Biophilic design – what is it and why does it matter?


Biophilic design, or ‘biophilia’, means bringing our love of nature into our homes and workplaces to support our health and wellbeing. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live in harmony with the natural world and our health is dependent on our access to natural light, clean air, water and plants, but we now spend 93% of out time indoors, which is having a huge impact. Biophilic design is proven to help us feel less stressed, sleep better and help us to stay healthier as well as happier.

Sitting in unnatural positions hunched over keyboards, looking at screens under harsh synthetic lights and breathing polluted indoor air all cause us stress, take their toll on our health and are part of the modern disconnect with nature. Biophilic design offers several easy-to-follow principles that can support us to feel better physically and emotionally by bringing nature indoors to create more human-centred spaces that calm our minds and lower our heart rates.

Biophilic student residence Lisbon

A biophilically designed student hall of residence in Lisbon.

I recently heard the renowned biophilic designer Oliver Heath talking about biophilic design at a trade show and was blown away by some of the research that supports the positive impact of biophilic design on our health and wellbeing. Oliver explained that patients who were treated in hospitals where there was natural light and views of nature recovered from operations faster than those in traditional wards and had a 22% reduced need for pain medication. Homes become more calming and restorative, with 7-8% less crime attributed to areas with access to nature, including significant reductions in domestic violence. Children who learn in biophilically designed education spaces had increased rates of learning of 20-25%, improved test results, concentration levels and attendance and there was a reduced impact of ADHD. The wealth of research into the benefits of creating spaces that bring us closer to nature, has got companies like Google, Apple and Amazon investing heavily in biophilic design for their workspaces because of the benefits to staff wellbeing and productivity and this is something we can all do in our homes too.

So how can we harness the positive impact of biophilic design at home?

Houseplants

Emily Wheeler kitchen plants

Houseplants in my kitchen (Image credit: Emily Wheeler)

Plants help to purify the air and are great for filtering out VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that cause indoor air pollution. VOCs come from paints, glues, household cleaners, scented candles, woodburners, cooking fumes and even MDF furniture and synthetic furnishings. Surprisingly, the air inside our homes is even more polluted than the air outside, and plants help to purify the air and produce oxygen. Not only this but they look beautiful and seeing plants helps to reduce blood pressure, stress and anxiety.

Some of the best air purifying house plants include peace lilies, ferns, English ivy, orchids and mother-in-law’s tongue.

Natural materials and wood

Emily Wheeler kitchen

Whitewashed floors that show the natural grain of the wood in my kitchen (Image credit: Emily Wheeler)

Being able to see and touch natural wood helps to reduce stress and anxiety and can make us feel safe and uplifted. Try exposed wooden floors, either varnished or white washed so you can still see the grain of the wood, like I have in our home. Wooden furniture helps us feel grounded or why not go all out and introduce some wooden timber cladding?

Emily Wheeler dining table

Our wooden dining table and chairs all have a lovely warm, natural wood patina at home (Image credit: Emily Wheeler). Having a comfortable space to come together and eat with friends and family also makes us happier by supporting meaningful close relationships with our loved ones.

Natural light

Central to biophilic design is the importance of maximising natural light. We need daily exposure to bright natural light in order to regulate our circadian rhythm, or body clock. Without natural light, we can become depressed and anxious and our sleep suffers, which can have serious health implications. So throw open those curtains and blinds, get out for a walk every morning, and if you’re renovating, make sure you add plenty of big windows and roof lights.

Emily Wheeler dining space

Roof lights and large windows help to maximise natural light in our home (Image credit: Emily Wheeler)

Framing views of nature

Emily Wheeler kitchen doors

The view from our dining space into the garden (Image credit: Emily Wheeler)

Being able to see a natural environment is also beneficial, so try to think about what you see out of your windows. If you can, add window boxes to outside ledges or plants along indoor window sills. Hanging plants look great, and if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, make sure you make the most of it and can see it even when you’re inside.

Natural materials and textiles

Loft bedroom

Natural materials in our loft bedroom at home (Image credit: Emily Wheeler)

Using natural materials and textiles also makes us feel better and won’t leach nasty chemicals into your environment, so try to choose natural linen, wool, silk or cotton for textiles and decorate using eco paints (see my blog post on the five best eco paints here).

Other important biophilic principles include bringing in soothing rhythmical patterns, such as the flickering flame of a fire or candle or the gentle trickling of water and introducing physical patterns inspired by nature such as wooden grains, floral motifs and natural stone. Try turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a fire or candles, while enjoying your new house plants and see how much more relaxed you feel.