In design, we are used to overcoming the obstacles of nature – redirecting light and form for place-making, manipulating and reshaping materials and generally beating back the onslaught of the local climate to impose structures which suit our own needs. Yet biophilia is increasingly at the heart of our work. Of course nature has always inspired design, but only in recent decades has the term become a popular reference as we seek to counter the terrible effects of pollution and climate change.
As the Chief Executive of Shell announces that a reforestation area the size of the Amazon is needed to achieve global warming targets laid out in the UN’s landmark report, as designers we might ask ourselves what can we do to put nature at the forefront of the environments we create. But how can we avoid the 'green-washing’ of our efforts? As architect Elizabeth Calabrese notes, “Biophilic Design appears to be all the rage now, for better or for worse. For better, it is making us aware of the importance of rekindling our deep evolutionary connections with the natural world by integrating nature and natural systems and processes back into the built environment to promote human wellbeing and planetary healing. For worse, it could easily become an overused buzzword to further fuel excuses in favour of mass-consumerism and natural resource depletion.”
Caperna and Serafini define biophilic design as the kind of architecture which is able to supply our inborn need for connection to life and the vital processes. It is a complement to green architecture, which decreases the environmental impact of a development, but does not address the need to positively enhance human connection with the natural world. In their characterisation, biophilic architecture encompasses the naturalistic dimension, the ‘wholeness’ of the site, (or Genus Loci Spirit of Place) and geometric coherency which exalts the connection between the built and natural environment.
For the design community, adhering to these principles and positively promoting a relationship between the interior of a building and the external environment has been shown to have a demonstrable impact. Statistics show better patient outcomes for patients with access to gardens, light and air; students perform better in eco-classrooms; workers are more productive when their office space allows nature a place to flourish in amongst the photocopiers and swivel chairs. These figures demonstrate that biophilic design is so much more than a buzzword.
Beyond statement green walls and attractive succulents, biophilic design has the potential to make an enormous impact on the way we live our lives, and perhaps even more importantly, on the way future generations will live theirs. It’s vital that designers who work with these core principles in mind keep showing the way.