Nature and Buildings

Did you know that it is an innate characteristic of human beings to love nature? There is even a term for it, biophilia. First introduced by the biologist Edward Wilson, biophilia is our love of other living things and the desire to be connected to nature.

Due to our lifestyle, we spend most of our time indoors. Whether working, studying or entertaining we are becoming more disconnected from nature. At the same time, access to nature is now recognized as one of the essential human needs. So much so that it is even included as a requirement into green buildings standards, such as WELL and Living Building Challenge.

Biophilic design principals – plenty of indoor natural light, focusing on natural space layouts, using natural patterns, and bringing in natural elements such as plants and water features – allows us to design our buildings with nature in mind.

In this blog post, I will detail three major biophilic design principals and their applications.

Natural Elements

The first biophilic design principle is to use natural elements in the outdoor built environment. Trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, moss – all can be incorporated . If there is not enough site area to accommodate this, above-ground building surfaces can be used to host plants.  A few examples:

  • Use plants on roofs. Green roofs are already a common feature of new and existing buildings. Green roofs consist of a soil layer with a protective membrane separating it from the main roof structure below. Besides being beautiful, green roofs help reduce cooling demand and storm water runoff.
  • Use plants on building facades, which can occupy even larger surface areas than roofs. These green facades can be made of climbing plants growing from planters at the ground or at every floor. They can also be made as living walls, which include plants growing from a soil layer placed vertically.
  • Use plants on building terraces to form buffer gardens between indoors and outdoors. A great example of this is the Bosco Verticale residential towers in Milan. These towers were designed with 100,000 sq.ft of terraces hosting the equivalent of plants found in a one hectare of forest.

Indoor Water Features

The second biophilic design principle is to include an indoor water and plant feature. For example, a living wall biofilter in which plants, water, and a soil layer form a filtration device. The objective of the presence of water is to capitalize on the multi-sensory attributes of water to enhance the building in a manner that is relaxing, that enhances mood, and provides restoration from cognitive fatigue.

To achieve the greatest results, it is recommended that you prioritize a multi-sensory water experience and one that features naturally fluctuating water movement over predictable movement or stagnancy. Examples could include a modular water wall, fountains or water scrims. There are concerns with the water feature pattern of biophilic design however. Some of the most common are cost and scale, sanitation, water scarcity or cultural appropriateness of water features. Water feature incorporation into design can seem unnecessary or burdensome; in many cases designers can still find interventions appropriate to their project, site, climate and cultural challenges. Water-based interventions should be used to creatively overcome building design, environmental engineering and resiliency planning challenges while also providing significant health and well-being benefits.

Indoor Plants

The third biophilic design principle is the use of plants in the design of interior space. Potted plants or planted beds should cover a certain area of each buildings floor and walls. This principle is implemented beautifully in the 9-story office building by Pasona Group in Tokyo, which also acts an urban farm. With 20% of floor area dedicated to green space, this building houses over 200 species of plants, fruits, and vegetables. Office workers share a common space with food crops. Tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon trees are used as partitions, and salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms. To top it all, there is a rice paddy and a broccoli field in the main lobby. All crops are grown in soil or hydroponically with the use of artificial lights and an automated irrigation system. The employees are encouraged to grow and harvest the crops with the support of agricultural experts. All of the food is served on site in the cafeteria.

Why should we care about biophilic design? Mainly because it brings buildings to life and improves human well-being. Our offices tend to be boring environments. A typical workspace can be characterized by white walls, poor access to daylight, and lacking any natural elements. Workspaces that feature dim lighting, grey colors, and no natural elements can dampen the creativity of even the most enthusiastic employees. It is no surprise that we experience stress, fatigue, and low productivity working in such spaces, which manifests itself in frequent absenteeism and lack of mental concentration. In an average company, 4% of total operating cost accounts for financial losses due to these problems, according to the US Department of Labor (“The Economics of Biophilia”, Terrapin Bright Green, New York, 2012). One of the causes for absenteeism and presenteeism – when employees are physically at work but mentally are not present – is the built environment.

Access to nature can change this. Research found that employees in offices with plants and access to sunlight show an 8% increase in productivity and 13% increase in wellbeing. In general, offices with the highest employee creativity potential are simple in design, brightly lit, and have abundant natural elements. ( )

Nature in built environment can lead to measured improvement in job performance. The reduced absenteeism alone can help save $2000-$2500 per employee depending on the sector and hourly rate (“The Economics of Biophilia”, Terrapin Bright Green, New York, 2012). From corporate offices to hospitals, buildings spend on average 100 times more money on people than on building rent and energy cost. Given that statistic, even a small investment in employee productivity will go a long way.

A few companies have begun to recognize the value of biophilic design. Facebook, Apple, and Google are all at the vanguard of creating great workspaces connected to nature through biophilic design of their indoor and outdoor environments. In fact, designing with nature in mind is one of their crucial strategies to attract and retain the best employees.

Although more research needs to be done on nature in the built environment, it is very clear that biophilic design is essential to our physiological and psychological well-being. Let’s re-establish the link between people and nature by enhancing our built environments with natural elements. Design solutions are endless. All we have to do is to design with nature in mind.