The biophilic design trend

The desire for restoration, reconnection with nature and being part of the solution against climate change has spurred the adoption of biophilic design in urban, commercial and domestic architecture.

Bosco verticale Milano
Photo by GattoTere on Unsplash

The pandemic and climate change has brought home the realisation that it is our disconnection from the natural environment that imperils (our life on) the planet. For too long, we have taken nature and its resources for granted and have admittedly, only recently begun to understand that nature has its limit.

Biophilic design is a principle used by architects and designers to bring the construction of (urban) areas in line with our innate desire and need to be in nature. The concept isn’t new, but since the pandemic has developed from trend to established principle.

The principle of biophilic design

Biophilic design advocates connecting buildings to the natural environment via the use of natural materials, interior planting, nature-inspired design, and views to the green world outside.

Seemingly similar, Biophilic design is distinguished from landscape urbanism or ecological infrastructure by the more synergistic integration of the building, the site and occupants through the creation of an almost complete ‘biome’; uniting materials, building structure, site metabolism (energy & water usage) with the surrounding environment – both within the building and beyond its façade. This supports biodiversity (micro to macro flora, fauna & funga) and fosters community, health and wellbeing.

Biophilic design can be a simple as filling a room with houseplants to the complex biophylic architecture such as Il Bosco verticale in Milan, designed by Stefano Boeri.

Does it work?

Roger Ulrich’s hospital study (Science, 1984), showed tangible and positive effects. Incorporating biophilic design practices in hospitals lead to patients experiencing reduced stress levels, improved mood, and faster recovery times. Ulrich’s study found that patients who had a view of nature outside their windows had shorter hospital stays and fewer complications.

Research therefore, that highlights the importance and value of projects such as Horatio’s Gardens, the RHS & NHS Wellbeing gardens and the new Hillingdon Hospital Rehabilitation Garden project.

Application to garden design

When it comes to gardens, biophilic design is about blending the inside and outside spaces – both directly as well as indirectly.

The concept goes further than the use of plants and trees. Direct elements such as; sunlight help to orientate us and provides mental and physical health benefits; fresh air to influence comfort through temperature and humidity; water as an essential sensory element to calm and decrease stress and wildlife to encourage the affiliation with other forms of life. The indirect elements relate to interactions with representations of nature, biomimicry if you will, such as the use of natural materials, eg. wood and stone, and the use of natural colours such as blues, greens and browns.

An example of the application of the principle is the 2023, gold medal award winning RHS Chelsea Flower Show The Biophilic Garden Otsu – Hanare garden, designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara. His garden embraced the principles to create a seamless transition between the building (hanare) and the surrounding garden, creating the experience of being entirely enveloped by nature.

Sarah Wilson wrote a recent article for Homes & Gardens, entitled “2024 biophilic garden design trends” in which she talked to landscape architects about the various ways one can connect nature and domestic spaces with the landscape around us.

Are governments embracing biophilia?

In Singapore, virtually all new buildings include plant life such as green roofs, green walls, and high-rise terraces. Their ambitious 2030 Green Plan includes a requirement to making at least 80% of its buildings green; creating 200 hectares of green roofs by 2030, and investing in a network of “green corridors” by thickly lining the streets with trees to provide shade and cooling moisture for the city. Some of their public buses have also adopted green roofs. Importantly, the Singapore government funds up to 50% of plant installations on existing buildings which understandably helps their adoption.

In Basel, Switzerland the city planning authority made green roofs compulsory. In 2002, an amendment to their Building and Construction Law was passed stating that all new and renovated flat roofs must be greened. Since then, more than 1 million square metres of green roofs have been constructed, making it a leading city in the ‘greening’ its urban spaces.

As a starting point, in the UK, from November 2023 the Biodiversity and Environmental Net Gain legislation will mandate a 10% biodiversity net gain on all new development. For all built environment professionals in the UK, this creates a responsibility to ensure that any new development or refurbishment is designed to not only preserve nature, but also enhance it.

Incorporating nature into the built environment makes sound environmental sense, but also economic benefit in terms of health and productivity. The research indicates real potential for large-scale deployment of biophilic design, consider as the data suggested the shorter stays for hospital patients and the impact of enhanced productivity in the workplace and schools.

Examples of urban biophilic projects

  1. Stefano Boeri, Il Bosco verticale in Milan (pictured). Boeri’s towers are viewed as symbols of biophilic design as they not only provide green respite, but absorb CO2, reduce heat island effect, lower energy consumption and are host to a wide variety of plant and animal species. The towers have invigorated the neighbourhood, re-establishing a community in an area which was once dominated by unused railroad tracks and dilapidated industrial buildings. The 260- and 360-foot towers, edged by projecting concrete balconies are covered with a combination of 800 trees and 5,000 shrubs, which are nourished by an integrated irrigation system.
  2. The Barbican Centre, UK – Early example of biophilic architecture. Renowned for its striking, brutalist design juxtaposed with the use of lakes, conservatory, wildlife, the Beech garden designed by Nigel Dunnett, and planting including over 1,500 species of plants and trees.
  3. Apple Park, USA – Widely recognised example of biophilic architecture. The tech giant’s headquarters in California embrace the shape of the land, surrounded by a forest of around 9,000 trees with a hollowed-out centre full of wildlife, to provide employees with a space for well-being and a connection with nature.
  4. The Jewel, Singapore – Entertainment and retail complex, home to the world’s largest indoor waterfall (the 40-metre tall Rain Vortex) and 100,000 plants.
  5. MVRDV Valley in Amsterdam – 75,000m2 biophilic mixed-use project features apartments, offices, shops, cultural institutes as well as a creative centre with park designed by Piet Oudolf. 
  6. Jean Nouvel’s cantilevering One Central Park in Sydney, with its cantilevered and vertical gardens which wraps both towers in 7 linear kms of metal clad planter boxes to encourage a soft, green veil of plants to develop over time.

Recommended reading

  • The seminal book on the subject is by American biologist E.O. Wilson, entitled Biophilia in which he argues that our natural affinity for life—biophilia—is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living things.
  • The basic principles, practices, and options for successfully implementing biophilic design are described by Stephen R. Kellert in The book Nature by Design: The Practice of Biophilic Design.