places of sensory refuge (such as a quiet and dark room that simulates a cave), and a mild sense of risk (like stepping stones over a shallow pond).

Within the three categories of biophilic design are 14 patterns that detail different ways to incorporate each category into a space. Which patterns to incorporate depends on both the needs of the structure and the personal preference of occupants; some people will resonate more with incorporating living environmental features, while others love natural shapes and sounds. The beauty of biophilic design is that its elements can be mixed and matched to create a personalized ecosystem.

Biophilic Patterns in the San Francisco Office

Many NRDC offices share the same biophilic design elements:

  • Maximize natural light through an open floor plan, abundant windows, skylights, and light wells. (Exposure to natural light has been found to boost productivity, increase Vitamin D absorption, and ward off seasonal depression).
  • Include foliage and nature themed artwork in the form of climbing gardens, honeycomb-shaped wall tiles covered in moss, and potted plants. (Studies found that the presence of plants in the workspace reduces mental fatigue and boosts productivity).
  • Use natural materials, including sustainable poplar and bamboo, in furniture and paneling. (Opting for natural materials reduces exposure to chemicals found in common construction materials).

In addition to these elements, there are features unique to specific locations. In the Washington, D.C. office a sound masking system can be heard (or not heard) that creates a white noise encouraging tranquility, and a “living wall” covered in local plants can be found in the kitchen. In offices where the outdoors are more accessible, occupants can enjoy it through floor to ceiling windows in the Bozeman office, and soak up the sunlight and ocean views by sitting on the rooftop terrace in the Santa Monica office.

NRDC Chicago Office's Rope Garden

Tom Harris

Biophilic design does not require a large budget or versatile space; there are many simple ways to apply biophilic principles to a space, whether it is leased or owned: 

  • Open curtains and windows so that occupants can be guided by the daily movement of light and allow dynamic air movement and natural fluctuations in temperature.
  • If living in an area with high levels of air pollution, add a portable HEPA air purifier to the room to maintain healthy air quality.
  • Place easy to care for indoor plants near frequently used areas.
  • Incorporate auditory or olfactory elements, such as using a nature sounds playlist when falling asleep, or diffusing essential oils.

As the human population grows and access to wilderness becomes limited, incorporating nature into the built environment becomes increasingly important so that the inherent connection between humans and nature is not lost. Consistent exposure to natural elements through biophilic design supports longevity and ensures that future generations maintain an affinity with nature, so that they will grow up to be stewards of the wild places and animals that make our planet magnificent.

About the Authors

Maria McCain

Senior Sustainability Coordinator, Facilities

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